Our Architecture Ourselves

Our Architecture Ourselves

by Leslie Kanes Weisman

Women’s actions through the years demonstrate that they understand how the appropriation of space is a political act. Access to space is fundamentally related to social status and power. Changing the allocation of space can change society.

For example, on New Year’s Eve of 1971, at a time when radical activism was at the epicenter of the growing women’s movement, 75 women took over an abandoned building owned by the City of New York. They declared that they intended to “put into action with women those things essential to women — health care, child care, food conspiracy, clothing and book exchange, gimme women’s shelter, a lesbian rights center, inter-arts center, feminist school, drug rehabilitation…. 

In 1978, 5,000 women turned to the streets at nightfall in San Francisco to protest violence against women in the first “Take Back the Night” march. And for three decades, brave women have stood their ground as enraged right-to-lifers picketed and bombed abortion clinics across the U.S.

Feminist spatial consciousness can guide the quest to achieve social justice and environmental sustainability. The built environment exists fundamentally as the expression of an established social order. If we could build anew our cities, suburbs, workplaces and dwellings to create socially just and healthy communities, what would they look like?

Declaring Housing as a Human Right

As a starting point, the socially just community guarantees every person adequate housing, not as a “gift”, but as an entitlement, a matter of human decency and dignity. This community supports three essential qualities: diversity and social equity; health and environmental soundness; safety and mobility.

First, this socially just community promotes human diversity and social equity by providing a wide spectrum of housing options, both owned and rented, that enable people of different incomes, ages, cultures, races, lifestyles, physical abilities and household types to live within a single neighborhood or district.

Zoning laws permit communal living in single-family neighborhoods so that those with lesser financial resources can pool together and have more choices. Permitting affordable apartments in suburban houses leverages new living units from existing housing stock instead of building on increasingly scarce open land.

Discrimination by Design by Leslie Kanes Weisman

The units of housing are dynamic and adaptable over time in response to changing needs. Within the dwelling, the relationships and uses of various rooms are non-specific, lending themselves equally well to bedrooms, living rooms, workshops or offices. Kitchens permit several people to cook together.

Buildings are flexibly used, too. A church serves as a public auditorium, the deck of a parking garage as a concert space on summer nights. As the needs of the community change, buildings are adapted accordingly: a warehouse is converted to apartments, a single-family house to a collective home.

This community offers high quality public daycare as an essential public service, supported by taxes in the same way that public schools are. Local governments provide incentives to developers who create amenities and services — parks, grocery stores, Laundromats and community centers.

Making Health an Essential Component of Communities

Second, the socially just community supports human and environmental health. Dangerous, substandard housing is replaced with adequate and affordable housing.
Public buildings and private dwellings are accessible for people with disabilities. Buildings are designed and built with non-toxic materials to make them safe, especially for those with environmental sensitivities.

Architecture is responsive and resistant to the effects of local climate. Traditional single-family houses are retrofitted to higher standards of energy consumption. The passage of affordable energy laws guarantee that people are able to both afford their mortgage or rental payment and their monthly utility bills.

A neighborhood wellness center provides preventive medical care for all residents. A grassroots wellness corps coordinates with other community organizations to prevent environmental health problems from air pollution, water contamination, exposure to lead-based paint, asbestos and toxic dumping. Income-generating neighborhood recycling teams transform refuse into cash by collecting, sorting and selling household and commercial waste to local recycling centers.

In addition, every neighborhood contains a garden park that provides connections with nature, recreation, gardening, picnics, places for children and adolescents to play, spaces for horticultural therapy and opportunities for neighbors to meet and work together.

Supporting Safety and Mobility

Third, the socially just community promotes safety and independent mobility.

The fear of crime and violence destroys one of the most important elements necessary for inclusive communities — the assumption that strangers on the street are potential allies, not assailants. In the socially just community, neighborhoods are well lit and both feel and are safe. Safety audits and walk-abouts are conducted by diverse user groups, including women, children, disabled and older people. They review accessibility, standards of lighting, signage and security in public buildings, parking garages, train stations and parks.

In this community, public transit, pedestrian and bicycle systems maximize access and mobility for people of all ages, abilities and incomes, while reducing dependence on automobiles. Transportation systems are safe, accessible and affordable. Scheduled and routed transportation supports different travel patterns. Transit authorities permit drivers to do demand stops at night and on routes where there have been assaults.

Finally, all members of our larger human family feel welcome in the socially just community because our collective “civic home” provides clean and safe public toilet facilities, water for washing and drinking, and streets and parks with benches and shade trees where people can rest without fear of being turned away.

Dwelling in the Interdependent Future

These ideas are not merely Utopian fantasies. They can be partially found in numerous experiments including the late 19th- and early 20th-century garden cities and new towns that were planned in England; the socialist Utopian communities that were established during the same era in Europe and North America, and the co-housing developments built in Sweden, Denmark and, since the late 1980s, in the United States.

In the suburbs, they can be found in Radburn, located in Fairlawn, New Jersey, designed in 1929 as a comprehensively planned community that would foster neighborly involvement and protect children from the dangers of the increasingly omnipresent automobile. And at the urban scale, in Curitiba, a city that became the ecological capital of Brazil with a garbage separation program and innovative public bus system that reduced the need for private cars. These and countless unnamed examples affirm the fact that re-mapping the geography of our established social order is certainly possible, although incredibly complex and slow.

If we are to create a sustainable and just future in which all people, indeed all living things matter, then we will have to move beyond the politics of human and environmental exploitation that defined the twentieth century. The built environment is not easily changed until society changes. To achieve a socially just environment, we need to recognize the interdependence of humanity, the natural world and the built environment.

Leslie Kanes Weisman is Emerita Professor and former Associate Dean of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a long-time feminist and community activist, and the author of the award winning book Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man Made Environment (University of Illinois Press).

Also see Poetry in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.com.

See Whatever Happened to Nora? Women’s Fears Left Huddling on A Grate by Alexis Greene in the Fall 2008 Edition of On The Issues Magazine.com.