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  • Writer's pictureMatthijs Melchiors

Social Equity and Architecture matter at MEL/ARCH

Today, nowhere is immune to housing crises: Developed and developing nations; cities, suburbs, and rural areas; prosperous regions and economically struggling ones. And there’s a common refrain echoing around the world: housing is a human right. However, that’s far from being a reality. How in the face of considerable population, financial, regulatory, and spatial hurdles can we boost supply to those who need it and do it in a considered, successful way?

“Housing as Intervention: Architecture towards Social Equity,” a recent volume of Architectural Design, explains how architects around the world are responding to social equity and justice issues through housing.

Today we are experiencing unprecedented increases in urban populations. Globalized investment in luxury housing, combined with the withdrawal of public funding from social housing provisions in Western countries and forced migration due to conflict and disaster worldwide has led to precarious housing conditions for wide swathes of society. Severe income inequality is making housing insecurity impossible for even the upper classes to ignore...housing has become unaffordable for middle-class residents all over the world.

By addressing housing’s intersections with rapid urbanization, mass migration, public health, economic strength, affordability, inclusion, identity, and new funding mechanisms, we can outline avenues for architects who actually want to make a difference.

Center the conversation about social equity around housing

Social inequity is the product of large-scale political and economic systems that will have to change to make broad sweeping improvements. But that doesn’t mean architects are fighting a losing battle.

There are opportunities for more space to build by examining land in a new way and more 3 dimensional way. We need to investigate how policy change can allocate more buildable space for housing and new construction strategies can leverage that land more effectively.

When we embark on new projects, we often frame them through the lens of how much design can address racial disparities in the city. While the social, economic, and health equity issues are incredibly complex, better-designed, more affordable housing can play an important role in addressing them. Housing is central to our lives, cities, and economies. We can lead healthy, fulfilling lives only when we have a stable home; housing makes up the majority of our cities’ built environment; and housing is central to global financial markets as well as personal budgets. So for architects who want to make increased social impacts, housing is a critical site of intervention.”

Scale up ambitions

One lesson I have learned is that we can do better. Architects are leading excellent work in housing, but there are so many economic and political factors that make our work difficult. We as a community have a lot to learn from international housing examples.

Stop looking for the silver bullet

In high price locations such as California, architects are exploring how accessory dwelling units (ADUs) can increase the availability of affordable homes through context-appropriate density in single-family neighborhoods. In other areas experts and designers are experimenting with resilient multi-family developments in flood zones. Development agencies in overseas are experimenting with flexible building prototypes to fill the gap between rapid urbanization and limited construction capacity. In Mexico, architects are finding ways to personalize affordable housing in the wake of a federal building program that added millions of standardized homes, but in a way that erased local culture.

As these housing challenges and solutions show, no two situations are the exactly the same.

It would be naive to think that any one approach to greater social equity through housing would offer the answer. unfortunately most equitable housing solutions and design processes prove as diverse as the problems they address.

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