Social Justice Design

How can typical architectural practice address the needs of marginalized communities?

Written by Christopher Hardy

August 30, 2022

In May 2021, my partner, Tomasz Weinberger, and I, Christopher Hardy, entered the Canadian Architectural Academy of Justice (CAAJ) student design competition named Breaking the Cycle. The competition asked participants to envision a new type of judicial building called a Community Justice Centre (CJC). A CJC aims to reduce crime by addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour through integrating justice, health, community, and social services under one roof. As students in graduate school studying architecture, we felt this competition would be the best opportunity to apply the knowledge we’ve gained in school to try something new, Social Justice Design. Through media, we are made aware every day that monumental societal changes are occurring all around us. Occurrences of xenophobia, hate, and social injustices are constant now. That’s why we entered the competition to answer the question: How can architectural design play a role in addressing these problems? The sentiment is the exact reason why I joined Cahdco in May of this year: I wanted to be a part of an organization that strives to make access to housing a social good, not a commodity to be exploited. As such, the experience I’m gaining at Cahdco is arming me with the skills to address complex issues such as affordable housing, problems that, like our competition work, looked at the implication of design in social justice. This blog post will explain how we approached the design competition through the lens of Social Justice Design, which enabled us to place 1st out of 81 internationally competing teams.

Background and Site Research Methodology
The first step in the competition was to pick a location for our project. We knew we wanted to select a familiar site, so we looked to Toronto for inspiration. To narrow our focus, we looked for communities in the city that could benefit from a speculative project aimed at addressing the structural factors of crime. As such, we mapped out all neighbourhoods in the city and, using an overlay analysis of demographic data, located communities in need based on the correlation between wealth and race. It was unsurprising to see a significant income disparity between poorer BIPOC neighbourhoods at the city’s edge vs. white communities in the centre.

2016 Census Map: concentration of visible minorities within Toronto. This map shows the concentration of visible minorities within Toronto per dissemination area, the smallest census data division available by Statistics Canada giving a fine grain view of the racialized communities in the City. (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

2016 Census Map: concentration of poverty within Toronto. This map shows where household wealth is concentrated in the City. The dark red color indicates a high concentration of low-income households with an after-tax income of less than $50,000 per year. These numbers are displayed per dissemination area, the smallest census data division available by Statistics Canada giving a fine grain view of the socio-economic conditions of families in Toronto. (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Our mapping exercise led us to choose the underserved neighbourhood of Black Creek for our competition site, a community commonly associated with the infamous intersection of Jane St and Finch Ave. The community has a complicated relationship with justice due in part to its history of gang-related violence resulting in heavy police presence. The concentration of minorities, lack of social services and quality public education, and racial profiling of youths through Toronto Police Service’s infamous TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) program has resulted in distrust in the credibility of the judicial system. As such, our focus in this competition was to create a CJC that could be a positive asset to the community and restore trust in the justice system through careful consideration of place-making, public programming, and architectural design.

Site Plan of the hydro corridor and surrounding area (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Knowing that our competition design would be in Black Creek, we had to decide where in the community to place the CJC. We conducted a walkthrough of the neighbourhood to understand the physical environment and identify potential challenges and opportunities for this development. Through our site visit and subsequent analysis of the area through Google Earth, we noticed very few open spaces in the community. Taking over an existing site and redeveloping it was out of the question since it wouldn’t be right to demolish housing or limited park space for a justice facility. The only space in the community that could fit a CJC was the kilometers of hydro corridors that ran east-west throughout the neighbourhood. An extensive multi-purpose recreational trail ran throughout the corridor and connected residents to the bus, streetcar, and subway networks. While walking through the space, we noticed that the path connected the community to a large garden in the corridor that many residents use to grow produce. It was apparent that the trail and corridor served as an essential social infrastructure for the community that residents of all ethnicity and ages used. We soon realized that the space would become the foundation for our proposal’s identity and form.

Site Photo - Image of the multi-purpose recreational trail (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Site Photo 2 - Image of the competition design site in the hydro corridor (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Design Process and Objectives
Once we identified the competition site, we generated a series of massing studies to test various spatial layouts of the CJC that could respond to the unique challenges of designing within a hydro corridor in a marginalized community, as well as the functional constraints of merging both judicial and community spaces under one roof. Through our massing exercise, we derived a list of fundamental design principles critical in our decision-making process:

  1. A central spine would be the organizing principle of our design that would layout where the judicial and community programming would go.
  2. There needs to be large, generous gathering spaces with defined activity uses on the exterior of the building so that community members can still benefit from the public amenities of the facility without having to enter the interior court space.
  3. The facility is, first and foremost, a community centre. No part of the design should reinforce the power hierarchies exhibited in traditional courthouse design. To that end, every aspect of the facility should have the community in mind to promote an inclusive, welcoming, and accessible environment.
  4. Place making and place naming are two essential concepts in recognizing the importance of community in this novel justice typology. Aspects of the project must celebrate the positive impacts members of the community have in this neighbourhood and beyond.
  5. The interior programming for community and justice spaces should have the community’s needs in mind. We must understand the barriers community members face in accessing legal aid and initiate community healing with the judicial system by addressing the root causes of an individual’s crime.

Design hand sketch (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Following the established design principles, we identified and subsequently refined a list of programs to be included in our design that align with our values. The competition brief was open regarding what programs needed to be included. However, a specific list was provided to all competitors of key spaces that should be provided:

  • Restorative Justice Spaces
  • Legal Clinics
  • Mental Health and Addiction Services
  • Classrooms

A significant program that wasn’t listed but we believed was an essential feature of our design was a daycare. Through our research on the Ontarian court system and issues about family courts, we realized that one of the most significant barriers people face in accessing justice spaces is children. Single parents and often those employed in precarious work must make the difficult decision to take a day off work, lose income, and pay for childcare to appear in court. Understanding that the lack of accessible childcare presents a structural barrier to many in the community, we decided that in our design, we would include a childcare centre available to those visiting the CJC and the wider community. Furthermore, when considering what addressing the root causes of crime would look like as a program option, we identified all existing community supports such as housing access groups, mental health and addiction services, legal aid clinic, and employment services active in the area. This exercise allowed us to dedicate space in the facility for various community support groups to provide the diverse range of care they do in one facility conveniently located next to multiple public transit routes.

Design Execution
Based on our established design criteria and selected program activities determined from the research of the community’s needs, we came up with a design that would fit all the unique activities in the hydro corridor.

Ground Floor Plan (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Our first move was to orient the building to people’s movement along the corridor. We built a new pathway that takes people off the main path into the CJC. This would become the “community corridor.” The spine created from this new path enabled us to organize the interior programs effectively. All judicial programs are placed north of the corridor, and community programs to the south. The corridor split also allowed us to create two uniquely defined outdoor plazas. Coming from the east side of the building is the busker plaza named after Jessie Reyez, a Canadian R&B singer who grew up in the community. The plaza is flanked by a large reflecting pond that wraps around the building to provide visual attraction to the facility and a beautiful backdrop to the host of musical events in the plaza.

View of Jessie Reyez Busker Plaza as you approach the building from the west (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Moving through the community corridor takes you to the heart of the facility, the community hub. This prominent central atrium space is amply filled with natural light thanks to the large ocular skylight above it. Spiral staircases and elevators in the atrium take community members to the upper levels of the facility, which host a community library, legal-aid clinics, and other social amenities.

View into the Community Corridor heading east (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Finally exiting through the western part of the building is the Sports Plaza named after NBA player Anthony Bennett, who grew up in Jane and Finch. This plaza features outdoor café spaces, basketball courts, and splash pads. Leading from the plaza is a new trail that connects the plaza to the adjacent community garden. This enables the facility to integrate into the existing social and environmental context.

View of the Anthony Bennett Sports Plaza as you approach the building from the east (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Competition Results and Jury Brief
As a result of our efforts, we were very fortunate to have received the 1st place prize from the jury panel, which provided the following remarks to our proposal:

“This is a well-researched and sophisticated proposal that goes far beyond a speculative competition entry. Beautiful graphics and a clear presentation make it easy to understand, and its overall organization, massing strategy, and mixture of justice and community programs including day-care, café, low-key sports areas, and library is completely believable. It addresses the competition brief at many levels from site selection, program adjacencies, and celebration of local community heroes in place names, to consideration of light and acoustics, design of non-hierarchical adjudication spaces, and materiality of the overall building. The quality of the design supported a wide-ranging discussion amongst the jury members, including the potential for additional engagement with the communities to the south and north of the site.”

Community Stakeholder and Program Diagram showcasing where all the community amenities are situated (Source: Christopher Hardy, Tomasz Weinberger 2021)

Lessons Learned and Impact
We couldn’t be more proud to have won the competition. But more importantly, our biggest takeaway was the insight and experience we gained thinking and executing Social Justice Design. For us, SJD means being able to think beyond the standard means of practice and deliberately address glaring societal issues that we observe. It’s about bridging over barriers to social equity and providing direct actions in those areas. It’s about putting an emphasis on the value of research to understand the various issues at play in a neighbourhood and finding a way to address them.

Our approach wasn’t novel nor unique. Instead, through our experiences in school, we understood the implications of space and knew we could apply this awareness to use design as a tool to think about what positive social change could look like. The impact I would like readers to think about is to view the unique skills and power we hold as members of an expert class (be it architects, urban planners, developers, builders, etc.) and use our privileged positions to speak out when we see social inequities. I would love to see our project built, but I know it is still a piece of speculative work that would likely not survive any of the feasibility studies we typically do at Cahdco. However, I’m hopeful that from this experience and sharing it with others, other professionals can emerge and build their own paths in understanding how their talents and experiences can lead to a more justice and equitable future in their communities.

Christopher Hardy

Development Intern

August 30, 2022