The Beauty Issue: Urban Planner Toni Griffin Finds Beauty in Justice

By Laura Hilgers

This story is part of a the Nob Hill Gazette’s feature, Perspectives on Beauty, in our March issue.

Griffin by Iris Lei

Visionary urban planner Toni Griffin views beauty through a unique lens: As an experience. But one that should be available to everyone.

“As an urban planner, I define beauty as the ability to create spaces and places that bring people some register of joy, some positive emotional reaction, some invitation to en-gage,” says Griffin, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and founder of Urban Planning for the American City, in New York. “In that way, beauty is not an aesthetic but also an experiential outcome.”

Griffin has long advocated for what she calls the “Just City,” which includes social justice as an essential element of the planning and design process.In San Francisco, she points to Dolores Park as a place that embodies this concept. The 16-acre refuge, she says, is not so pristine that people feel they can’t use it. It’s configured in an approach-able and adaptable way. And it feels welcoming to all.

But her favorite example is Crown Fountain in her home-town, Chicago — a city she de-scribes as “still one of the most racially segregated in our country.” The fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, features two 50-foot digital towers, separated by a long, shallow pool. The towers are lit up with the faces of Chicagoans of every age, race and gender. Children play in the pool. Parents of all races mingle alongside it. “This is one of the most exquisite examples of beauty,” says Griffin. “It’s beauty that has intentionally built into it the notion of bridging divides, breaking down notions of racial segregation, and creating a space where every difference is accepted.”

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