What’s Vital Now? is an online series that will share voices from different communities, sectors and disciplines, on what we can do to create more inclusive and sustainable places that bring people together while responding to the needs and aspirations of our diverse communities.
Co-authored by Umi Lovecraft Baden-Powell and Neba Sere
What if… we felt we belonged? image created by Neba Sere & Umi Lovecraft B-P
Girls like us are not supposed to become architects. 95% of British architects are white, 75% male and 97.5% from advantaged backgrounds. This is a ‘diversity crisis’ that spans age, gender, race, sexuality, culture, belief, class, situation, neurodiversity and physical impairment. This crisis festers in architectural education, the profession and the built environment itself. Identity is a fundamental and powerful determinant of the way we build our cities and subsequently how well they serve local populations. So with such a huge influence on the way we live our lives, why are we leaving it to such a small privileged demographic of society to shape and drive?
In the UK, micro and small businesses often led by women and people of colour have been economically hit disproportionately by the pandemic and may struggle to survive. Ironically, often these businesses understand the lived experience of being marginalised and therefore hold the compassion required to reconstruct and collectively heal spatial inequality. Embracing difference has the potential to help us design shared environments and community infrastructure that everyone can benefit from. In order to reach this necessity we must first identify our failures and acknowledge our responsibilities – as architects, designers and built environment practitioners are we complicit in contributing to the structural racism, planned segregation and inequalities in our cities? Yes. After hundreds of years of the same unsustainable way of building, who are we really building for?
Considering our cities with a decolonial lens shows us that although the connections between empire and the built environment run deep, this story is rarely represented within mainstream discourse. We conveniently forget the architecture, spatial planning, and the social order of plantation slavery. We forget the designed segregation of apartheid. We omit the dark truth that draining down the wealth of Britain’s colonies before granting independence funded the founding of the welfare state…
There is a vast array of evidence that shows us that architecture needs to start addressing some of these issues. The new civil rights movements in the US is a key response. Closer to home we’ve witnessed the backlash against a host of ‘regeneration’ projects in the likes of Brixton Market, Seven Sisters Market, Ridley Road Market that are displacing local diversity. 45% of London residents are ‘minorities’, in boroughs such as Newham this rises to 82%. If we expect politicians to be representative of our communities, why should our design teams be so unreflective of our inhabitants?
Emerging channels of radical discourse such as Black Females in Architecture, The Paradigm Network, Sound Advice, Muslim Women in Architecture, New Architecture Writers (NAW), PoOR Collective, Matri Archi(tecture), Decolonise Architecture UK and our ‘decolonising architecture?’ series represent a new movement of underrepresented built environment practitioners intending to decolonise our cities and diversify who builds them. Through the collective development of an action plan to diversify our sector there is a key opportunity to catalyse equity through healthy city creation. This has the potential to reduce the adverse effects of exclusion and discrimination to ensure ‘healthy’ developments serve a diverse local population both spatially, economically and socially.
It’s about time that we stop seeing difference and change as a threat rather than an opportunity!
Umi Lovecraft Baden-Powell is the Founding Director of insider-outsider, a Design Specialist in Place Shaping & Community Led Design with the Design Council & Neba Sere is the co-founder of Black females in Architecture & Senior Project Officer at the GLA.
 The guardian article 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jul/03/architecture-people-from-social-housing-should-build-cities
 Regeneration Songs: Sounds of Investment and Loss from East London by Alberto Duman, 2018
 Office for National Statistics, 2019: Research report on population estimates by ethnic group and religion
 London Assembly press release, June 2020: Mayor introduces risk assessment for BAME staff