Challenging architects to collaborate on housing needs
Habitat III provides an excellent opportunity for architects to carve out a space at the housing table
As an attendee of the upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Urban Sustainable Development (Habitat III), I am reflecting on the housing challenges and opportunities that we as architects currently face in Chicago. Habitat III recognizes that, by 2050, “the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends and posing massive sustainability challenges in terms of housing, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health, education, decent jobs, safety, and natural resources”. These issues will be discussed and adopted in a document called the New Urban Agenda, which seeks to readdress the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed, and managed.
While all of these issues are interconnected and vital, my focus at the conference will be on the topic of housing—specifically, how housing can address and respond to larger urban issues, and how we as architects can be more involved in creative housing solutions. At its most basic, the New Urban Agenda lays out “the right to adequate housing for all as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living.” Housing is a basic, stabilizing need that allows other facets of living to be met, such as holding a job, attending school, and being healthy. The Agenda commits to promoting and supporting equitable housing policies that in turn strengthen the relationship with the urban fabric, including employment, education, healthcare, and social integration. It also commits to stimulate the supply of a variety of housing options.
Like other communities across the nation, Chicago is grappling with housing inequities like declining resources, excessive rents, gentrification, displacement, population loss and disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, and homelessness. At Habitat III, we have a unique opportunity to discuss, share, and learn how to turn these challenges into opportunities.
Some of the most successful housing projects our firm has worked on were the result of direct community engagement and partnerships between various organizations.
I am pleased to report that Chicago has almost 30 programs in place to stabilize and stimulate housing after the economic collapse of 2008. I regret though, that none of the 200-plus participants involved in the report were architects. As future housing policies are developed, I would challenge all municipalities and architects to collaborate together. I would also challenge architects to engage with communities and local residents to leverage these housing policies into place-making opportunities.
Architects are problem solvers. We are collaborative by nature. We need to be at the table with our ideas. We are a profession that can bring vision and design solutions to policy. Some questions that we can ask are:
- Is housing a basic shelter or can it uplift and inspire?
- What are new models for affordable housing? How do we achieve these?
- How do we understand the process of development? Who are the stakeholders? Who makes decisions? Who should make decisions?
- How do we identify the assets of the community? How do we share community assets? How do we design around these assets?
- How do we link housing opportunities with jobs, sustainability issues, and health issues?
Pursuing change in Chicago
A recent example of an architect-led housing initiative involves AIA Chicago and came in response to Windy City Times and Pride Action Tank’s concern over homeless young adults. The competition brief for a tiny house community was developed by a group of practicing architects with input from social service experts, homeless youth, and policy experts. The competition generated over 200 entries worldwide. Entrants were not limited to architects, but teams of various groups were encouraged to enter. Judges for the competition included a mix of architects, planners, and affordable housing developers.
The winning submission, by architects, consisted of a well-thought out design response to the issue of housing young adults, affordability, sustainability, and neighborhood context. A full-scale model of the winning entry was built for display at a tiny house summit held in Chicago. The competition and summit have inspired local housing developers to further investigate this form of housing. The information gained from the competition and summit is also being used to help inform city officials on code and zoning issues that currently prevent the construction of tiny houses.
At Habitat III, we have a unique opportunity to discuss, share, and learn how to turn these challenges into opportunities.
Some of the most successful housing projects our firm has worked on were the result of direct community engagement and partnerships between various organizations. Projects that are born from the needs of the community have a special strength and seem to affect the immediate neighborhood beyond the need of housing alone. These projects often have goals above that of just shelter (although sometimes shelter is an immediate need that has to be addressed). We never believe that we can come into a community with all the answers, but we must listen and translate the hopes and ideas of the community into a physical reality. We are open to all dialogue and we typically engage with experts who may normally be outside the development world, such as artists, students, journalists, planners, public policy experts, technology experts, health experts, and lawyers.
Our projects may start out complex and messy, but in the end the goals and objectives of the project are clearly and simply manifested in the building design. One of our most important achievements comes when the residents tell us and others that they designed the building.
Although our practice is firmly embedded in working in Chicago neighborhoods, I am excited to attend this global conference and interact with participants working on similar urban issues. At Habitat III, I am challenging myself and other architects to determine how we can leverage policy programs and partner with other creative forces to reimagine what housing can be.
Catherine Baker, AIA, is a principal at Landon Bone Baker Architects. She will serve as a member of the AIA's official delegation to Habitat III, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, on October 17-20.