Justin Brazier didn’t always know his path in life would lead him home.
Brazier grew up with two brothers in a close-knit family in Randolph, Massachusetts, two towns south of Boston. Her parents, who are Haitian immigrants, had also grown up in the Boston area and met there.
From an early age, Brazier liked to draw. But when it came time to go to college, he didn’t think he could find viable work as an artist. Instead, he sought out other exciting careers, jumping from college to college in the Boston area and across many disciplines, from engineering to business to chemistry. But he had no luck finding a match.
Eventually, after years of searching, “I bit the bullet to pursue art,” thinking that even “if I don’t make money, at least I’ll be happy,” he says. Brazier returned to Boston to study at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At first, he turned to industrial design with the aim of designing sneakers. But then some of his teachers encouraged him to turn to architecture, where he could develop a broader skill set. “I took classes and everything clicked,” he says.
Brazier’s interest in architecture solidified during his undergraduate studies when he joined the Farmers Collaborative, a Boston-based group that works with city officials to turn vacant land into urban agricultural centers. . Brazier began by designing garden beds for the collaboration’s projects, working with co-founders CJ Valerus and Leon David. These grow beds have become a food source in the Boston community and have helped alleviate food insecurity. Through this work and his studies, “I realized the ability of architects to shape the environment. The design of greenhouses and agricultural structures can connect people to their history and culture,” he says.
After graduating, Brazier continued to work with the Farmers Collaborative, while maintaining a full-time job. With only a bachelor’s degree in architecture, however, he was limited in how far he could move projects forward. To fully complete a project on his own, he would need a professional license. Because of this, “I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school to become a full-fledged architect,” says Brazier. After taking a few years off from school to work, he joined MIT’s MArch program.
Brazier plans to use his expertise as a licensed architect to help communities, especially those of color, transform neighborhoods through urban agriculture and food sovereignty. This goal, rooted in his childhood and family background, is “really important to me,” he says.
A new community greenhouse in progress
While pursuing his master’s degree, Brazier remained involved with the Farmers Collaborative. He is currently working on a project with Velarus and David to build a year-round greenhouse in Mattapan, a Boston neighborhood with a large Haitian population, where his father grew up. Brazier also enlisted professor and licensed architect Sheila Kennedy, his mentor at MIT, to help with the project.
One of the main objectives of the greenhouse project is to improve food security in Mattapan through urban agriculture. Brazier takes a holistic approach to the project, informed by neighborhood input. “We think of the agricultural process in a complete cycle, where we have pollination, food growth and composting,” he says. In addition to the main greenhouse, the community space will include a bee apiary, several outdoor flower beds and a composting area.
The space will also serve as a gathering place for the community. People can relax in the patio seating area or host an outdoor farmer’s market out back. Brazier also hopes to introduce educational programs in space to teach children about agriculture and the climate. “We want to create a space that contributes to the overall sustainability of the neighborhood, culturally and socially,” explains Brazier.
The greenhouse will be located on a corner lot off busy Morton Street. The lot is a five minute walk from the main street intersection with Blue Hill Avenue. “It’s an important area that can really show what the community is capable of,” says Brazier.
Prior to the Morton Street project, Brazier worked on a similar project with the collaboration to build a greenhouse in Dorchester, a neighborhood adjacent to Mattapan that is also home to a large black community. The previous project, coordinated by architect Wyly Brown and graduate students from MassArt, called HERO Hope Garden, is located on Geneva Avenue in the heart of Dorchester. In the center of the garden is a wooden greenhouse with a pitched slatted roof, flanked by several grow beds and an open patio with a painted wall backdrop. “Everyone loves it,” Brazier says. “It has helped the community grow food to avoid food insecurities, especially during Covid.”
Brazier and the collaboration are using the HERO Hope Garden as a model for the Morton Street project, continuing its successes and making strategic improvements. For example, although the wooden greenhouse in the garden is completely closed, the animals and the cold winter air still find their way inside. For the Morton Street project, “it will be a steel construction, which is much more robust,” he says. “And it’s going to be completely waterproof to operate in all seasons” for increased food production.
To make this community project possible, the City of Boston provides funding through the Mayor’s Office of Housing and the Community Preservation Act. But “to complete the project in its entirety,” there is still “a small funding gap,” Brazier says. He and the collaboration are currently seeking additional funding to fill this gap and ensure the community can have all of the project’s intended functionality.
In the meantime, with most of the funding secured, construction of the Morton Street project will begin this summer and is expected to be completed next summer.
Empowering communities to bring their ideas to life
Although Brazier has been heavily involved in urban agriculture projects in recent years, he ultimately sees himself playing a larger role in the community. He has noticed that when people, especially those of color, come up with ideas to improve their neighborhoods, they often struggle to move their ideas forward. “People want to bring different things to the city but don’t have the skills or the language” and need the help of an architect, he says. But to many people of color, an architect “feels like someone they can’t really approach” because they don’t know or relate to anyone.
This is where Brazier comes in. Its roots in the Greater Boston area make it more accessible to people from those communities. Brazier has received calls to help develop proposals for the Mattapan area and beyond, including turning a derelict building into a café, setting up art installations in the alleys and carrying out studies of design for new developers looking to create local ownership in their neighborhoods. His plans and renderings have helped people start conversations with city officials about their ideas, opening doors even if the plans don’t come to fruition.
Last year, some people Brazier grew up with approached him to help renovate their sneaker store in Randolph. Brazier worked on the interior design of the store, named Kerms. Located near Randolph High School, Kerms is now setting an inspiring example for children in the community, showing them that “they can stay in Randolph and become homeowners,” he says.
Brazier is happy to be in a place where people feel comfortable asking him for any design help he can provide. Ultimately, all he wants to do is “empower people to develop their own environment and leave their mark on their own neighborhood,” he says.