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Architect Discusses Diversity and Affordable Housing at Harvard Design School

Graduate School of Design Lecture
Kimberly Dowdell explains how administering equity in architecture can be redemptive. Citing the work that she has done in Detroit, Mich., Dowdell points out that purchasing vacant homes and then rehabbing them allows for those properties to host families that believe in the future of the city.

Architect Kimberly N. Dowdell discussed strategies for equitable urban development and promoting diversity in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design Tuesday evening.

In her lecture, entitled “Diverse City: How Equitable Design and Development will Shape Urban Futures,” Dowdell drew on her experiences growing up in Detroit and her work in real estate development.

Dowdell, who graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2015, opened by telling personal stories from her childhood in Detroit, where she saw the deterioration of storefronts and houses that had been boarded up and left vacant. This decay, she explained, was caused by certain urban development policies. Dowdell used redlining — the practice of denying some services to residents of certain neighborhoods by not investing in them — as an example of how poor and minority areas are disadvantaged in real estate.

“Systemic disinvestment contributes to, essentially, poverty and that translates into limited access, not only to capital but to quality education, good jobs, quality foods, transportation, technology, information, goods and services, and healthcare,” Dowdell said.

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Both people and cities, she said, go through cycles of trauma, equity, and resilience.

“Equity, if I boil it down to its most essential element, is making it right,” she said. “Cities can experience trauma and when you make it right, they can become more resilient.”

Dowdell outlined the strategy of Century Partners, her real estate development firm, which invests in specific Detroit neighborhoods by rebuilding vacant houses and selling them at affordable prices.

“It's really about, for us, bringing the community together, helping to empower them to work with us to help solve their own problems,” she said.

Dowdell is also the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and said she aims to promote diversity in the field.

“Part of good design is having a design team that reflects the communities that they serve,” she said.

Dowdell said she thinks visible, diverse mentorship is an essential part of increasing diversity.

“I think that helping to position particularly people of color in leadership in the profession is really important, because we have young people coming up behind them who want to see a future for themselves,” she said in an interview following the event.

Dowdell also noted the challenges of balancing the demands of investors and the needs of current residents when developing a neighborhood.

“You have to walk a pretty tight rope of doing what's right and doing what the people of the community really value and then also creating value in the work that you're doing,” she said.

Washington Fajardo, a Loeb fellow at the Graduate School of Design, said he visited Detroit last fall and saw firsthand the planning problems the city faces.

“I think Detroit is a really good opportunity for thinking out of the box and looking for a more innovative planning approach,” Fajardo said.

Andrea Reimer, another Loeb fellow, said Dowdell’s work is powerful, in particular pointing to her efforts to develop land that makes current city residents part of the rebuilding process.

“Her courage in the way she attacked the discussion really speaks to the way her courage plays out in the work that she's doing,” Reimer said.

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