Griffin’s work foregrounds justice as a key term for rethinking how we can improve cities. As Professor in Practice of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Griffin leads The Just City Lab, an organization dedicated to addressing some of the most challenging issues facing contemporary cities by developing new tools and methodologies for assessing the role of design in achieving urban justice. As in all of Griffin’s work, The Just City Lab views design as a practice that engages with the legacies of disinvestment, abandonment, racial segregation, and environmental injustice, as well as the current participation of communities in the process of making cities. As terms to describe popular urban reform movements gain traction such as “the livable city,” “the green city,” and “the resilient city,” Griffin adds “the just city” to encompass the pressing social issues that should be taken into account in urban planning.
A crucial feature of how cities continue to be mired in legacies of inequity has to do with the separation between municipal processes and the communities most affected by urban planning. Griffin steps in to close the gap between communities, city policy makers, and the private sector, synthesizing her years of experience working at all scales of design to promote greater inclusion in the planning process. Through The Just City Lab, Urban Planning for the American City, her work as the Vice President and Director of Design for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation in Washington, D.C., and her role as a strategic advisor to mayors and planning directors in cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Memphis, Griffin seeks to involve communities in expressing their needs during the processes of urban design.
Griffin views her work as “rooted in change: change that is happening, change that is needed, or change that is being prevented.” When change confronts urban communities, especially those that consistently suffer when change occurs, Griffin knows the importance of helping communities become part of the process. The goal is to help communities share ownership in urban planning, to develop a collective vision of how their specific community understands urban justice. To activate participatory communication between communities and other stakeholders, Griffin employs a diverse range of information including anecdotal accounts, entertaining cartoons, and quantitative data. By furnishing communities with a large array of different kinds of information, people can come to a better understanding about how they specifically envision a better city.
Griffin views the hard work of community participation in defining urban justice as dependent on the specific conditions and needs of each community. While the issues of disinvestment, blight, abandonment, racial segregation, income inequality, and environmental justice are present in all cities, the specific needs and attentions of communities vary widely depending on their location. Griffin’s work helps communities that are used to being the object of urban change become active participants in the shaping of American cities.
Prior to beginning her work as an educator at the GSD, Griffin was Professor of Architecture and the founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design and the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. With the J. Max Bond Center, Griffin released a set of metrics and indicators for evaluating the role of public spaces on urban justice, Public Life and Urban Justice in NYC’s Plazas. In 2016, President Barack Obama named Griffin to the Unites States Commission of Fine Arts. Griffin was the 2014 Visiting Associate Professor and Theodor B. and Dorsi Shoong Lee Chair in Real Estate Law and Urban Planning in the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.
All images courtesy of Toni Griffin
Toni L. Griffin, Ariella Cohen, and David Maddox, eds., The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity (New York: The J. Max Bond Center on Design and the Just City, 2015)