Exploring Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks of Environmental Design Research for Advancing Social Change

Last week, I was in New Orleans to present at the 45th annual conference of Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). The theme of this year’s meeting was “Building with Change” and my symposium responded to the conference sub-track #7 titled: Democratic Design Praxis with Community. In this session, my co-presenters David Seamon, Julia Robinson, and I raised concerns about the diminishing stature of environmental design research and practice within the contemporary discourse on architecture and social change. Specifically, we asked: How might distinct theoretical and methodological frameworks, already well-developed within environmental design research, prompt re-conceptualization of the formal, programmatic, and/or spatial considerations of architectural design towards desired social change? At what scales do these frameworks operate? How might this session be introspective as well as projective to keep alive the transformative commitment of EDRA?

Each of the presenters built upon an important tradition within environmental design scholarship—broadly, phenomenology, structuralism, and critical theory—to evaluate a cultural phenomenon of significance. Jointly, we saw each of our frameworks operate at the level of what Groat and Wang refer to as “schools of thought” (2013) – conceptual systems that not only guide how distinct social needs are framed, but also suggest relevant strategies and tactics for addressing those needs. Additionally, we concluded that design experimentations in the absence of broader theoretical perspectives or schools of thought are likely to produce change that is idiosyncratic, short-term, and unsustained. Conversely, critical frameworks that do not engage questions of space, politics, and aesthetics risk perpetuating an oversimplified dichotomy of “objective” methods and “subjective” experiences. The session and the conference at large offered us a valuable moment to pause and reflect on the limits and potentials of our operative frameworks to participate in progressive social transformation.

A massive thank you to Mallika Bose, Paula Horrigan, Rula Awwad-Rafferty for organizing this umbrella track, and to David Seamon and Julia Robinson, again, for their brilliant papers.

Image: The Engaged Pedagogy Syllabus Writing Workshop (April 10, 2014): In conversation with Dr. Megan Sweeney, Group Facilitator & Associate Professor in English, DAAS, and Women’s Studies at U-M (source: Arts of Citizenship photo stream)

The Engaged Pedagogy Syllabus Writing Workshop at the beginning of this month brought together doctoral students from across diverse disciplines to explore how engaged pedagogical experiments might expand our understanding and communication of concerns aimed at changing social structures, directly or indirectly. Engagement has long constituted interdisciplinary work, one attentive to multiple constituencies and polyvocal realities. Against this backdrop, how might we situate our individual pursuits and develop course contents of reciprocal value to both the academy and the partnering community? How might we create a heterogeneous and complex understanding of contexts and community practices? Following Maria Cotera’s brilliant provocation, how might we demystify knowledge production and prepare ourselves for vulnerabilities in online, classroom, and fieldwork learning? The workshop, and our group discussion in particular, explored some of these issues. Together, they called into question our received methods of coursework design and teaching in academic fields, including those that have traditionally produced engaged work, such as art/design and architecture.

The workshop was organized by the Arts of Citizenship’s Student Leadership Committee led by Meagan Elliot (Sociology and Urban Planning) and Caitlin Townsend (History and Museum Studies), with support from Matthew Countryman (AoC Faculty Director) and Elizabeth Werbe (AoC Associate Director). Thank you all for a fantastic session! It was wonderful to rekindle connections from last summer’s Institute for Social Change and think about future directions. For more information about this event, see Joseph Ciladella’s helpful recap, Rackham Graduate School blog, April 22, 2014.

Image: Lori Brown’s Feminist Practices Panel, Van Alen Bookstore (March 2012) / Source: Van Alen Institute, NYC

Towards the end of the Fall semester in December 2013, I attended a panel discussion on feminist scholarship and public engagement organized by the Women’s Studies Department at U-M. The panel entitled, “Feminist Scholars Engaging the Public” brought together four participants from within and outside of Michigan. Namely, Jennifer Berdahl, Professor of Organizational Behavior from the Rotman School of Business, U-Toronto; Maria Cotera, Assoc. Professor of American Culture and Women’s Studies, U-M; Anna Kirkland, Assoc. Professor of Women’s Studies and Political Science, U-M; and Sari van Anders, Asst. Professor of Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Neuroscience, U-M. The session was chaired by Lilia Cortina, Assoc. Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, U-M.

Each of the four panelists presented their work in relation to non-traditional venues of dissemination and engagement of feminist concerns. From collaborative blogs on the intersection of feminism and science (van Anders) to a public humanities digital project on Chicana feminist thought during the civil rights era (Cotera); from Op-eds and appearances in the news media (Berdahl) to providing expert witness testimonies on special cases in the courts of law (Kirkland), the panelists spoke about their multifaceted and multivariant approaches towards engaging wider audiences. Despite significant variations among methods, all presenters had one thing in common. They were tenured faculty in their respective units, pursuing projects from within the safety of their permanent positions within academia. How might a junior faculty member navigate these social ambitions alongside traditional requirements of a tenure-track position? This question remained only partially answered.

I was particularly interested in exploring how some of these vehicles might establish sustained ties with other social movements and politics of exclusion. But this concern too remained at the margins of the given discussion. Besides, the panel was primarily Caucasian with the exception of one presenter, who identified herself as Chicana. Intersectionality of race, class, and gender came up only during the post-presentation Q/A session. Furthermore, I was the only male audience member in a room full of faculty and students from various academic programs. In some ways, this brought to surface the bigger challenge of involving men and women together in a conversation on feminist politics.

Despite these limitations, there seemed to be a shared understanding among the presenters and attendees that feminist theoretical tools should not only respond to, but also be drawn from the practices of social change on the ground. That is, to think about vehicles of dissemination and public engagement is to reevaluate the relationship between theory and practice in our respective fields as well as to establish dialogic ties between conceptual polemics and the realm of everyday life. In this direction, and from within architecture and urbanism, the recent roundtable discussions led by architect-academic, Lori Brown on “Feminist Practice Series” at the Van Alen Institute (2012); the co-founding of “Women in Architecture” initiative through a crowdfunding effort (2013); as well as Brown’s latest scholarly work on the spatial politics of abortion clinics and women’s shelters (2013) are inspiring. A related piece by Despina Stratigakos on “Why Architects Need Feminism” (Places, September 2012) is a recommended reading as well.

For me, the need for public discourse and critical scholarship echoes and re-articulates Fraser’s call for “publicist orientation” in critical communication and formulation of concerns, subaltern or otherwise (1992). I’m looking forward to moving this conversation, forward.

Social Life, Zone Sociale
Image: Imagining the field, Engaging the field: Kroll’s Zone Sociale, Woluwé-Saint-Lambert, UCL

Last month, my colleague and friend, E. Keslacye invited me to deliver a guest lecture in her graduate seminar on architectural research methods at LTU, Southfield. The title of my talk was “Fieldwork: Human Factors and Social Research.” I devoted the bulk of this presentation to discuss my selection of field tactics for examining the two case studies of my dissertation, in particular, the respective manifestations of Kroll and Tschumi’s design-polemical theories. Prior to my lecture, however, I had circulated two sets of readings that jointly addressed the humanistic discourse of environmental design studies. The first set laid out some of the ways of conceiving our field and fieldwork in epistemological terms. The second set discussed the qualitative and case study research strategies for engaging the field and its ground conditions. The talk and readings together raised some very good questions among those interested in pursuing empirical research. Thanks for the opportunity, EK!

Image: Blank Noise “Step by Step Guide to Unapologetic Walking,” October 13, 2008

“I pledge to break the silence surrounding homosexuality in familiar social settings. The everyday silencing of gay identities at the domestic level adds to their verbal and physical harassment at the public level. Let us talk to cultivate empathy and love. Let us talk to make our cities safe.”
— My Safe City Pledge

The “Safe City Pledge” is a campaign designed and initiated by Blank Noise [1] to combat sexual harassment of women in Indian cities. The operation calls for people to identify their role in making public spaces safe and to pledge personal support towards actionable change. In the words of its founder, Jasmeen Patheja, “Change will be seen when rape and molestation stops. But it will begin when we change the way we live, play, love, and talk – when girls play cricket and football in public maidaans; when women take late night strolls; when we begin to challenge sexual intimidation and abuse instead of justifying it” [2]. The safe city slogan emphasizes the value of collective promise for any desired transformation of society and space. In this regard, the campaign’s slogan is consistent with the group’s core message that people should view themselves as political agents of change – capable of devising local strategies for addressing persistent harassment.

I have followed the campaign since its inception in 2012, and I am consistently struck by the messages and promises of citizens, young and old. In a short span of time, the project has garnered widespread support from individuals of diverse backgrounds and professional affiliations, both local and international. Women and men from all walks of life have voiced their commitment to reconfigure the social arena by standing up to prejudice and misogyny. However, I have seen only a handful of LGBTQI-identified individuals express solidarity in the movement so far. Even fewer members have examined their personal role in this endeavor. Is street harassment only a women’s issue? Is public molestation only about sexism?

In her recent article in the Huffington Post, queer activist Jae Cameron argues otherwise. “Street harassment,” she says, “is about intimidation and control. It can be sexist, racist, homophobic, abilist, and/or classist: it is an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face, and it functions as a means to silence our voices and maintain the status quo” (emphases mine) [3]. Sexism and homophobia, for example, may be seen as particular forms of oppression, but both respond to shared forces. Straight women, lesbian and bisexual women, gay and transgender individuals may navigate public spaces in unique ways, but they face hostility and threats alike on a daily basis. The vocabulary of violence may be tailored to each personality, but their pervasive use reasserts prejudice experienced across wider identities.

Several initiatives in India and abroad have gathered stories of individuals traditionally at the receiving end of public abuse. This tangible interlocking and overlapping reality, however, seems to be absent from the safe city campaign. On the one hand, the project identifies the role and value of collective agency for sustained social and spatial change. On the other hand, however, it falls short in making visible the expectations of other marginalized groups. Specifically, by restricting the understanding of sexual harassment to “eve-teasing,” [4] the campaign separates the concern for women’s safety from the more expansive politics of prejudice involving other minorities. How might LGBTQI individuals help to make a city safe? In what ways might dalits use their experiences to inform new strategies for a safer city? How might the disabled and elderly people engage their harassers? Without involving different minority groups, the ideals of collective agency and safety remain only partially realized.

This post is an appeal for action at three interrelated levels: Firstly, the question of safety for women cannot be divorced from the larger and more interconnected processes of prejudice against other minorities. This argument follows the findings of Gender and Space project at PUKAR, Mumbai and responds to the emerging literature on the subject [5]. At the tactical level, therefore, the safe city pledge campaign could broaden the definition of street harassment–without diluting particular concerns–and include within it all such forms of abuse that result from behavior bordering on gender, sexuality, ability, and caste-specific nonconformity. Secondly, collectives such as Blank Noise are motivated by questions of social justice – they work with other groups to make cities inclusive for one and all. Continued participation and action involving both individuals and policy makers is therefore necessary. This would ensure that the urgency in their message is sustained and not reduced to a sporadic event. Finally, participation in the movement is about informing the campaign with our daily life practices and lived experiences of space use. So, if you have a story, share it; if you have a strategy, pledge it. The actual transformation of space cannot take place without our memories, exchanges, and social actions.

Belated Happy Birthday, Blank Noise! I pledge my support. Keep up the good work.

[1] Blank Noise started as a Bangalore-based collective in 2003 and evolved into an India-wide volunteer-run collaborative in 2012. Since then, the group has designed several projects to address wide-ranging concerns of safety and security of women in Indian cities.
[2] Annie Zaidi, “Jan 1. Pledge #SafeCityPledge,” The Blank Noise Blog, December 30, 2012.
[3] Jae Cameron, “Street Harassment is an LGBTQIA Issue,” The Huffington Post Blog, May 8, 2013.
[4] Eve-teasing is an Indian term for street sexual harassment of women by men. “The term refers to everything from sexual innuendo, obscene gestures, offensive remarks, winking, whistling, staring, touching, pinching, and rubbing, to molestation, and rape. The semantics of the phrase reflect popular attitudes towards sexual harassment. Women are cast as “Eve,” a temptress, and the very presence of women in public spaces is seen as titillating. The flippant word “teasing” is used to minimize a serious and prevalent problem.” – Jasmeen Patheja, Ashoka Fellow, 2007.
[5] Gender and Space was a three-year long research undertaking at PUKAR (Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research), Mumbai. The project examined the spatial and social ordering of Mumbai through the lens of gender, and raised questions about safety and risk, control and access to public space. Also see: Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011.

EDRA44_Research_Methods_SymposiumEnriching Environmental Design Research

I had a brilliant time at EDRA44 in Providence last weekend. Every year, I look forward to reconnecting with my mentors, meeting new members, and feeling encouraged in the company of colleagues committed to the design and scholarship of livable environments. At this year’s EDRA, I led a panel on environmental design research methods. The framing of this session was inspired by the symposium on contemporary challenges for qualitative methods held at EDRA43 last year. The concepts and tactics presented during that meeting constituted the growing number of attempts in the last decade at outlining the strengths and legitimacy of qualitative methods for environment-behavior scholarship. What value does qualitative research have for environmental designers? How might qualitative methods inspire newer connections between research and design?

In order to continue the conversation from last year and engage these questions in renewed light, I invited Linda Groat and David Seamon to co-participate in a symposium on enriching environmental design research. Groat’s paper set the stage for other presentations on the panel, and discussed both separate and shared qualities of design and research through distinct conceptual frameworks [1]. Seamon’s work expanded upon the notion of “synergistic relationality,” and illustrated the relevance of synergistic mode for environmental design scholarship using a six-part phenomenological model [2]. My presentation explained how a case study research design with appropriate qualitative tactics might help examine the consequences of polemical theories as embodied in distinct architectural projects.

Elsewhere at the conference, I was delighted to meet Ayda Melika and Susanne Cowen, the makers of a soon-to-be-released documentary film, Design as a Social Act: Social Factors and Participatory Design, 1960-1980. Their two-part film screening and ensuing conversation with panelists (and key interviewees) generated much debate and discussion among members in the audience. Needless to say, it was at once exciting and motivating to engage figures such as Henry Sanoff, Galen Cranz, and Randy Hester in a conversation about current predicaments in the field. My notes and emerging ideas from the meeting are overflowing; I hope to review them over the next few weeks. For now, I am happy to be back in Ann Arbor, and back at the Writing Institute, to continue with my dissertation writing.

[1] Linda N. Groat, “Does Design Equal Research” in Linda N. Groat and David Wang, Architectural Research Methods (New York: J. Wiley, 2013).
[2] David Seamon, “Analytic and Synergistic Understandings of Place: What Does Qualitative Research Offer Environmental Design?” (paper presented at EDRA44 Providence, RI, May 31, 2013).

Women and Social Spaces - BMW Guggenheim Lab MumbaiImage: Women and Social Spaces, BMW Guggenheim Lab Mumbai, December 29, 2012 (Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bmwguggenheimlab)

The editor of EDRA Connections recently asked me to write a book review for their May 2013 issue. Included below, with links and further reading, is the introduction to my review of Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011.

This book is a timely fit, not just in the spate of recent protests in the Global South against endemic sexual violence, but also in the ever-expanding literature on critical spatial scholarship of value to the theory and practice of urban design across wider social geographies. Shilpa Phadke (Assistant Professor at the Centre for Media Studies at The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai), Sameera Khan (journalist and writer) and Shilpa Ranade (architect and cultural theorist) set out on an ambitious task: to challenge the normative assumptions about the way we see and use space; criticize the narrative of safety for women in parochial community structures; establish how loitering might allow women equal access to urban space; and eventually formulate a new feminist agenda involving each of these concerns, but inclusive of all marginal groups. Throughout, we encounter references to the writings of 20th century urban social theorists; read stories of everyday negotiations of access by women of different backgrounds; and finally, come full circle to a greater understanding of the significance of the title question, Why Loiter?

The essence of Phadke, Khan, and Ranade’s argument is that the notion of safety has long been employed by patriarchal institutions in which not only men but also women participate to implicitly monitor the behavior of other women in public space. “Safety,” they say, “is connected not as much to women’s own sense of bodily integrity or to their consent, but rather to ideas of izzat and honor of the family and community” (p.53). In such settings, women are guarded against assumed sexual dangers from less desirable groups, including lower-class men. Due to such a deceptive opposition between class and gender, women are consistently marginalized in larger urban contexts. “Instead of safety,” they add, “what women should then seek is the right to take risks …” (p.60) for it is only by claiming the right to “chosen risk” that they can claim full access to public space.

Continue reading: “EDRA Connections,” EDRA, May 2013, pp. 9-10 (with images of #SafeCityPledge from Blank Noise). EDRA Connections was launched in January this year to serve as an extended forum for conversations and connections between and among EDRA members.


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