‘Buildings are for (Some) People’: Reconsidering Architecture and the Struggle for Urban Space

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GJA Student Ambassador, James Gacek

The Global Justice Academy is delighted to post its second book review of the 2016-17 academic year as part of its Student Ambassador Programme. James Gacek is reading for a PhD in Law. Here, he review’s Bill Caplan’s Buildings are for People as part of our Urban Justice Lab.

Exploring the interactions between people and the natural environment, Bill Caplan’s Buildings are for People: Human Ecological Design issues a clarion call for the design/build professions to critically assess architecture, green design and sustainability in the context of human ecology—that is, the examination between people, community spaces and the ecosystem which surrounds and penetrates us.

Such a focus is significant, as sustainable building has gained resonance in recent professional and academic accounts (Jones & Card, 2011). The built environment of urban spaces has the potential to alter “our living environment in material and experiential ways, shaping the character of human experience, the physical, mental and economic wellbeing of individuals and the community at large” (Caplan, 2016, p. xvi, italics in original). Caplan’s book is a unique approach to further understanding the process of conceiving architectural design, while both highlighting the social aspects of human interaction as well as the benefits of ‘green’ and sustainable architectural designs.

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An Urban Justice Project: Winchburgh Futures (January-May 2016)

Global Justice Academy Co-Director, Dr Tahl Kaminer, reflects on the Winchburgh Futures project that ran in ESALA at the beginning of this year.

An ESALA (Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture) team studied (2016) the current urban development around Winchburgh, West Lothian, in which a ring of 2000 or more housing units and a medium-scale town centre are being developed around an existing mining village of 2000 residents. The team responded to local residents’ request for support and advice regarding concerns for community cohesion and quality of development.

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Equality and the Democratic Deficit

This post by Global Justice Co-Director, Dr Tahl Kaminer, reports from the first Urban Justice Lab Symposium: ‘Who Saved the City?’. Follow the link at the bottom of the post to our Lecture Library to view videos from the day and to find out more about the Urban Justice Lab and what it does.

Who Saved the City

The recent exposure of a letter by David Cameron to Oxfordshire County Council (as reported in the Oxford Mail, and The Guardian), in which the PM berates the council for front-line budget cuts, generated a minor storm on social media. Less than a fortnight earlier, Annette Hastings of the University of Glasgow presented the findings of a Rowntree Foundation report, which lucidly depicted the application of cuts to front-line budgets of city councils across the UK. Her eloquent and precise presentation demonstrated vividly why the government’s cuts necessarily hit front-line spending, and particularly the poor.

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Regeneration in an Edinburgh Neighbourhood: the Craigmillar Project Report

In 2014-15, the Global Justice Academy launched its Urban Justice Lab. Based on the MIT-pioneered model to address global challenges, the Urban Justice Lab creates space for discussions and debates as well as collaborations in research, teaching, and outreach for university academics that study or operate on the city.

Dr Tahl Kaminer, GJA Co-Director (Urban Justice Lab), is a Lecturer in Architectural Design and Theory at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA). One track of Tahl’s research studies the means of social amelioration via urban transformation. In 2014, students from the MSc programme in Urban Strategies and Design produced the Craigmillar Project Report – an extensive analysis of the Edinburgh neighbourhood, of the regeneration project, and of current conditions. 

L-R: ‘Charlie’s Bus’ Craigmillar Festival playscheme Bus, historical photograph by Andrew Crummy; Craigmillar flats, photograph by David Flutcher; the White House in Craigmillar, photograph by John Lord.

L-R: ‘Charlie’s Bus’ Craigmillar Festival playscheme Bus, historical photograph by Andrew Crummy; Craigmillar flats, photograph by David Flutcher; the White House in Craigmillar, photograph by John Lord.

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Urban Justice: Demanding the Right to the City.

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Tahl Kaminer, Lecturer in Architectural Design and Theory, Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

As the world becomes fully urbanised, with a majority of the global population living in cities, the question of justice itself becomes increasingly urban. The implications of this include, on the one hand, the city as the locus of protest and dissent, recently visible in the Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, New York, the protesters in Syntagma Square, Athens, or the protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo. On the other hand, the centricity of cities to the world population means that issues such as economic and social justice or human rights are increasingly discussed and debated via the lens of the urban condition.

These urgent issues are visible everywhere: the spatial segregation of cities which reflect social, economic and political divisions and the marginalisation of the urban poor; the vast gaps in housing qualities and basic amenities within diverse cities and between cities; the dislocation of urban poor from city centres; the continuous development and re-development of cities for the benefit of the few and determined, to a great extent, by narrow private economic interests – interests which rarely coincide with the greater good of society.

If the economic policies of the last decades suggest a re-distribution of wealth from the masses to the few, urban development reflects a similar logic: the cleansing of city centres from the ‘unwanted’ – migrants, the poor, unemployed and unskilled labourers, as a means of reclaiming cities for finance capital and its necessary white-collar employees, whether via gentrification or other forms of urban transformation. The rising prices of homes in cities, accompanied by the absence of new council housing in Britain and a limited availability of ‘affordable’ housing, are not limited to the United Kingdom, and reflect trajectories of global scale. The morphology of the city has fragmented, a physical expression of the fragmentation of society itself, as governmental powers have been curtailed to allow private developers to speculate with property and more flexibility in their operations on the urban tissue.

Public space, once a symbol of civic society, has been mostly privatised; the privately-owned shopping mall has replaced the city square as the locus of societal interactions and exchanges, albeit exchanges of particularly consumerist and economic value in a space marked by exclusion – whether of homeless, of ‘hoodies’ or others. The remaining public space has been reorganised, smoothed, often annexed to consumerism, and placed under the surveillance of CCTV and police. Neighbourhood gardens have been fenced, with access limited, at first, to locals, and nowadays exclusively to locals who pay additional fees. Every aspect of the city has been turned into a commodity, it seems, and carries a price tag.

The members of the middle class, originally supporters of the airbrushing and cleansing of inner cities, are at last developing a consciousness that it is not only the subaltern who are expelled, but that they too can no longer maintain a foothold in city centres. With limited financial access to affordable housing or to good education in the inner cities, the middle class now recognises that the revitalised city emerging in the 1990s is a city for the privileged. From ‘reclaim the streets’ to ‘the right to the city’, slogans and movements have been formed to counter the injustice of the contemporary metropolis. The demands of the middle class as well as the poor are straightforward: the demand for living wages; for affordable (and decent quality) housing; for affordable (and decent quality) education; for quality public space – and specifically, that all these will be available to everyone, everywhere, that no area of the city becomes the exclusive domain of a privileged social group. These demands are at the heart of the global call for urban justice. As the current crisis is not only economic, but also social, political, and urban, it provides an opportunity to restructure, to change priorities, and initiate new policies aimed at creating a more fair and just city.

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