Diverse City: Misogyny and the Environment

23 Oct 2006 - Viewpoint

By Yasmin Shariff 23 October 2006

An Inconvenient Truth- DSA director Yasmin Shariff sets out the challenges of misogyny and climate change We are at the cross roads of history. We cannot afford to have such an unrepresentative profession alienated from society. Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world’s scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.  Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, on the global climate change crisis we face demonstrates eloquently this alarming state of affairs.

Diverse City is a hugely successful international exhibition. The organisers and contributors are to be congratulated for producing such an informative and spectacular show which has grown from strength to strength.

In celebrating this work we should not forget that the exhibition is here because there is a need to promote women and people from the ethnic minorities as they are grossly under represented. Statistics on the RIBA website reveal that in 2006 only 11% of chartered members are women and there is no official figure from the Architects Registration Board with regard to ethnic minorities.

We are at the cross roads of history. We cannot afford to have such an unrepresentative profession alienated from society. Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world’s scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.  Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, on the global climate change crisis we face demonstrates eloquently this alarming state of affairs.

The main cause of climate change is the way we live. Homo Erectus in the 21st century lives mainly in cities- we are now Homo Urbanus. At no time in history has it been more important to increase the performance of our built environment to enable us to live ecologically and harmoniously on this planet. The EU has agreed to reduce its emissions by 8% below 1990 levels for the first Kyoto commitment period 2008-2012.  Within this, the UK must reduce its CO2 emissions by 12.5% and has set a domestic ambition of 20% by 2010 and 60% by 2050.

In Britain under 14% of our land is urbanised yet the built environment and transportation, accounts for over 75% of CO2 emissions. This is at a time when it is possible to build housing that needs no heating and technology enables us to work anywhere and at any time. We understand the science of climate change and there is no technological reason why we cannot effectively address the issues and reduce emissions to an acceptable level. National statistics show that despite this technological ability we are emitting greenhouses gasses, filling landfill and depleting natural resources at a rate unprecedented in history.  The Inconvenient Truth is that we cannot tackle climate change without a radical re-evaluation of our land use and the quality of our built environment.

The history of any piece of architecture is bound up with the history of the parcel of ground on which it stands.

Reyner Banham

We will soon have no ground to stand on if we do not act quickly and effectively. With the urgency of the Al Gore film fresh in my mind I was looking forward to hearing Kate Barker at the RIBA East awards ceremony two weeks ago, talk about her work on the Land Use Reform Review thinking that it might tackle some of the critical issues of climate change and sustainable development. To my horror it became highly apparent to me that the review echoes the fundamental prejudice in government against architects and a lack of understanding that poor quality built environments are one of the root causes of social unrest, poor economic performance and high levels of carbon emissions.   The Barker report focuses on the speed and efficiency of getting applications through the planning system rather than the quality of what is being produced.

Kate Barker is not the only person in government who treats architecture as something superficial. The legacy of the 1960s and the decimation of architects departments in local government have emasculated architects.  They are underrepresented in all facets of policy and decision making. It is criminal that the Sustainable Development Commission does not have a single architect on its board.  Arrogant starchitecture abhorred by most is the creation of unrepresentative profession that has alienated itself. I believe that in taking positive steps to make the profession more diverse and representative will enable it to contribute effectively to meet the challenge of climate change and social unrest.

So there are two more Inconvenient Truths we need to come to confront: the prejudice against architects and the prejudice by architects within the profession.

Architects are the only profession who have a holistic training and skills to deliver high quality environments. The new library building, the exhibition and projects put forward for the RIBA awards demonstrate the breathtaking skills and abilities of our architects in a highly prejudiced climate. If we train architects for 7 years and then do not use them because of our prejudices it is not surprising that we end up with the polluting, puerile volume house built coffins for the living dead. Cutting greenhouse gasses and tackling our social problems, particularly in urban areas requires smarter design and more innovation not historic homes of the future. We can no longer afford not to have our homes, neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities designed by architects- the price we are paying socially, economically and environmentally is far more than we can afford.

The profession can no longer afford to be a profession for the privileged. The 20% vote for a presidential candidate who is both racist and sexist is unacceptable and highlights the need for a wake up call. Women, despite their reproductive functions are able to make an equal contribution. Professions such as law and medicine have for some time achieved a 50:50 gender split. It is high time the architectural profession stopped making excuses and started tackling this problem- and it is a major problem- of gender imbalance.

I will conclude with some thoughts on the prejudice against ethnic minorities which is more insidious. It is time that the ARB collected statistics on the ethnic make up of registered architects so that we can work towards a more representative profession, able to tackle the very serious social and economic issues we have in our urban areas. Many of you will probably think this is a minor irritation not worth worrying about and if they are talented they will register just like anyone else- there are no barriers- look at Sunand, or Zaha. Why should this sector be given special treatment?

At the start of this talk you will remember I spoke about Homo Erectus evolving into Homo Urbanus. The most significant issues that we need to deal with, with regard to the growth in our economy, our safety, security and climate change are in urban areas. Most of our major urban areas have high concentrations of people from ethnic minorities. The Enterprising People Enterprising Places, a report prepared for the Chancellor by the National Employment Panel in advance of the 2005 Budget summarised that:

In the decade between 1999 and 2009, 50 per cent of the growth in the UK workforce will come from ethnic minority communities.2 In such major urban areas asLondon, Birmingham and Leicester, ethnic minorities now constitute a third of the population; in many inner-city neighbourhoods, they represent a substantial majority and are the backbone of thriving local economies.

In the UK’s largest cities, ethnic minorities hold the key to future productivity and economic growth. Their active participation in the labour market will be pivotal to

meeting the challenge of demographic change – to offsetting the declining number of young people and the large numbers of skilled, White workers who will be retiring within the next decade. And because these urban hubs are the principal drivers of the nation’s economy, the inclusion of ethnic minorities at every level of our workforce is not simply an issue of fairness or social justice; it is central to our future prosperity.

We must work together. We have a decade to minimise the impact of climate change. Using the talents of our diverse peoples will enable us to meet this challenge.

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