Here are three projects which demonstrate architecture’s power to build and sustain communities

In Los Angeles, the architecture firm KTGY is repurposing shipping containers to build a transitional apartment complex for the homeless. Image: KTGY.

A decade after the global economic collapse, urban development is booming.

This is good news for architects. Indeed, 2018 promises to be a favorable year for the profession: a spectacular array of sleek museums, posh hotels and some of the world’s tallest towers are slated for completion.

But income inequality is on the rise in the United States, with many city dwellers reaping few benefits from the current economic upturn.

The same could be said for the colossal scale and visual theatrics of high-profile buildings. Residential towers for the super rich are transforming the skylines of cities and public spaces are increasingly being privatised. As a result, cities are being shaped according to the desires of the elite.

This is particularly troublesome as many cities are also grappling with the ongoing politics of austerity – less and less investment in public services, infrastructure and public housing. Yet some architects have dedicated themselves to addressing these very problems.

The architecture of social engagement – the idea that buildings should address inequality and improve the lives of all dwellers – first started gaining steam during the Great Recession. It’s important to continue moving this work out from under the shadows of the glossier buildings that tend to receive the most media attention.

Three projects to be built in 2018 – a library in Brooklyn, a low-income housing project in Chicago and transitional housing for the homeless in Los Angeles – demonstrate architecture’s unique power to build, sustain and forge communities.

Fostering local activism

In the popular imagination, cities are often associated with their biggest buildings and largest monuments. But the lifeblood of all cities is their small-scale civic buildings and public spaces: libraries, schools, community centres, parks and playgrounds. These places are gathering spaces for residents; they create robust and enduring urban enclaves.

A new building for the branch library in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood – the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center – exemplifies public architecture’s ability to reflect the concerns of local communities.

A massive oil spill that was discovered in 1978 wreaked havoc on Newtown Creek, the waterway bordering Greenpoint to the north. Because cleanup efforts are still ongoing, environmental activism remains a defining aspect of the community’s identity.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that issues of environmental justice were important when it came time to rebuilding a larger library in Greenpoint, one of the more widely used branch libraries in the Brooklyn Public Library system.

A rendering of the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Image: Marble Fairbanks.

Designed by the architecture firm Marble Fairbanks, the two-story building has all the features of a traditional library, from book stacks to reading rooms. But there are also meeting spaces being built for the expressed use of community activists and environmentalists, as well as an education centre for environmental awareness – nods to the neighborhood’s history of environmental activism.

It’s also being built according to the highest standards of green design, with plans to reduce the building’s air pollution, energy and water use. The building’s two green roofs, in addition to its public plaza, will be planted with species native to the region.

A grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, created through a settlement with Exxon Mobil over the spill, even paid for part of the new project. Collectively, the library’s design shows how at the local level, environmental justice and social justice are intertwined.

Beating back the tides of gentrification

The same could be said of an affordable housing project being built in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. As important as public places, affordable housing helps create equitable and accessible cities. Dubbed Tierra Linda, the project is the result of Landon Bone Baker Architects’ ongoing work with the community-based organisation Latin United Community Housing Association.

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When it’s completed, Tierra Linda will have created 12 small-scale housing projects scattered throughout the neighborhood. Most will be located on lots that were formerly vacant. While all of the buildings plan to incorporate sustainable design practices, one of them will be Chicago’s first affordable, multifamily passive house, which means that it’s designed to dramatically reduce energy use for heating and cooling.

A rendering of Tierra Linda in Chicago, Ill. Image: Landon Bone Baker Architects.

These affordable homes are part of a broader effort to maintain the vitality of the neighborhood’s Latino community, which, in recent years, has been threatened by gentrification. The Bloomingdale Trail – an elevated greenway running though Chicago’s Northwest Side – has caused real estate prices to rise in the area.

By collaborating with the community as part of the design process, Landon Bone Baker Architects’ work in Humboldt Park underscores how neighbourhood-focused projects can help sustain communities facing economic and social change.

A shipping container as a home?

Affordable housing also has the capacity to build new communities. In Los Angeles’ Westlake neighborhood, the architecture firm KTGY is building Hope on Alvarado, a transitional apartment building for the homeless. (Hope on Alvarado is one of a number of similar housing projects in Los Angeles planned by developer Aedis Real Estate Group.)

The project, which is being privately funded, will address a crisis head on: last year, California had the largest homeless population in the country, with Los Angeles County experiencing an especially dramatic rise in its numbers of homeless people.

KTGY has plans to use recycled metal shipping containers as the primary units for what will be a five-story building organised around a central courtyard.

A rendering of the interior of a unit in the Hope on Alvarado Housing Project in Los Angeles, Calif. Image: KTGY.

It’s certainly an innovative approach, since the use of prefabricated containers allows for quick and cheap construction – necessary, given the dire state of homelessness in Los Angeles. At the same time, it’s not hard to see how the building could create a safe and supportive community for its future residents.

Cities for everyone

Looking at how everyday buildings can strengthen communities and invigorate urban life is becoming increasingly important. Currently over half of the world’s population lives in cities, and urban populations are only expected to grow. Meanwhile, natural and man-made disasters are wreaking havoc on cities around the globe, another trend that promises to continue.

With these challenges in mind, the smaller buildings highlighted in this article can help us understand architecture as a social art – a means to weave an urban fabric that creates lasting social ties. They offer models for thinking about architectural design as a tool that addresses the needs of individual communities – lessons that cannot be learned from the slicker buildings that so often compete for our attention.


The ConversationAfter all, museums, hotels and towers do not alone make cities.

Sean Weiss, Assistant Professor of Architecture, City College of New York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.