September 2016 archive

What I learnt this summer

This was probably one of my favourite summers.  Not only was I spared the heat of the desert, I had the opportunity to spend a few months researching active transport in London.  I learnt a great deal from talking to people to find out why on earth anyone would be against improving cycling and walking infrastructure in their neighbourhood.

Some of what I learnt was obvious.  People like to know what’s going on in their area, and they also like to have a say in any major changes that occur.  I didn’t need three months to come to that conclusion.

What I also learnt was that even projects that have obvious environmental, health, and social benefits can go very wrong.  This happens when we fail to ask the question: how does this project affect everyone in society?  Or, more directly, how does it affect the disadvantaged in the society?  How does this impact the existing inequalities in a society?

In the case of the active transport programme I was researching, the impact of the new infrastructure on bus users was not even properly considered, let alone addressed.  In the context of London, this is related to the inequality question because buses are the cheapest and most accessible form of public transport, and cycling is a mode which has recently become associated with the more affluent in society.  By not considering the impact on bus users, the project proponents were not only ignoring the best-practice principle of addressing transport in an integrated way, they were also indirectly neglecting to consider the negative impacts of the scheme on already disadvantaged residents (e.g. the mobility-impaired and the economically disadvantaged, for example).

What really bothered was that I, or any other built environment professional, would have likely made the same mistake.  There is very little in our training and procedures, as an industry, that prompts us to stop and consider socioeconomic equity questions, even when this is one of the biggest challenges facing our cities and nations today.

Over the past decade, with the growing emphasis on environmental sustainability and climate change, the industry has developed such that for many professionals it has become second nature to at least consider the potential environmental impacts of a project.  We have developed a whole range of tools and appraisal techniques to help us with this early thinking, even before we get to meeting standards, client requirements, or voluntary certifications.  It is now hard to imagine a project with significant negative environmental impacts winning any kind of design or construction award.

This is all good news.  What I learnt this summer was that it is very far from enough.  I learnt that we need to develop a similar awareness, sensitivity, understanding and rigour to considerations around social equity.  Are the  plans and projects we are shaping increasing or decreasing the gaps in a particular society? Who are the winners and losers?  Are the losers the same every time?

There are two key challenges that immediately pose themselves when we begin to tackle these questions.  First, sociology is a field which is foreign to all but a few built environment professionals.  The ‘green’ movement introduced the need to calculate energy demand and carbon footprint, as well as energy loads, for example.  But these are all numerical calculations which can be undertaken by the same engineer, with a few weeks of additional training.  Assessing and articulating the social equity impacts of a project, even at a conceptual level, introduces a whole new language and skill set, which currently would most likely not  be available to project teams.

Second, answering these questions requires an intimate knowledge of the society or community in question – what are the critical issues? who are the disadvantaged? how would a plan or project affect their lifestyles?  We cannot afford to spend months researching these questions before we begin any project.  Equally, we cannot continue ignoring them, pretending that we know the answer, or assuming that it is someone else’s problem.  As the private sector continues to take a bigger role in shaping and developing cities, that role needs to include responsibility for the social, as well as the physical, consequences of a plan or project.

I am fully aware that this is a big ask, especially when we are still getting to grips with what we need to do to keep our planet habitable in the face of climate change.  What I learnt this summer was that we have an equally important moral obligation as built environment professionals to understand and address the impact of our work on the growing inequality in our societies.