Architects can help reduce global poverty

Quito, Ecuador - Habitat III

Quito, Ecuador, home of the upcoming Habitat III conference and potential catalyst for solutions to urban problems worldwide.

The acting chief resilience officer for the City of Tulsa expresses her hopes for urban solutions at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador

As the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III) approaches, our hope as architects is that it will provoke a much-needed global discussion about issues such as poverty and affordable housing. Often, it's those conversations and the sharing of information that brings important messages to the forefront.

As an example: I recently learned that, as measured in the 2010 census, Tulsa, Oklahoma has a 20 percent poverty rate. Though that information was always available—and even though I've been in and around architecture in Oklahoma for the past 25 years—it wasn't until I started working under the umbrella of resilience that I discovered this fact or thought to dissect it as a problem that could and should be solved.

Previously, my work was focused on designing for clients who often paid little regard to a context bigger than the project site and the site directly adjacent. As years progressed, the concept of sustainability emerged and started a global discussion of the world’s finite resources and how what we design relates to the bigger picture. And now, as acting chief resilience officer for the City of Tulsa, I have an even greater interest in the social equity and long-term viability of our urban centers and their inhabitants.

While there are trail-blazing clients that demand sustainability and resilience to be integrated into their programs and projects, it has long been a struggle to get the majority to care about all aspects of the triple bottom line: people, planet, and prosperity. Prosperity is often the only one considered, which leads to cost concerns and the removal of most sustainable or resilience measures from the project.

Mary Kell, AIA, the acting chief resilience officer for the City of Tulsa, will be representing the AIA as part of the delegation attending Habitat III in Quito,

While it seems logical to focus on the project budget, not long-term maintenance costs or low impact design, we as architects need to take on a larger role in guiding efforts that help solve the world's real problems. We are used to providing design solutions for clients with money, but what about those who most need but can least afford our services?

The right statistics can help reinforce how urgent these issues are already. Some key statistics for Tulsa are as follows:

  • 20 percent poverty
  • 7.7 percent unemployment
  • 88.6 percent high school graduation rate
  • 11.0 percent disabled
  • 23.5 percent without health insurance
  • 8.3 percent with no vehicle available

Other measurements—such as percentages of people in need of affordable housing, those who are homeless, and those with mental illness—are not as easily found but remain key parts of the equation. How can stakeholders come together to actively solve these problems, all of which contribute or are directly related to a community’s poverty rate?

In the case of poverty, as hard it seems to solve, it'll take improvements in several of those related areas to find a solution. With deliberate and focused efforts from the right groups of stakeholders, we can put in the work needed to erase what took years to create.

In Tulsa, we’ve formed partnership agencies such as A Way Home for Tulsa and pursued initiatives like Zero: 2016 in an effort to lessen the factors that contribute to crippling poverty rates and homelessness. While our city may not be indicative of all urban centers worldwide, we believe our strategies are at least the beginning of—or contributions to—the conversation on future urban development. Because resilience isn’t just about proactively planning for extreme weather-related disasters; it’s about solidifying and connecting our communities and keeping our residents as strong as the structures themselves.

My hope is that Habitat III will address and provide scalable real-world solutions to the issues that weaken our cities, issues that are very much a part of the built environment and influenced by our work.

Mary E. Kell, AIA, is the acting chief resilience officer for the City of Tulsa. 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.

Image credits

Quito, Ecuador - Habitat III

Scipio via Flickr

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