Occupy Design: Or, Why I Joined the General Strike in Oakland

Last Wednesday, November 2nd, I joined the Oakland city-wide General Strike initiated by the Occupy Oakland movement. Among us out there were several of my engineer colleagues as well as a couple architects. We marched under this banner that we made the night before:


[We stole the design and name from occupydesign.org, which is an awesome project.]

All throughout the day we had architects, engineers, planners, and just random people coming up to us and asking us what we were all about.

The common question we got asked was – “What does Occupy Design mean? Why are you out here?”

I can only speak for myself – the occupy movement is, after all, the mashup of a million different voices and opinions – but at least some of my sentiments were shared by others out there. Friends – please chime in with your thoughts & perspectives!

Why I Joined the General Strike

I’m an engineer and, to be honest, have a pretty cushy deal going on. I like my job. I like my work. I’ll have my student debt paid off in a short while. I don’t consider my company to be “the man” (it’s a small locally owned firm) or exploitative. I wasn’t out on the streets on Wednesday because I have a problem with my workplace or personal situation. Part of why I was out there was in solidarity with those who are getting screwed over by exploitative companies and financial institutions, but that doesn’t explain the banner.

I joined the strike because I have a problem with the system as a whole, particularly the industrial system that has to do with the design and construction of the built environment.

Take a common modern building. It is an energy (and, thus, carbon) hog. It is ugly. It is car-centric, it is built to car-scale not human-scale. It is filled with carpets and pipes made from PVC, slathered in paints and epoxies that emit VOCs. It is built from materials mined on another continent, assembled on yet another continent in oppressive work conditions, shipped to the site via polluting tankers and trucks, and assembled by workers employed by a firm that put in the low-bid and needs the cheapest shit available to make some money on the project. The design of the building was cut-and-paste, including the HVAC system, which uses dirty refrigerants which will eventually get into the atmosphere and add to the greenhouse gas effect.

The standard way of building isn’t about appropriate, beautiful, useful spaces for human beings. It’s about making a profit off of construction. It’s the commodification of the built environment. We see this in the big-box stores, the tract houses, the cheap construction of our living spaces that damage and destroy our ecosystems because money can be made for the developers.

One of the things we were marching for on Wednesday was a recognition that the design professionals of the built environment are a part of this process. We want to call attention to this fact, to recognize that although almost all of us are the 99%, we’re part of a system that conveys money up the stream to the 1% at the expense of the 99% — draining our quality of life, our dignity, stripping the earth of its natural resources, filling our living spaces with carcinogenic materials, and destroying the human scale of our communities which isolates us from each other.

So that’s the problem. That’s why I’m pissed enough to take to the streets. But I’m an engineer so of course I’m thinking about solutions to this problem. What does Occupy Design mean, in this context? “Occupy” is a verb, so what’s the action?

Man I don’t know. What if we all, as professionals, refused to specify any materials (carpeting, sealants, et cetera) that have PVC in them? How hard is it, morally, to stand up and say “I will not design cancer into any buildings anymore.”?

What if we carte blanch said, no more refrigerants? No more exotic hardwoods that contribute to the destruction of rainforests? No more south-facing all-glass facades that require enormous amounts of energy to keep cool? No more ultra-luxurious McMansions for the uber-rich which no 99%’er will ever be able to afford? What if we refused to work on projects that called for the bulldozing of any greenfields, forests, or riparian corridors?

Beyond what we won’t do, what about what we will do? We will design buildings that are low-energy, use passive solar design principles, and are built at a human scale. We’ll specify local materials. We’ll only build on brown- or grey-fields, never on greenfields. We’ll design in rainwater harvesting and on-site stormwater retention systems, to increase the resilience of our buildings and communities.

The list goes on. This is all highly idealistic stuff; if professionals started refusing to do work, or designing rain barrels into apple stores, they’ll just get fired and then they can go join the local Occupy tent city. But what if we all stood up, said no more, and started agitating for real change in our industry? What would that look like?

What if in our free time (a mythical concept for some, to be sure) we organized people to come together and beautify dull in-between spaces, legality of ownership be damned? How many vacant unused lots are out there that we could transform into an urban gardens, pocket parks, stormwater infiltration basins, greywater treatment infrastructures, plazas, play areas for neighborhood kids? Guerrilla landscape architecture. Hit and run ecological infrastructure revitalization. The Green Bloc. Hostile takeover building renovations. I’m just throwing out ideas here.

This goes beyond so-called “green buildings” or checking off a few points on a LEED template. The built environment plays a huge role in issues of social and economic justice, and it’s been corrupted by hyper-capitalists as just another method for accumulating wealth.

This vision drives me. The vision of what architects and engineers do in a world that isn’t driven by the interests of Wall Street. The vision of the projects out there that make the world better.