A conversation with architect and innovator Toni Griffin

Pittsburgh Youth Media reporters attended the Remaking Cities conference at CMU. While there, reporter Nico Chiodi had an opportunity to interview architect and new urban innovator, Toni Griffin.

“I was trained as an architect,” Ms. Toni Griffin says as soon as she’s settled herself down for an interview. She was influenced at a young age by the TV show The Brady Bunch (Mr. Brady was an architect) and a high school drafting class. The teacher of her drafting class thought she showed talent and entered her into several competitions, which she won. She goes on to explain how one of her counselors found a program at Notre Dame where high-schoolers could live on campus for a three-week architecture program. “After that,” she says, “I got hooked.”

“I do what I do in part by influences of when I was young and in high school,” Ms. Griffin says as she concludes her answer about why she chose urbanism as a career path. “The other reason is because I grew up in Chicago and I really noticed the differences in the parts of the city. I think from there, I didn’t just want to do buildings, but I wanted to look at the issues in neighborhoods and the city overall and the issues of how certain areas were one way and other areas were another.”  Toni Griffin’s mission at the moment is Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy earlier in 2013, and already she is working to make the city better. According to her website, detroitfuturecity.com,

“Detroit is poised to reposition itself as Michigan’s leading urban center once again, if there is a coordinated regional urban agenda that enables more mutually beneficial relationships with the region, state, and nation.”

One of the coolest things her group has done, she thinks, is involving youth by creating an online game that they could play. For about four to six weeks, they posed real life problems once a week for the teens to solve. Afterwards, the Detroit Future City group would look at the answers. “They came up with really cool ideas,” she finishes. In thinking about her hopes for Detroit in particular and urbanism in general, Ms. Griffin says, “In cities like this people leave,” explaining that when people have the opportunity, they leave because they don’t think that the city offers everything they want or it’s not safe enoughfor them. Her hope is that the ten year old of today, when he is twenty, will get a college education he chooses and then come back to the city where he grew up because he thinks it has all he wants and needs from it. Her worry is that that is not happening today because of expense or safety and that kids and families are moving out to the suburbs instead
of the city.

“I hope, in the very short period of time we have with so many really smart people,” she says in response to a question about her hopes for the Remaking Cities Congress, “that some new ideas come forward that we haven’t heard about before. What’s nice about this conference is that there are people here from Europe as well as the U.S. I oftentimes find that other countries (and cities) that have different national government structures are able to see things in different ways that we
can’t. It’ll be interesting to see if some of those ideas can come over here and be our new ideas, just in the same way that they look at us and see if there are things that we’re doing that they’re not. New ideas are what I want to see come out of this.”

Ms. Griffin has spent her life working on urbanism and equality and is an inspiring figure. Every day she is changing lives and trying to help people. Not just trying but actually making a difference. I feel truly lucky to have had this opportunity to interview her.

Reporters from the Pittsburgh Youth Media program cover stories for Hive Pittsburgh. Read more at pghyouthmedia.com.

Published October 23, 2013