Comment: architects didn’t invent redlining, but we helped strengthen it – on two continents
As a great architect IM Pei say it: “Life is architecture and architecture is the mirror of life.” So it’s no wonder that I spent my years as an architecture student at a Michigan university thinking that architecture wasn’t for people like me. To a professor’s credit, we were briefly taught the architecture of ancient Egypt, from the earliest known architect who designed the pyramid of Saqqara how great Egyptian ingenuity laid the foundation for the classical architectural language of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But after only 14 pages on Egyptian architecture, we studied 576 pages of Western typologies with fragments of Islamic architecture. I was learning and designing buildings that people in my community in Durban, South Africa might never have the privilege to see, let alone inhabit.
Now, as the founder of my own company, and in light of the recent global protests against police brutality and the continued work of the Black Lives Matter movement, I think it is important that architects take responsibility for the fact that the design has always been one of the most powerful tools, which perpetuates systemic racism.
Architecture and planning are at the root of racial prejudice against people of color in America and around the world. An example: although discrimination and segregation have always existed in the United States, 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) put it in writing by instituting the National Housing Act, which created the discriminatory practice called redlining.
Redlining is unethical cartography a practice that literally puts services (financial and otherwise) out of reach for residents of certain areas because of their race or ethnicity. This is seen in the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, home improvement loans and other financial services based on the location and history of delinquencies in that region. It is a denial of home ownership based on an individual’s ethnicity rather than their actual qualifications and creditworthiness. This resulted in the division of neighborhoods along racial lines, which led to banks concentrating lending in some neighborhoods and not others, based on race. Zoning laws and loan laws at the time institutionally crippled predominantly African-American neighborhoods, while supporting investments in white neighborhoods, and thus allowing their accumulation of wealth.
The effects of redlining persists in neighborhoods like the one where former US First Lady Michelle Obama grew up on the south side of Chicago. The FHA lending rules (coupled with the impact of unequal treatment in employment and other aspects of life) have helped drive down property values for black families. Not all of the students in the former First Lady’s Ward could manage, as she did, to take two buses 12 blocks away to attend the Whitney M. Young Magnet School on the west side of Chicago. . Most of the other schools closer to their homes were under-resourced, leading to high drop-out rates. These conditions, which US government policy helped create, were then used by the government to justify their continued use and, at the local level, to justify a greater police presence in these neighborhoods. Sadly, in America, this is directly linked to the higher number of deaths of innocent young black men and women by police.
Thirty-eight years after Michelle Obama’s high school, little has changed. According to The data from the Chicago Police Department, officers are 14 times more likely to use force against young black men than their white counterparts.
In a similar pattern, halfway around the world, apartheid-era architecture in South Africa also separated communities along racial lines. Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. It was a system that white minorities used to effectively oppress, control and rule the majority of original black South Africans.
Like US redlining and other government-sanctioned efforts to deny black communities their rights apartheid-era regime designed labor camps known as “townships”. They used a system called the 40-40-40 rule where they built houses of 40 square meters, located 40 kilometers from economic centers. This forced blacks living in these communities to spend 40% of their income on commuting to work. Financial leakage made them unable to finance the development of their own homes. The townships were designed to be devoid of social and economic opportunities, which crippled the economy of the black community.
Although apartheid laws ended more than two decades ago, township residents still travel 40 kilometers to work in city centers, limiting them to the same conditions of poverty they were forced into during the last decade. ‘apartheid. The laws may have changed, but the systems remain. Until we change the way we design and build, we cannot extinguish the evils of systemic racism.
Architecture is never neutral; it heals or it hurts. According to a study by National Coalition for Community Reinvestment, three of the four U.S. neighborhoods that were marked on government maps 80 years ago continue to struggle economically. As architects, we are not only the designers of glass skyscrapers and infinity pools, but we directly contribute to these injustices. As Winston Churchill puts it best: “We shape our buildings; subsequently, they shape us.
To make a difference personally, I created a practice where the goal is to liberate and empower people, as much as to build. Ubuntu Architecture Abroad Summer Program has created an interesting intercultural program that focuses on immersing students in an experience of historical, socio-economic and community design. Participants in this program work with and under the supervision of Umbumbulu community to tackle spatial justice. This program gives students from around the world the opportunity to partner with a local community to co-design culturally influenced homes for marginalized families in Durban, South Africa. At the end of the program, a local contractor is hired to work with the community to build the homes that the students helped co-design.
This initiative begins to peck at the problem by rethinking architectural education and exposing students and young professionals to designing solutions to problems arising from systemic racism in a place beyond their own contexts. As apartheid architecture has been used to separate and oppress, community-centered design brings people together and provides fair opportunities for all. We need more effort to challenge traditional architecture teaching and expose students to architecture that represents the world, not just Europe. An architecture that seeks to find solutions that will create spatial justice.
As architects it is important (and in fact we are trained) to take into account the whole environment in which we design. Examining the existing architecture in the area, accessibility, the trajectory of the sun, the approach to space, and of course, the climate and space very quickly become second nature to us. What we also need to do second nature in our design and planning is to examine the history of a place, the people of a place, and the culture of a place – for everyone. .
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