Income disparity has become a prominent part of today’s social and political landscape. The gap between the highest incomes and the average income per person has been increasing from its historic low point in the 60’s, until recently passing the inequality spike of the 30’s. A chart of income disparity over the last century reveals symmetry between the historic Great Depression and our own more self-conscious “Great Recession.”
The ratio between the income of the top 20% and that of the bottom 20% has doubled from a low of around 7:1 in 1968 to a 14:1 ratio today(*). There are many indicators of inequity; one that has fueled a tipping point of public opinion is the fact that the top 1% of the US population captured half of the economic growth between 1993 to 2007 (**). What’s more, the wealth of the top 1% has been increasing at a rate ten times faster than the middle income population (***).
While the media is delivering various representations of inequity, we at the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio are trying to understand the issue from a design point of view. We have started asking the critical question: “What would equity look like in _____?”
For example we are asking:
What would equity look like in an affordable housing program?
What would equity look like in an inner-city redevelopment plan?
What would equity look like in a public park project?
We are looking for equity in both the process and the products of our work. We don’t claim to have the answers to our own questions. However, we find asking these questions to be a useful critical tool.
To start, we believe that equity in design does not work like equity in money. To illustrate in simple terms: ten dollars shared by four people equals two and one-half dollars for each person. One the other hand, a design decision shared by four people equals a better decision. This is because equity in access, equity in learning, equity in decision-making, and other such opportunity-based activities are not a zero-sum game like notions of equity in income, in which the only way one person gains money is when another person loses money. (In reality, income distribution only looks like a zero-sum game when it is seen statically. In the real economy, income is dynamic and is reproduced, recycled and multiplied as it circulates within an economic community. Thus, systems that create opportunities for exchange within a community do more to increase distributed income than trying to bring income into the community by exportation.)
The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio is fortunate to be involved with a team of local planning and advocacy organizations working on a HUD Sustainable Communities Grant. This three-year project aims to develop a regional plan for the Mississippi Gulf Coast that integrates housing, transportation, land use, economic development and other activities into a plan that is shaped by sustainability and equity. At the federal level the Sustainable Communities Initiative is a manifestation of the unprecedented cooperation between HUD, the EPA and the Department of Transportation. The language of sustainability is merging with language of equity. Following this significant trend, the Gulf Coast team is calling its work “Plan for Opportunity,” using language that bridges equity and sustainability. The use of the word “opportunity” avoids the growing political division around the more liberal words “sustainability” and “equity.”
At the international level, it is certainly more than a coincidence that the language of sustainability is being combined with equity. Every year since 1990, the United Nations has sponsored an extensive study of global conditions, called the Human Development Report. An overview of the report titles for the past twenty years is a reading of the dominant concerns and language of each year. The report for 2011 is titled; “Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All.” The report argues that the urgent global challenges of sustainability and equity must be addressed together, emphasizing the “human right to a healthy environment, the importance of integrating social equity into environmental policies, and the critical importance of public participation and official accountability.”
We at the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio are going to do more to articulate the integration of sustainability and equity in our own work and to do what we can to help others do likewise. We are going to be using the question, “What would equity look like in____?” to share some lessons learned and to invite and challenge other practices to do the same. We look forward to an encouraging dialogue from a range of practices. We are hopeful that using the positive language of the imagination, rather than the divisive language of politics, will prove useful.
–David Perkes, Director of the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio