How can cities ensure healthy architecture in an era of rapid population growth?

A new building emerges on Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image: Getty.

Worldwide population growth and mass migrations are putting the infrastructure of many cities under strain. With city governments under pressure to provide more housing and work spaces, people can end up living and working in poorly designed or low quality buildings.

Since the beginning of human civilisation, people have been striving to create a beneficial built environment. Take Neolithic buildings, for instance: they were purposefully orientated to catch the sun and allow for ventilation. Later, over 3,000 years ago in Crete, the Minoans built underground sewage systems to avoid plagues. So too did the Romans, who also used underfloor heating systems and aqueducts, and provided baths throughout the empire to keep the population in good health.

Slums in Wentworth Street, Whitechapel. Image: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

Despite these early successes, maintaining healthy conditions became much more difficult in times of rapid population growth. During the industrial revolution, for instance, many cities quickly became overpopulated. With growing industries, employers were under pressure to accommodate more workers, and decayed or unfit buildings were used to host increasing numbers of tenants.

In the UK, living conditions reached such poor standards that the government passed a number of laws to improve public health. A similar sanitation project took place in Germany, at around the same time. These strategies provided many cities with outstanding green infrastructure such as parks and boulevards, which still bring many health benefits to those who can access them today.

Sick building syndrome

But in recent years, “sick building syndrome” has become a worry worldwide. Research has shown that headaches and respiratory problems among office workers were directly related to the use of air conditioning, poor ventilation and other widely-adopted technologies. Today, health professionals and designers have plenty of evidence to show that some buildings can harm people, both physically and psychologically. Yet ensuring buildings are “healthy” is a difficult task.

In the UK, some features such as ventilation and heating have to meet certain standards. But other design features, which are known to have a big impact on human welfare, are still not regulated. For example, there’s evidence that exposure to natural light and direct contact with nature have a positive effect on school exam results – yet there’s no legislation which says they must be a feature of learning environments.

And while scientists are constantly experimenting to grow our knowledge of the impacts that buildings have on human health, laws and regulations tend to develop more slowly. This means that even new buildings can be inadequately ventilated, or suffer from a lack of natural light – even though we now know that both cause symptoms of ill health.

A lack of natural ventilation means viruses are retained in the air, while a lack of natural light can affect brain functions. In Britain alone, these design pitfalls are adding to the stress on the NHS, and costing the economy an estimated £24.6m due to lost working days each year.

What’s more, as the Grenfell Tower disaster made awfully clear, technical difficulties and budget constraints can mean refurbishments are made using incompatible or inappropriate building materials, resulting in homes which simply aren’t safe to live in.

Tech fails

Architects aim to deliver sustainability by reducing energy consumption. There is a huge range of technologies which can help achieve this. But relying too heavily on such solutions can backfire: in 2016, researchers found that many homes had been built to be airtight, in a bid to meet energy efficiency targets. This can cause CO₂ and other pollutants to build up indoors, which in turn has adverse effects on residents’ health.

Human factors – including how we navigate and socialise within the built environment, and how our body responds to it – also have a big impact on the overall efficiency of buildings, and the sustainable technologies which go into them. Research has shown that people don’t always operate equipment as instructed – rather, they naturally look for comfort through more instinctive behaviours.

For example, when we feel a room is overheated, we tend to open windows to gain instant refreshment, rather than turning the thermostat down. This reduces the effectiveness of low-carbon technologies. So even buildings that have plenty of features to enhance energy efficiency can still be unsustainable, if people don’t use them properly.


The power of good design

Design is still the most powerful tool an architect can use: simple design measures, such as opening buildings towards sunnier aspects or adding ventilation in strategic locations to make the most of prevalent winds, are tried and tested techniques which can help to deliver healthier, more sustainable buildings.

Yet this approach comes with its own issues. Inner-city locations are often difficult to build in, because of their small size and crowded surroundings. Sometimes, architects will prioritise creating a “landmark” exterior, at the cost of a healthy interior. Other times, architects misinterpret planning guidance and recommendations, which can be vague and unspecific. Likewise, planning restrictions can actually be enforced to the detriment of the overall building quality.

The ConversationAt the moment, planning laws aren’t strong enough to provide truly sustainable environments that take human factors into account. Reform is long overdue, and designers, builders, planners and health professionals need to make a greater effort to find a more collective and coordinated way of working. But as a society, we must take joint responsibility: we can all make a start by learning how to change our our behaviour, to make the human aspects of sustainability a central part of our lives.

Laura B Alvarez, Architectural Technologist and Urban Designer, Nottingham Trent University.

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

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.