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Shifting Ground in Environmental Design

Posted By Molly E. Ranahan, Wednesday, October 19, 2016

This year’s conference theme focused on changes in the worlds we represent—research, professional practice, and education. To directly quote the conference description, “whether unsettling or affirming, this shift is changing the tectonics.” John Zeisel characterized this moment in our disciplinary history as a “paradigm shift”, urging us to rethink how we conceptualize and go about our work in environmental design.

To frame our discussions this year, conference co-chairs Celen Pasalar and Andrew Fox asked us to consider paradigm shifts in our professional methods, values, practice, the spectrum of our influence, and lexicon of our partnerships and collaborations. All week, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow… what a great conference theme,” during the sessions, workshops, network meetings, and discussions I was part of throughout my time in Raleigh.

The unifying dialogue in the Graduate Student Workshop focused on types and forms of change—from the design, programming and regulation of schools, healthcare environments, and urban space to changing relationships in the professional practice, such as the relationship between architects and clients during predesign and the nature of engagement of social scientists and designers. We had huge turnout for the student affairs network meeting, many new student members provided specific recommendations for changes to student programs to enhance student involvement and dialogue throughout the year.

One focus of the membership meeting concerned a paradigm shift in EDRA’s mission and programming. I learned that the issues of translating research to practice includes broader dialogue concerning relevant opportunities for our community to collaborate with disciplines and inform policy decisions.

During an abstract session in which I presented on Saturday morning, I was challenged to consider the relevance of new research methodology, which employs an Emotiv headset to collect neuroimaging data of older people, to explore relationships between mood, mobility and the physical attributes of urban settings. I am still trying to wrap my brain around the data outputs (to be honest!), but as “new to the block” qualitative researcher interested in the relevance aging and the environment, learning about this new method challenged how I considered the extent and capacity of my work. And isn’t this the point of shifting grounds?

House Bill 2 and Implications for Inclusive Spaces and Practice
I think our conference theme was both a thoughtful and critically important backdrop for our discussions this year in light of the passage of House Bill 2 (HB2) in North Carolina. It was certainly a moment for us and for EDRA as an organization. Members felt conflicted about coming to North Carolina due to ethical objections. Others faced challenges to due to funding moratoriums on travel, and even more critical barriers related to personal safety due to the conference location.

I think HB2 challenges us as a community to think more purposefully about the relevance of discrimination and violence as a central ethical consideration of our work. HB2 exemplifies the influence of public policy on the design and regulation of everyday environments, and implications of our work on construction of social relationships. HB2 is a piece of legislation that challenges the rights of many people in North Carolina to use the bathroom. It’s also being characterized as a “Trojan horse,” perpetuating a controversial spatial regulation to conceal the adoption of additional discriminatory legislation, such as the denial for any citizen to pursue workplace discrimination in North Carolina at the state level and the restriction right of municipal jurisdictions establish their own minimum wage guarantees for workers.

But I want to circle back to spatial issues and the LGBT community, because this is why I came to EDRA five years ago. Six weeks after beginning a master’s degree in urban design in fantastic program and brand new city, I knew I needed a Plan B. My department chair at the time patiently listened to me attempt to explain what I was interested in, the skills I wanted to develop, and what I hoped to get out of graduate school. “I’m not exactly sure how to help you pursue what you are describing, but I think you should check out EDRA,” he advised. “I think they do what you want to do and maybe they can help.”

EDRA provided a place for me to work towards my own paradigm shift. I came to edra43 in Seattle, as a 23-year-old graduate student, with no academic home, very nervous, and with so much to learn about research. Participating in the annual conference and EDRA student programs helped me to refine my initial proposal at the graduate student workshop, which haphazardly articulated implications of urban planning, inclusive design, and environment behavior research on queer space to develop a research program for my dissertation that is investigating the role of environmental factors and community planning in establishing aging policy and program solutions for the LGBT community. EDRA provided a place for me to explore these issues and mentors who provided constructive feedback along the way.

So, at least in my experience, EDRA as an organization has been tuned in to these issues. I was so proud to come to the EDRA 47 conference, to volunteer as part of the organizational response to HB2, to attend the special session with James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, and to have many candid and important discussions about the implications of this legislation to our work and to our conference. During one of the special session, an attendee asked how architects, designers, and EB researchers can better address LGBT issues as part of their work. I have a couple of thoughts, which I think signify larger themes critical to our paradigm shift:

  • Learn how to ask about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as part of our research—and actively collect information about LGBT people as part of research activities
  • Continue to provide a venue for researchers to explore sexuality, gender, and the built environment
  • Consider how our expertise can help to inform solutions to support LGBT people, such as spatial implications of cultural competency training and influence of planning and design on places and communities that serve and support LGBT people
  • Advocate for nondiscrimination policies and workplace protections for LGBT people in our universities, firms, and organizations
  • Help train LGBT communities, specifically their advocates and organizations, in relevant areas of our work about design and place
  • Prioritize the representation of LGBT stakeholders in planning and design participation and decision-making

As part of our own paradigm shift, we must reflect on conceptual framework we put forward as an organization. In addition to discourse about disciplinary silos and methodological advances, and I think we also need to continue to think about ways to make our conference a safer and more inclusive experience for all members who attend. I commend the co-chairs, conference committee, and the volunteers for their incredible efforts to start this conversation this year. And I am looking forward to continuing the conversation in Madison.

Thank you to everyone who made edra47 Raleigh an enriching and wonderful week!

Tags:  Center for Inclusive Design & Environmental Access  Graduate Student  School of Architecture & Planning  Student Representative to the Board  University at Buffalo - The State University of Ne 

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