On architecture and human rights

Edyta Skiba interviewed Annabel Short for the Polish magazine “Architektura & Biznes”, on bringing a human rights approach to the built environment lifecycle.

The full article was published in Polish, available to download here – in a special issue that coincided with the “Energy Regeneration of Cities” conference in Łódź, Poland.

Below is an English translation of the article.

[Edyta Skiba]: Could you explain to our readers how the idea of dignity is connected to the built environment, architecture and the city?

[Annabel Short]: It is difficult to think of ways in which urban design and architecture are not connected to the idea of dignity.

There are multiple ways in which people’s lives are determined or shaped by the built environment that surrounds them. Let’s take for example physical health, and whether people have access to clean air, water supplies, adequate sanitation, or a warm or a cool place to live in a changing climate.

Then there is mental health, and issues of accessibility to outdoor spaces, and feeling safe while moving around the city. Underpinning all those aspects is the  idea that dignity is inherent to every single person and so it is important to keep asking questions about whether a city or a place is inclusive or segregating, whether it expands or reduces people’s capacity to live lives with dignity.  

One of things that brought me to this work was the realization that the human rights field hadn’t gone far enough in thinking about the ways that cities are planned and built. Bringing human rights into the context of the built environment, means tracking and breaking down mechanisms of power and decision-making. Therefore you have to study deeper within the city what kind of responsibilities are involved, who the actors are, and what their interests are.

[ES]: Could you describe a little bit more who are the actors, and roles they play in introducing human rights into the built environment? 

[AS]: IHRB has worked with partners to create the “Framework for Dignity in the Built Environment”, which is a blueprint to advance action on human rights. It starts by unpacking the roles of actors around the built environment lifecycle; with inhabitants, construction workers, and tenants in the centre. Moving around the cycle, you have governments – which establish the regulatory framework, make planning and zoning decisions, and engage in public procurement. And you have the role of finance, which plays a determining role that can either advance or move counter to human rights and environmental objectives.

Getting those early policy and finance stages right can create an enabling environment in which architects, designers and construction companies can operate more responsibly. Meanwhile those industries also influence the earlier stages through their policy advocacy and lobbying. Shining a light on the roles and influence throughout the lifecycle can help to move the whole ecosystem in a better direction. 

[ES] It may seem that the way in which the investments within the city are run are not publicly discussed, neither by municipal politicians nor by the community. The media brings up issues like unemployment, the price of energy or water, climate disasters, but their connection to the built environment is overlooked. This is despite the fact that 60% of the World’s assets are in real estate and almost 37% of carbon emissions come from the building sector. Shouldn’t that change?  

[AS]: A big part of my work is to draw attention to that: to the ways in which built environment decision-making is closely tied to many of the major issues such as climate resilience, energy prices, inequality and access to employment.

One of the challenges comes from the fact that it is a complex ecosystem involving multiple actors. And often the most important decisions are being made behind closed doors. Corruption is also a significant obstacle to progress – addressing it is key to unlocking the huge potential of the built environment. But there is progress: recent years have seen a growing spotlight on the role of the buildings sector in the climate crisis for example, while “right to the city” and municipalist movements are elevating the social dimensions, and networks of architects and others are advocating for the economic transformation that is needed to address both of those issues.  

[ES]: What does it mean to be a prosperous city in terms of human rights (and the built environment lifecycle)? How do you imagine it?

[AS]: Imagination is so important, to open up changes in mindset. It also helps to steer day-to-day practice towards longer-term goals. Actually one of the projects that IHRB has underway at the moment – “Building for Today and the Future” is engaging with people in eight cities around the world to imagine what a “just transition” of their built environment would look like, and to open up practical pathways forward.

From my point of view I would imagine a city in which all its people, regardless of their  age, ethnicity, gender, immigration or economic status have the opportunity and agency to lead a healthy and fulfilling life, can encounter pockets of inspiration, and can play a role in shaping the places around them. I would also imagine a space where architects, designers, civil engineers, builders – have scope to harness their skills towards the public good. 

[ES] Do you think that cities would become competitive between each other on those bases?

[AS] Yes, in many places this is happening. We’ve already seen cities in many regions demonstrate how they can be ahead of their national governments in terms of human rights, whether when it comes to welcoming immigrant populations, protecting the rights of workers, taking action on climate change, or taking measures towards the right to adequate housing. There are groups of cities saying that they want to be part of international conversations. One of the reasons is that almost two thirds of the World’s population will soon be living in urban areas, and local governments are close to the needs and aspirations of their residents.

Cities have also formed international networks, like ICLEI, C40, and EuroCities. It’s not only about competing but also about collaborating with each other. For example, the US State Department, ICLEI and Institute of the Americas recently announced a collaboration called “Cities Forward” between US, Caribbean, Mexican and Latin American cities on equitable transitions. Context is really important as well: so that there’s a dynamic conversation between international-level tools and frameworks, and policies that are locally-specific and built from the ground up. 

[ES] Nevertheless it may seem utopian to introduce human rights with building businesses, or politicians. Where should we start in order to achieve changes in the built environment?

[AS] People are often working on human rights issues though may not call it by that name. An example is health and safety in the workplace, or measures to combat  discrimination, which are both core aspects of human rights. And while the idea of human rights is challenged on many levels, if people had not been advocating for rights over time, the situation would be worse today. 

A rights-based framework brings clear guidelines on roles and responsibilities. And while rights were traditionally conceived as checks and balances on the role of governments, given the increased role of the private sector its responsibilities have become more clearly defined too, for example by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Meanwhile the COVID pandemic has demonstrated more clearly than ever the significance of economic and social rights such as the right to health, workers’ rights, and the right to housing. 

For architects and designers in their day-to day work, integrating human rights means changing the kinds of questions you ask from the very earliest stages of projects, around the project’s purpose, who the end-users and impacted communities may be, who is around the table and what could be done differently as a result.

[ES] For architects, their designs are still being considered as a form of art and a form of bringing in revenue, even when most of their work focuses on housing.

[AS] I think that the ways that projects and processes are valued is currently one of the main challenges – and it is also where there is also a lot of opportunity for new thinking. Traditionally the focus of procurement, for example, is narrowly determined by cost and timeframe. Yet a database of 16,000 infrastructure projects globally found that only 8.5% were delivered on time and on budget: so even on that front, projects were failing.  Early action on projects’ purpose for people, and taking steps to mitigate social and environmental risks and unlock new opportunities, can ensure a project is more sustainable in the medium to long-term, and can also reduce the risk of costly disruptions and delays. 

Architects also find themselves in an interesting intermediary role, between end-users and their clients, and, through their career paths, have some agency in the kinds of clients they work for. 

[ES] There is constant growth in today’s economics, differences in purchasing power between classes are still visible and grow bigger – leaning out to the extremes instead of finding balance between them.  Shouldn’t we set up new, opposite to consumptionist, priorities in terms of dignity?

[AS] The growth-at-all-costs paradigm underlines many of the challenges in the built environment: from its outsized climate impacts, to the housing crisis, to the exploitation of workers through supply chains. It is good to see more attention on new forms of value and economic thinking – towards broader definitions, and longer time-frames – with one example being the recent “Beyond Growth” conference in Europe. 

The human rights framework can contribute here, for example keeping a focus on who benefits and who risks loosing out from economic decision-making. And through its concrete definitions grounded in international law, which are important for accountability. I’m thinking of the right to adequate housing, for example, which includes seven core elements like accessibility, habitability, and security of tenure. 

[ES] How does the situation of human rights in the built environment vary from region to region?

[AS] Every region has its own human rights advocates, and work on human rights that needs to be locally-specific,while linking up as relevant to the roles and accountability of international actors and financial flows.  One of the examples in our report “Dignity by Design” is Johannesburg in South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid is reflected in the fabric of the city, and where that legacy needs to be addressed through decisions and changes of paradigms. In the United States, where I live, cities are also often shaped by patterns of deep segregation which take major policy changes to shift. 

In the project I mentioned earlier,  we are purposely paring the cities that we’re looking at. The first pair of cities was Prague and Lagos. They have very different contexts, but the climate transition is happening in both of them and affecting their residents, albeit in different ways. Interestingly, a key insight from Prague was the need for stronger leadership and vision on national and municipal level, which would coordinate across agencies, and ensure finance is flowing to where it is needed. In the context of Lagos, there is quite a lot of top-town climate policy and visioning being introduced, but this can often be disconnected from the priorities of the two-thirds of the cities’ residents who live in informal settlements: so we heard a call for more devolved governance.

[ES] Is there any ethical or political price that a city or country could accept to provide a life with dignity  for its citizens?

[AS] The idea of human rights rests on indivisibility – i.e. that advancing one right should not be at the expense of another right. Therefore in the ideal world the answer would be: no, you can’t trade off one right for another.  In the real world, rights come into tension of course. A dam and reservoir for water is a classical example.  In order to build it and contribute to realizing the right to water for one community, you might be displacing a village or a town, or multiple towns. You might be flooding peoples homes, and erasing people’s way of life. That traces back to the question of a project’s purpose – is there a way to provide access to water, while minimizing displacement? And it’s where  process-related rights come in, such as non-discrimination, meaningful participation, land rights, and free, prior and informed consent.

[ES] Do you think that human rights could be valued in a capitalist and populist society?

[AS] It is important to note, that almost over the last three decades or so there has been a dynamic evolution of rights, to address more directly the role of the private sector as I mentioned above. Yet while the duties of governments are clearly delineated, and the responsibilities of private sector actors, I would add that the intersection between those two is absolutely fundamental. In the recent devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, for example, more lives were lost than needed to have been because of diluted building codes and a lack of enforcement; concessions made in part for political gain.

In the context of rising populism, human rights have an important role in terms of continuing to push to expand the space as much as possible for those who are outside of the mainstream of power at any given time. It’s also important to keep in mind what are some of the underpinnings of rising populism, which include people being economically disconnected from each other and strong levels of inequality. The language of human rights does need to evolve, and become as relevant and connected as possible to people in their daily lives. This is where the practice of “translating” rights into the context of the built environment – the place where people live, work, and interact –  is, I think, fundamentally important.  

[ES] In your report “Dignity by design” you mention that the land is one of scarce resources. How should it be managed?

[AS] This is a big question! Land – and issues of its ownership, planning, and use – underpins so much of people’s experience of and the possibilities of the built environment. The Dignity by Design Framework begins with the “Land” stage of the lifecycle, in recognition of this fact. We have also just begun work to map land ownership patterns in four cities – drawing insights from similar efforts in Cairo, for example – which is a key step in strengthening transparency and accountability of who is shaping the present and future of cities. In terms of how it should be managed, this is context specific but has to involve connecting to the needs of the cities’ residents in the broadest terms, in tandem with environmental sustainability for the future: which ties back to the need to have policy and finance in alignment with those goals.

[ES] Our perception of the world is strongly connected to the idea of private ownership. However in times of ecological and economical crisis should we restrict it? 

[AS] A key part of that question is who is the “we”. In some contexts, expanding ownership to those who have formerly not had access to ownership can lead to an important shift in power-dynamics, while consolidation of ownership can constrain or undermine people’s ability to live lives with dignity. From the exploration of land value tax strategies in Beirut, to community-led housing and land trust models in many regions, to greater awareness of the role of REITs and other financial actors in the housing market, to analysis of patterns of ownership within cities in China – there is growing attention on the scarce resource that is land, and quite how intrinsically the ways in which it is valued and used are connected to the present and future of people, and of the planet.

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