Become an A&B portal user and receive giveaways!
Become an A&B portal user and receive giveaways!

What are we leaving out? What are we forgetting? What do we not know?

30 of May '23

The conversation comes from A&B 06 | 2023

Every day design consciences are chased by reproaches. Either those generated by the plastic packaging discarded after a lunch eaten on the run, or those of a much larger caliber, related to the question of where our cranking out more square meters of PUM leads. We scour foreign magazines, portals, sites, travel with our finger on the map, making pilgrimages to the next building pearls. We generate design promises and dream that maybe someday our creation too will be visited by pilgrims.

Do we then have to torment ourselves with questions about the number of trees we will devote to the next documentation, the origin of the electricity in the outlet powering our computer and, finally, who and how will live in the housing development we have just designed? Do we have to analyze every line, ask hundreds of uncomfortable questions to every solution? After all, the developer, the investor and the authority have the last word. We talk about modern construction and human rights with Annabel Short.

Edyta Skiba: Could you explain how issues such as dignity are related to construction, architecture and urban spaces?

Annabel Short: It is difficult to find reasons why the areas mentioned would not be related to the issue of dignity. There are many factors that affect the way we can live. Take health, for example, here there are questions about whether people have access to clean, fresh air, drinkable running water, adequate sanitation facilities, a place to live that provides warmth or coolness in a changing climate. In addition to these, we have a number of mental health issues, such as whether people have access to outdoor spaces or whether they feel safe when moving around the city regardless of the time of day. The basis for each of these issues is the assumption that dignity is inherent in every human being, so it is very important that we do not stop asking questions about whether the city, or any of its spaces, is inclusive or segregating, expanding or narrowing the human opportunity to live a dignified life. Realizing that human rights research had not developed much in recent times led me to take an interest in the topic. Analyzing it meant tracing and dissecting the mechanisms of power and decision-making, distinguishing the types of responsibility involved, researching who the actors in the various processes are, the reasons for their interest in particular topics and projects.

Cykl życia środowiska zurbanizowanego

The life cycle of the urbanized environment

© Annabel Short archives

Edyta: Who are and what roles do the main actors in city-making processes play in the application of human rights in the construction sector?

Annabel: As part of our work at the Human Rights Research Institute, we have created a report with our partners, „Guidelines for Integrating Dignity into the Built Environment” (Framework for Dignity in the Built Environment), which is a set of guidelines on how to achieve respect for human rights in this service sector. It designates the main actors involved in the life cycle of buildings—these are residents, construction workers, and residential tenants placed at the heart of the process. Navigating the design cycles within the area delineated by these roles means moving between bodies such as authorities that enact development plans, designate zones and areas for development with different functions. Their decisions are overlaid by the actions of the financial sector, which can promote or prevent respect for human rights or environmental goals. Properly guiding the interests of these two main actors in the early phases of spatial management can create an environment in which architects, planners and construction companies act responsibly. Meanwhile, these groups—by lobbying and acting on the views they promote—can significantly influence decisions made in the first phases of urban projects. Focusing attention on the roles they play in the creation of the city and the life cycle of buildings can help steer the entire building ecosystem in a better, more sustainable direction.

Edyta: It may seem that the topic of how investments are conducted in the city is too uncomfortable to discuss publicly for both local government politicians and city residents. The media raise the issues of unemployment, rising energy or water prices, but their connection to the construction sector is still overlooked. This is despite the fact that about 60 percent of the world's resources are accumulated in the construction industry, and about 37 percent of CO2 emissions come from the same area of human activity. Shouldn't this trend change?

Annabel: A large part of my work is precisely about paying attention to how construction and the decision-making that goes with it are connected to such broad and important topics as climate resilience, energy prices, inequality, including in access to employment. One of the biggest challenges is that the sector is an extremely complex ecosystem involving many diverse actors. Often key decisions are made behind closed doors, and corruption is a huge obstacle to implementing change. Pinpointing the problems and the connections between them, however, is key to unlocking the enormous potential that construction has. Recent years have seen improvements, if only in the growing awareness of construction's impact on climate change. „Right to the City” and grassroots municipal movements are reinforcing the importance of the social dimension of the city, and groups of architects and other activists are advocating for the change in the economic sector needed to make further real changes in each area.

Edyta: So what might a prosperous city that respects human rights look like?

Annabel: Imagination is key here. It helps to be open to changing the way we think, and to maintain a change-oriented course of daily design practice. One of the projects we are currently working on, Building for Today and the Future, focuses on what a „just transformation” of the built environment should look like, and what legal and practical paths we can identify to make its implementation possible. For me, a prosperous city that operates in accordance with human rights is a place where age, background, gender, refugee status or material affluence are not obstacles to living a full life. Where every person can find an inspiring space for themselves and have a say in shaping the space around them. I also envision a city that provides architects, designers and civil engineers with more opportunities to use their skills for the public good.

Edyta: In the future, won't this be one area where cities will compete with each other?

Annabel: Of course, and in many places this is already happening. In many parts of the world, we have seen cities showing that they can get ahead of the government when it comes to welcoming migrants, protecting labor rights, tackling climate change or taking action on adequate housing. You can also find groups of cities that openly declare that they would like to participate in the international debate on human rights and climate change. One reason for this is probably the growing population of cities. Local governments are closest to their residents and know their needs best, so the desire to join the discourse is obvious and understandable. Cities have established international networks for mutual support, such as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), C40 and Eurocities. So it's not just about competition, but more importantly about mutual support and cooperation. A good example is the recently announced collaboration between the U.S. State Department, ICLEI and the Institute of the Americas to develop equitable principles for urban transformation. Equally important is the local context providing a dynamic dialogue between international tools and practices and local policies created from the bottom up.

Edyta: Still, bringing human rights principles to the construction sector may seem like utopia to many. So where should we start to make changes so that they can become a reality?

Annabel: It is important to remember that there are already many people working to introduce human rights in this field, but this may not be happening under the name of a select organization. One of the first steps might be to implement safety and health rules in the workplace or to combat discrimination. Of course, our daily life poses many challenges to the idea of human rights, often calling into question the advisability of the project or the actions taken. However, I constantly say—even to myself—that we owe our current state of awareness and standard of living to those people who have made human rights efforts before us. It can also be a very important step to introduce guidelines to preserve the innate rights of the individual. I also hope that my daily research work contributes to the implementation of human rights in a growing area of the construction sector. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear that the right to adequate housing or mental health is among the key rights, which is also reflected in legislation. International legislation has also proven that private entrepreneurs and governments can work much more closely together. There are, as you can see, various methods to implement cooperation, if only through public procurement law. The architectural doctrine that formed after the end of the Second World War constantly balances governmental and local forces. It is very important that locally driven policies take into account the legal issues and responsibilities of architecture, but also that architecture is aware that it is inextricably linked to the world of local government. In our research, we show that it is always possible to find ways to implement even the most basic human rights. Of course, it's best to start making changes in your own organization, for example, through appropriately shaped questions. This won't always be an easy process, and much depends on who sits down to discuss with us, as well as local contacts, including political ones.

Edyta: For architects, their works are still works of art, for investors they are sources of revenue, even if they are residential buildings.

Annabel: I think the ways in which buildings are evaluated are one of the biggest challenges today, while also creating opportunities to implement new ideas. The traditional focus on acquisition is determined by cost and schedule. However, a database of 16,000 infrastructure projects showed that only 8.5 percent of projects were completed on schedule and on budget, so projects were failing in this area as well. Early action on community, social and environmental mitigation could have unlocked many new opportunities and made the project more sustainable. Architects and architects must find themselves in an interesting, albeit difficult, role between the users of a building and its developer.

Infografika przedstawia kontinuum ryzyka związanego z prawami człowieka i odpowiedzialności w całym cyklu

The infographic depicts a continuum of human rights risks and responsibilities throughout the cycle—the life of the built environment, the interconnectedness of the actors and the points of interaction between them. The distribution of power between these actors largely determines the nature of the built environment—and whether it meets only narrow financial interests or also the needs of users, communities and workers, especially the most vulnerable.

© Annabel Short archives

Edyta: Relentless economic growth is not erasing the differences between social classes, it is actually widening them. Shouldn't we therefore establish new principles or priorities to counter consumerism?

Annabel: The growth-at-any-cost paradigm points to the many challenges facing the construction sector: from abnormal climate change to the housing crisis to worker exploitation and burnout. The structure of human rights can be applied, for example, to track who gains, who risks and who loses on the basis of economically driven decision-making, including by enshrining in international law definitions that are important for accountability. I am thinking here, for example, of the right to adequate housing covering seven basic elements, including accessibility, habitability and security of tenure, among others.

Edyta: How is the issue of human rights in construction changing in different regions of the world?

Annabel:Each region or country has its own advocates working to ensure human rights, in conjunction with local specifics taking into account the role of the various international actors and financial flows. The Dignity by Design report included as an example an analysis of Johannesburg, a city where the legacy of apartheid is strongly reflected in the fabric and where a change in material space can only follow a shift in paradigms. In the United States, where I live, cities are still shaped by segregating patterns that require organizational changes in space and major political changes. In the aforementioned report, we deliberately compare cities being evaluated at the same time, even if they are located on different continents. In the first cycle, we compared Prague in the Czech Republic with Lagos in Nigeria. A key insight from Prague was the need for stronger leadership and a coherent vision at the national and municipal levels coordinated by an agency that distributes funds appropriately to the needs of the community. In the case of Lagos, while quite a few climate policy elements are being introduced, they are operating in isolation from the community, as nearly two-thirds of the city's residents live in settlements without permits. In terms of the green transition, the colonial past and the dynamics of political talk are also important. Equally important are supply dynamics: measures to „green” one sector of the economy can take their cue from exploiting sources in other countries or regions of the world.



pic: Michal Kolodziej

Edyta: Is there an ethical or political price that a city or state can accept in order to provide a decent life for its residents?

Annabel: The idea of human rights is based on their indivisibility—promoting or ensuring one right should not be at the expense of another or other rights. Therefore, in an ideal world, the answer would be: no, you can't trade one right for another. In practice, there are many tensions here, the best example of which is the construction of a dam or other water storage reservoir involving the relocation of a village, town or several cities. Specific people's homes will be flooded, their previous lives will be derailed and they will have to build their identities in new realities. This raises the question of the purpose of the project and its legitimacy. Can it be achieved while minimizing displacement? The issue will also raise questions of non-discrimination, meaningful and qualitative participation, property rights and voluntary and informed consent to change.

Edyta: Are human rights still valued in a capitalist-populist society?

Annabel: It is important to note here that over the past three decades there has been a dynamic evolution of human rights, tying them more strongly to the role of the private sector. Although the responsibilities belonging to the government and the private sector are clearly defined, the intersection of the two areas is an absolutely basic and fundamental issue. Due to the unclear application of building codes and the watered-down verification and enforcement of them, many more people died in the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria than would have died if the law had been respected. In many cases, concessions were made because of political gains. In the context of growing populism, human rights play a very important role in the quest to expand space as much as possible, for those outside the mainstream of power. I think it is worth remembering that the growing populism also has its origins in the economic separation of people. The language of human rights must evolve, become at the same time very relevant to people and close to their daily activities. The practice of „translating” rights into the context of the built environment is, I think, an incredibly important issue.

Edyta: In the „Dignity by Design” report, you mention that land is one of the non-renewable resources. How then should we manage it?

Annabel: That's a great question! The land—and the issues of ownership, planning and use associated with it—is at the heart of many people's experiences and opportunities in the built environment. The Dignity by Design project recognizes land as the most important factor, and it's where the built environment life cycle begins. We have just begun work on mapping the structure of land ownership in four cities, using lessons learned from a similar pilot study conducted in Cairo. How can we strengthen transparency in shaping the present and future of cities, and who is responsible for doing so. How land is managed depends on the local socioeconomic context. The chosen method of management should also be linked to the needs of urban residents, which is linked to the need for consistent policies and funding in line with those goals.

Annabel Short

Annabel Short

© Annabel Short archive

Edyta: The perception of the world is very much tied to private property. Shouldn't it be limited in times of environmental and economic crisis?

Annabel: A key part of this question is who is covered by the term „we.” In some contexts, extending ownership to those who previously did not have access to property can lead to a significant shift in power. Conversely, over-consolidation of ownership can limit or even undermine people's ability to live in dignity. Increasing attention is being paid to the scarce resource that is land. Its importance is being explored, from the land value taxation strategy used in Beirut, to CLT (Community Land Trust) or REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) models and the growing awareness of their role in the housing market, to an analysis of ownership patterns in cities in China—and how it is valued and used.

Edyta: Thank you for the interview.

Interviewed by Edyta Skiba

illustrations: Michal Kolodziej

The vote has already been cast