Building Empathy: Zarith Pineda on Human-Centered Design and New Territories

Updated: Apr 8

Our work has been profiled by ArchDaily. En español. Article below:


Human-centered design places people at the center of our cities. Using this philosophy to rethink traditional approaches to planning, the architectural and urban designer Zarith Pineda founded Territorial Empathy. Pineda's research lab specializes in mitigating urban conflict through architectural interventions. Over the last few years, her team has been working to create a deeper understanding of equity and empathy.

The design nonprofit Territorial Empathy believes that empathy-based design should play a key role in making cities more inclusive. From combating public school segregation in NYC to developing a sustainable refugee camp prototype in Syria, their work is grounded in the belief that design can inspire meaningful change. Volunteer architects, urbanists, and data scientists are brought together on behalf of people in places that are often overlooked, particularly women, children, and migrants. In this latest interview with ArchDaily, Pineda explains what Territorial Empathy is doing today and their aspirations for the future.

Why was Territorial Empathy founded, and what is your mission?

ZP: Territorial Empathy was founded to address the urban issues that affect marginalized communities in a meaningful way. Too often firms, consultants, and/or governments claim to design “inclusive” and “diverse” processes without truly engaging the communities they are meant to serve. Community members are tokenized, featured in materials, cover pages, and renders while their humanity is quite literally glossed over. Further complicating matters is the issue of representation, only one in ten women are in upper management positions (CEO, COO, presidents, senior partner) in the top 100 international firms. The statistics are significantly worse for people of color. When project teams suffer from a lack of intersectionality, relating to the needs of a community becomes increasingly difficult.

At Territorial Empathy we believe that empathy is the key to solving the pressing urban issues of our time. Now more than ever, design thinking, projects, and teams have a responsibility to inspire inclusion and connectivity. Our mission is to bring together urbanists, architects, and data scientists to work on behalf of the people in places that are often overlooked. By shedding a light on their perspectives and aspirations, we aim to support their fight for equity.

How do you define the “territories” your work encompasses, and how are these different than conventional urban design approaches?

ZP: The term “territory” is deliberate in our practice. It makes us question the area we’re assisting beyond borders or conventional site boundaries. The very definition of the territory is an exploration in and of itself. By questioning the constraints of the systems we’re addressing, we allow projects to take us in unexpected directions. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, territories can supersede physical areas and include networks, climates, data, migrations. A project that illustrates this well is Going North, a spatial visualization for the World Bank’s Understanding Risk 2020 Singapore forum. Originally, it started off as an attempt to understand the growing trends of informal migration to the United States, but it eventually led to a study of drought, crop sustainability, and risk events in the Northern Triangle region of Central America. We were able to correlate climate patterns in this region to border crossing trends and apprehensions in the U.S. By following the investigation beyond the border region, we were able to better understand the forces that are often overlooked in the immigration debate.

You have a diverse range of projects, from looking into New York City’s public schools to the impacts of the Arab Israeli conflict. Can you tell us more about a few of these projects and how you are advocating for empathy?

ZP: For the past two years we’ve been working to advocate for public school integration. New York City has the most racially segregated public schools in the country. This is often shocking to people as it is home to the most ethnically and linguistically diverse urban area in the world. However, the inequity is stark, with students being systematically underserved by a system designed to keep certain schools “great” at the expense of others. This system was designed long ago and enabled by racist planning practices like redlining. Our spatial research shows communities the impacts of these policies and helps them design processes to produce recommendations that inform meaningful integration policies. This work asks communities to come together and overcome prejudices in order to put the well-being of all students first. Through a partnership with the NYU Metro Center’s Integration and Innovation Initiative, we are able to collaborate with educators, city agencies, advocates and students on empathetic approaches to education policies.

Other projects include Transient Elements, an ongoing project to create prototypes for mobile pavilions designed to provide basic services for homeless Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. They combine rainwater collection, compost, and community programs to address immediate community needs. Additionally, we recently completed a competition proposal for the Hurricane Maria Memorial in Battery Park City. The pavilion design consisted of 4,645 pavers inspired by the leaves of Puerto Rican mangroves, each one representing a person who died in the wake of the storm. Lastly, perhaps one of the most impactful projects we’ve undertaken is Unaccompanied Assault. Through a collaboration with congress member Ted Deutch’s office, we were able to digitize, analyze and spatialize the reported cases of the sexual assault of undocumented children in detention throughout the U.S. This unprecedented effort allows people to see the impact of immigration policies on the most vulnerable - refugee children.

Territorial Empathy has been studying the different types of conflicts that affect territories around the world. How do you approach your work with a global focus?

ZP: Conflict cannot exist without dehumanization. It fundamentally relies on othering, a systematic use of a device that demarcates a difference between an “us” and a “them”. Similarly, territorial conflict is based on the “this is ours” and “that is theirs” premise that permeates the built environment. Therefore, our approach starts by identifying the forces that led to the separation between the parties. It can involve a study of regional politics, preservation, history, religion and/or data depending on where our work is taking place. However, we always prioritize community building and engagement. No one knows a community as well as the people that live in it. Creating the space to allow people to share their experiences is always at the forefront. We’ve been able to use this approach in the U.S. as well as in Israel, Palestine, Bosnia, Croatia, and Jordan.

Architects often face questions of narrowing project scopes. With changes in climate, technology, and construction techniques, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?

ZP: In order to advance the profession, we have to fundamentally rethink pedagogy and practice. How can we come up with innovative solutions that are sensitive to communities and the environment when both cannons have largely remained the same? Pedagogy has a shallow consideration for the user and is completely obsessed with representation and production. Both as a student and an educator, I’ve heard more conversations boasting about sleep deprivation than the implications of a project’s impact on resources and culture. The bulk of the creativity goes into creating the perfect drawing.

But what can the perfect drawing accomplish when the project it represents is asking shallow questions? We’re sitting on the verge of an existential climate crisis, record inequality, and increasingly polarizing times – pedagogy and practice should reflect this urgency. Additionally, in practice we need to consider alternative models that prioritize innovation. Territorial Empathy is a 501C3 nonprofit organization; we’re supported by volunteers, donations and the sales of our print collection. This model allows us to focus on the integrity of our projects instead of profit. My hope for the profession in the future, is that designers will leverage technology to advance new models of practice that prioritize social impact and design excellence.

How can architects and urban designers promote more inclusive representation in their firms and in their cities?

ZP: I think this is question that asks us to reflect on our values, not representation necessarily. If you want to design a building, place, or a system that is responsive to the people it serves than the design team must reflect that community. Additionally, I think we should prioritize scholarship and mentorship opportunities for underrepresented communities. Professionally, we should engage in difficult conversations that confront the misogyny, racism, and bigotry that people face in day-to-day practice. In architecture specifically, the licensure process needs to be redesigned. Its cost is prohibitive to many young professionals who are already overworked and saddled with student debt in a profession that continues to struggle with pay equity. Lastly, I think we should encourage architects and urban designers to run for public office. We have a unique grasp on a variety of equity issues that can help cities pursue more inclusive policies.

Is there a particular project or research area you’re looking into that you believe has the greatest need for resolution and/or empathy?

ZP: There needs to be more research around spatial justice issues pertaining to race in America. From redlining, to public school funding, to air quality and access to healthy foods – communities of color face overwhelming challenges. Unfortunately, their welfare has been sacrificed for the wellbeing of a sliver of the population. Until we truly understand and confront this reality, we will not be able to move forward. I am, however, optimistic for the future. I’ve been fortunate to witness the dissolution of prejudices and profound displays of empathy when communities learn of these divisive practices. Unexpected collaborations, projects, and relationships can thrive when people take on these difficult conversations with open hearts and minds.

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