Is there a way to fight the blight of urban decay before buildings are even constructed?

New homes besides abandoned ones in Detroit. Image: Getty.

Detroit has been demolishing about 200 vacant houses per week since December 2014, with a goal to take down 6,000 houses in one year. Much of the demolition work is concentrated in about 20 neighbourhoods where the blight removal is projected to have immediate positive effects of improving remaining property values and clearing land for future development.

While Detroit may be an extreme example, economic decline, disinvestment, racial segregation and natural and human-made disasters have left other American communities with unprecedented amounts of structural debris, abandonment and blight, too.

As scholars who focus on understanding the complex circumstances that have led to blight, we also have some ideas about potential solutions that could prevent this cycle the next time around.

We’ve coined the term domicology to describe our study of the life cycles of the built environment. It examines the continuum from the planning, design and construction stages through to the end of use, abandonment and deconstruction or reuse of structures.

Domicology recognises the cyclical nature of the built environment. Ultimately we’re imagining a world where no building has to be demolished. Structures will be designed with the idea that once they reach the end of their usefulness, they can be deconstructed with the valuable components repurposed or recycled.

Thinking about the end at the beginning

The U.S. reached a record high of 7.4m abandoned homes in 2012. When people leave homes, the local commercial economy falters, resulting in commercial abandonment as well. The social, environmental and economic consequences disproportionately affect already struggling communities. Abandoned buildings contribute to lower property values and are associated with higher rates of crime and unemployment. Due to the scale of the problem, local governments in the U.S. are often unable to allocate enough resources to remove blighted structures.

All human-made structures have a life cycle, but rarely do people embrace this reality at the time of construction. The development community gives little thought to the end of life of a structure, in large part because the costs of demolition or deconstruction are passed on to some future public or private entity.

Currently, publicly financed demolition and landfilling are the most frequent methods used to remove abandoned structures, but these practices generate a huge amount of material waste. Upwards of 300,000 houses are demolished annually, which generates 169.1m tons of construction and demolition debris – about 22 per cent of the U.S. solid waste stream.

Here’s where a shift to a new domicology mindset can help. Unlike demolition, deconstruction is a sustainable approach to systematically disassembling buildings, which can result in up to 95 per cent material reuse and recycling. This method, however, may increase time and cost, while at the same time potentially creating a vibrant reuse market for salvaged materials.

Domicology’s comprehensive paradigm shift from landfill-dependent demolition waste streams to sustainable construction, deconstruction and material salvage will affect both methods of construction and the materials used. For example, in design and construction of structures, modular components tend to be easier to dismantle than “stick-built” methods. Construction techniques that rely more on connectors like screws instead of glues or nails mean dismantlers can remove materials with less damage, increasing the value of the salvaged material.

On the materials side, using salvaged wood products to create new structural wood products can reduce reliance on virgin timber, which has recently experienced shortages and price fluctuations. Salvaged concrete can be used as aggregate in new construction. In some cases, even roof shingles can be melted for asphalt road surfacing. In the Midwest, where there are substantial numbers of abandoned properties, an underground “scrapper” economy has emerged that salvages copper and other valuable metals from structures.

To make deconstruction a viable alternative to demolition on a large scale, some things need to change. Image: U.S. Air Force/John Van Winkle/creative commons.

What needs to change?

All of this requires forethought in recognising that structures have an end of life. There is value in planning, designing and building in such a way that when a structure reaches the end of its usefulness, people can maximise the salvage of the materials removed from these structures. Creating a value in the end of life of a structure also decreases the likelihood of walking away from these valuable resources – reducing private sector abandonment in a community experiencing distress.

Governments can help by putting in place policies, incentives and regulations to prevent abandonment and facilitate removal. Domicology will depend on figuring out the best processes and technologies for safe removal. Deconstructors will need to hire differently skilled laborers than for a standard demolition. And for domicology to work there will need to be a way to take the removed material to a place where it can be given a second life of some kind.

As with any paradigm shift, the most challenging issue is to change current mindsets. People need to leave behind a “build it, use it, demolish it” perspective and replace it with a “plan it, design it, build it, use it, deconstruct it and reuse the materials” view. Builders must imagine at the beginning of a structure’s life what will happen at the end of it.


Economics do add up

Our domicology team recently tested the economic feasibility of using deconstruction practices rather than demolition as a way to reduce blight. We also wanted to explore how feasible it would be to establish a deconstruction-based repurposing economy.

Our findings suggest that the central collection, reuse and repurposing of material from legacy cities in the Great Lakes region is feasible with the help of specific policies, practices and targeted economic development strategies.

A crucial support would be a strong supply chain for salvaged materials. In Europe, California and the East Coast of the U.S., deconstruction firms can more easily acquire the material from blighted structures, access a skilled deconstruction labour force and use low-cost modes of transportation to move salvaged materials to processing facilities. All these advantages make deconstruction cost-competitive in those regions against demolition and disposal.

As a result of the work done so far, we and our colleagues have begun to incorporate the concepts and practices of domicology in targeted courses for students. By introducing this emerging science in the classroom, students here at Michigan State University are helping to pioneer a new 21st-century conception of a sustainable built environment.

As these ideas take hold and spread through planning, design, financing and construction industries, the goal is to prevent another blight epidemic like the one we see today in Detroit.

The Conversation

Rex LaMore, Director of the Center for Community & Economic Development and Adjunct Faculty in Urban and Regional Planning Program, Michigan State University; George H. Berghorn, Assistant Professor of Construction Management, Michigan State University, and M.G. Matt Syal, Professor of Construction Management, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 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.