The Census Bureau just released its latest statistics from 2008 on, amongst other things, poverty. In an article on making housing more accessible to the poor, I cited some older statistics to highlight the much-neglected need. Too often, people focus on the “other” poor, those living in developing nations because it is easier than examining those who are impoverished in our own urban centers.
So here are some selected statistics. The percentage of families that are 125% below the poverty level of $11,000/year is at 14.2%. Of these, Euro-Americans comprise the largest cohort, though this should not be surprising since they also comprise the largest population of the United States. But what is more distressing is that people of color comprise less than 1/3 of the total population (and they are predominantly African- American and Latino, who comprise about 80% of the non-Euro-American population), yet the percentage of those families who are 125% below the poverty level is at 29% and 23% respectively. Even more disturbing is that 1/3 of the impoverished are comprised of children. And it is no surprise that the majority of these impoverished peoples live in our urban centers. Segregated urban centers.
What’s more, as Barbara Ehrenrich demonstrated in her book, Nickel and Dimed, those who are impoverished are not simply “lazy” nor “looking for handouts.” Instead, once they are caught in a cycle of poverty, it is almost impossible for many of these people to extract themselves from it because what they really need (and we have all experienced this) is an infusion of money. It is, after all, about cash flow. Perhaps an example that is more easily understood is overdraft charges. Once one’s bank account is significantly overdrawn, it becomes much more difficult to get out of that predicament because the cycle of $34/transaction overdraft fees begin to add up too quickly.
What does this have to do with architecture? For that, we turn to Edward Soja, Distinguished Professor at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning at the School of Public Affairs. A little background, Dr. Soja received his Ph.D. in Geography, so his education is not, strictly speaking, in Architecture. But his proposals and re-conceptions on how to understand space and social justice and injustice have much to do with what architects can do. What’s more, Dr. Soja rejects passivity. Indeed, he states clearly in his latest book, Seeking Spatial Justice, that one of his intents is to inspire activism. There can be no excuse for doing nothing.
So what can architects do? Can they become more involved in this issue? Yes. There have been a few attempts already. The Congo Street Initiative and the Make It Right Foundation are two such examples. The problem with these is that they focus on single structures, often one at a time, rather than a comprehensive urban vision of a region such as Dr. Soja suggests. What’s more, they are often too enamored of technological or architectural advances, rather than listening to community residents. As one World Economic Forum report has argued, the most effective, sustainable growth has been occurring in Developing Nations using existing technology because often, Research and Development and other hi-tech devices and strategies are not cost-effective. What is are using passive technologies to build not just more cost-effective, as well as efficient spaces, but to think on a larger scale than merely single structures or buildings. The focus should therefore shift towards dense urban zones that are overpopulated, under-serviced, and over-densified in comparison to suburban zones.
Architects can also become more involved in their communities. Too often, limiting oneself to architecture-based volunteer organizations comprises the outer limits of architecture “activism.” That includes such things as teaching elementary students about the potential “greatness” of architecture, or of participating in a once-a-year city clean-up effort that is rewarded by a t-shirt proclaiming one’s activism.
But real involvement could change the trajectory of our urban [in]justice. That requires working with community activists and leaders who are directly effected by what Dr. Soja insists must be recognized as discriminatory: location in space. Architects can work with community activists and leaders, as well as politicians, to re-vision and reshape our urban centers, precisely to offer the access and services Dr. Soja identifies. That means one must address fundamental human needs such as access to decent housing, proper health services, good education, as well as access to other services such as grocery stores and banks (2010: 50-4). The uneven distribution of these services results from a geographical production and consumption that privileges certain regions while completely neglecting others. And not surprisingly, those who reside in dense urban zones who suffer most from this injustice are predominately of color.
Poverty is a fundamental problem, in developed and developing nations and because of their training, architects are uniquely positioned to join the vanguard of instituting a more spatially-defined urban justice.
Sherin Wing is an independent scholar. She received her Ph.D. in the Humanities from UCLA. She has published articles on issues and subjects ranging from the economy and architecture to social and cultural history. She is also a frequent contributor to Metropolis, Architect Magazine and other publications. You can follow Sherin on Twitter @xiayings.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...