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3 ways architects can improve social equity

Hint: It’s all about housing

In Philadelphia, the architecture firm ISA looks for ways new housing can address other equity challenges, like public health, access to open space, and emotional well-being. Its Powerhouse project, a 31-unit infill development completed in 2014, includes
In Philadelphia, the architecture firm ISA looks for ways new housing can address other equity challenges, like public health, access to open space, and emotional well-being. Its Powerhouse project, a 31-unit infill development completed in 2014, includes the “super stoops” and street furniture that encourage social engagement among neighbors and passersby.
Sam Oberter Photography

Today, nowhere is immune to housing crises: Developed and developing nations; cities, suburbs, and rural areas; prosperous regions and economically struggling ones. And there’s a common refrain echoing around the world: housing is a human right. However, that’s far from being a reality. How—in the face of considerable population, financial, regulatory, and spatial hurdles—can we boost supply to those who need it and do it in a considered, successful way?

Housing as Intervention: Architecture towards Social Equity,” a recent volume of Architectural Design, explains how architects around the world are responding to social equity and justice issues through housing. Guest editor and housing expert Karen Kubey scoured the globe to find forward-thinking solutions that are specific to the problems in their respective cities, but hold lessons for architects everywhere.

Urbanus—a firm in Shenzhen, China—is researching ways to develop housing in an inclusive way. Its Baishizhou Five Villages Urban Regeneration research in Shenzhen, from 2013, is based on the existing urban village layout, which the developer had originally planned to clear away before rebuilding. Urbanus suggested conserving the existing community and providing additional development on top. by mixing different spatial functions, the redevelopment process would offer inclusiveness rather than segregation.
Urbanus Architecture & Design Inc.

“Today we are experiencing unprecedented increases in urban populations,” Kubey writes in the volume’s introduction. “Globalized investment in luxury housing, combined with the withdrawal of public funding from social housing provisions in Western countries and forced migration due to conflict and disaster worldwide has led to precarious housing conditions for wide swathes of society. Severe income inequality is making housing insecurity impossible for even the upper classes to ignore...housing has become unaffordable for middle-class residents all over the world.”

By addressing housing’s intersections with rapid urbanization, mass migration, public health, economic strength, affordability, inclusion, identity, and new funding mechanisms, the book outlines avenues for architects who actually want to make a difference.

Curbed asked Kubey about some key insights from the collection of essays and reports, which are written by architects working on the bleeding edge of housing.

Center the conversation about social equity around housing

Social inequity is the product of large-scale political and economic systems that will have to change to make broad sweeping improvements. But that doesn’t mean architects are fighting a losing battle.

In the essay “Demapping the Automotive Landscape,” Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, associate professor Marc Norman looks for opportunities for more space to build by examining land allotted to parking. He investigates how policy change can allocate more buildable space for housing and new construction strategies can leverage that land more effectively.

ISA, with HealthxDesign, created a series of diagrams indicating how design decisions might impact health equity outcomes. These diagrams formed part of a toolkit drawing relationships between design strategies and outcomes.

When the Philadelphia-based firm ISA embarks on new projects, it often frames them through the lens of how much design can address racial disparities in the city. In the article “Designing for Impact,” ISA principals Deb Katz and Brian Phillips explain how their multi-family projects—both built and conceptual—support physical activity, social interaction, and emotional well-being.

“While the social, economic, and health equity issues that our book takes on are incredibly complex, better-designed, more affordable housing can play an important role in addressing them,” Kubey says. “Housing is central to our lives, cities, and economies. We can lead healthy, fulfilling lives only when we have a stable home; housing makes up the majority of our cities’ built environment; and housing is central to global financial markets as well as personal budgets. So for architects who want to make increased social impacts, housing is a critical site of intervention.”

Scale up ambitions

“One lesson is that we can do better,” Kubey tells Curbed. “American architects are leading excellent work in housing, and we have profiled inspiring domestic projects and practices in the book, but there are so many economic and political factors that make that work difficult. We as a country have a lot to learn from international housing examples.”

In London, Karakusevic Carson Architects with Maccreanor Lavington, designed Dujardin Mews, which represents the city’s reinvestment in public housing. Ground-floor apartments have internal courtyards that provide extra outdoor amenity space and allow natural light and ventilation deep within the plan.
Mark Haddon

Kubey points to the work of Karakusevic Carson Architects in London. For the first time in decades, the city has invested in new public housing, which is referred to as “social housing” in the United Kingdom. To make sure the developments were attuned to what people want and need and didn’t repeat urban renewal’s mistakes, KCA worked closely with communities where the homes would be built. They ended up designing projects that could accommodate a variety of tenures and had multiple building types in them.

Beyond the project itself, KCA challenged the fundamental way London thought about public housing. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city adopted a neoliberal approach to housing and claimed that through deregulation, the market would flourish. The opposite was true. Quality of housing declined, maintenance suffered, and the supply of affordable homes diminished. These lapses in oversight and cost-cutting sometimes became deadly, as the 2017 Grenfell Fire showed. Now—through projects like Dujardin Mews and Kings Crescent Estate—the city is course correcting and building high-quality public housing.

“In many cases the American public and even architects have accepted low standards for housing design,” Kubey tells Curbed. “If London—a city so similar to New York, for instance—can create outstanding social housing, we should be able to, too.”

Stop looking for the silver bullet

In Los Angeles, architects are exploring how accessory dwelling units (ADUs) can increase the availability of affordable homes through context-appropriate density in single-family neighborhoods. In Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay area, disaster relief experts and designers are experimenting with resilient multi-family developments in flood zones. Development agencies in Rwanda are experimenting with flexible building prototypes to fill the gap between rapid urbanization and limited construction capacity. And in Mexico, architects are finding ways to personalize affordable housing in the wake of a federal building program that added millions of standardized homes, but in a way that erased local culture.

The Tafali-Etage (multi-story brick house) by Daniel Wyss and Fatou Dieye can be entirely engineered, manufactured and constructed by Rwandan small and medium enterprises. The modular system is adaptable to sloped sites and the loadbearing reinforced rowlock-bond cavity-wall system is well suited to the region’s high seismic activity.
Daniel Wyss

As these housing challenges and solutions show, no two situations are the exactly the same.

“It would be naive to think that any one approach to greater social equity through housing would offer ‘The Answer,’” Kubey tells Curbed. “As we describe in the book, more equitable housing solutions and design processes prove as diverse as the problems they address.”