Inspiration and Understanding of Equity of Place - NESSBE 2019

By Antonia Ciaverella, Tecton Architects

March 19th, 2019

The power of the NESSBE conference is its ability to unite individuals around a common purpose.  This year, one theme immediately emerged: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”  This message from Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, quoted during one of the workshops, echoed a call to action given by Dr. Julian Ageyman during the keynote address.  He challenged each of us to do everything we can to invite true belonging in our cities and buildings.  From spatial justice and livable streets, to food justice and heritage narratives, the opportunities for equity of place are vast, and yet often discouraged or unexplored.  We have to work together to solve the world’s greatest challenges, and in that spirit of thoughtful ingenuity, the rest of the day unfolded.

In one of the morning breakout sessions, Linda Powers Tomasso, a PhD student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health described a new way to think about health impacts.  In addition to measuring our exposure to toxins, can we measure the positive health benefits of nature?  In other words, can we treat nature as an exposure factor, and measure levels of phytoncides, for example?  Something to consider on your next walk!  Ashley Gripper, also a PhD student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a RWJF Health Policy Research Scholar, described a recent project that illustrated not only the powerful relationship between the built environment and food equity, but also the importance of forming a partnership early-on between policy makers dedicated to resiliency in their jurisdictions, public health professionals, and the design team.  In this particular project, public health professionals were not engaged until after the design phase.  The well-intentioned neighborhood reconstruction project provided healthy food options, but unfortunately did not engage a portion of the community living just a quarter-mile away, who were without the physical or financial means to access these new amenities.

As the day continued, Marcus Smith, Senior Manager at Connecticut Children’s Healthy Homes Program, Karraine Moody, Executive Director at Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity, and Jacquelyn Rose, Program Manager for the Advancing Kids Innovation Program at Connecticut Children’s, encouraged us with these words: Innovation is a million step process.  Through a group activity and an insightful workshop, they shared how to use a social design framework as a tool for community engagement: Identify, Ideate, Design, Pilot, Implement and Scale.  The key to success is to spend enough time in ideation to ensure that the needs of the stakeholders are fully understood.

The inspirational capstone to this year’s summit, centered on social justice in the built environment, was a workshop hosted by Common Ground.  With educators and students present, the team began their session with a gallery walk of artifacts, giving participants a glimpse into the projects and process of this exceptional community organization.  Joel Tolman, Director of Impact & Engagement at Common Ground described the importance of physical co-creation and of making the road by walking.  Located on a farm, in the forest, near a city, Common Ground’s unique setting goes hand-in-hand with a sustainable approach to learning.  Tolman emphasized the importance of engaging students in the construction of buildings and curriculum, to create environments that not only elevate our physical experience but also connect us culturally and strengthen the community.

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