This inspiring interview is part of the Build Back Better series in which thought leaders and change agents take a close look at how we might rebuild our cities after the pandemic. Indeed, cities have long been considered the center of the world. As engines of culture, knowledge and community, they are dreamy and attractive. However, they are now at the center of crises of public health and racial inequality.
The health crisis we are currently experiencing and the multiple protests we are seeing in the streets of our cities show us the urgency and the need to intervene. The question is: How can our cities also be engines of equality and inclusion?
The interview was conducted by TED Design curator Chee Pearlman with the intervention of Helen Walters, Head of the curation at TED. Through his answers, the architect, urban planner and educator Vishaan Chakrabarti proposes three points, to put people at the center when we design solutions for our cities.
Faced with the current situation, rather than opting for predictions of what might happen after the health crisis we face, Vishaan Chakrabarti prefers to think about how to overcome the dual challenges of the pandemic and the deep-rooted discrimination in our societies. This is primarily about the racism that the Black Lives Matter movement has made so clear to the world. And these two challenges are indeed linked because communities of color have not been taken care of in the same way as others and have therefore suffered more.
The architect advocates a new narrative, a discourse of generosity. In general, cities are subject to a system that is conducive to the prosperous and hostile to people in other parts of the economy. So, we should change our approach by focusing on the equitable, the sustainable and the achievable. And for this, the architect proposes an urban equity program based on three components.
Equitable Housing and Health
For Vishaan Chakrabarti, the issue of housing is very important because not only does it affect a significant number of people, but more importantly, it is primarily about essential workers and communities of color. They cannot afford to live in decent housing, which is already unaffordable and continues to skyrocket.
As a result, they are forced to live farther and farther away from their workplaces. This problem raises discrimination, but also the lack of housing in our cities. The architect also deplores the loss of the spirit of diversity and exclusivity that make cities interesting and thanks to positive social friction.
Pointing to the rise of teleworking and the influence this phenomenon may have on the demand for office space, he proposes to think about how housing policy could change in the future. For example, old buildings and offices could be transformed into affordable housing for the homeless and low-income people under the direction of the government.
There are also brownfields, rail yards and other similar places in our cities that could be exploited to build mixed-income, affordable and accessible housing. Vishaan Chakrabarti is convinced that improving access to quality housing for all will lead to better health for all because people will have a better living environment and be less stressed.
Sustainable urban mobility
One of the things people are most concerned about is the widespread use of private cars as our cities evolve. Public transportation has unfortunately received a bad label, especially in the case of carpooling. It would be very important to make public transport safer.
This is not the most important thing that attracts the attention of the architect, he insists on the fact that most of our cities have about 30% of their territory devoted to roads. A situation that imposes to take a step back and reflect because the majority of this road space is used by private vehicles today.
In response to this problem in the spirit of equity and ecology, the architect proposes to use this portion of the territory for public transportation, primarily the express bus. There would also be a question of using soft modes of transportation such as walking and biking, which have proven to be a very effective means of transportation in the company’s environment. These modes of transport can be developed in such a way as to allow people to keep their social distances.
By comparing the space that a person in a car takes up with a bicycle or a pedestrian, we quickly understand that the problem that arises is essentially spatial. No matter if the car is autonomous, electric or otherwise, it takes up too much space per person.
For architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, we have enough space in our cities to move around much more efficiently, ecologically and above all in a way that is much more pleasant for people in terms of quality of life if we simply give more of our streets to people as opposed to cars.
Accessible social and cultural resources
Regarding the social and cultural life in our cities, the architect leads reflections related to the chain stores that also take more and more space in the city centers. We could therefore reduce the number of chain stores and better valorize these spaces by building educational institutions, pop-up libraries, in short, social and educational infrastructures.
Such facilities are necessary to fulfill the need for social cohesion in their communities through, for example, vocational training and education of the elderly. The streets of our cities will be better and people will live together in harmony.
For architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, this new urban equity program also relies on a different kind of budget allocation. Indeed, in the face of economic crises, it will certainly be necessary to borrow more money. But this money will have to be used wisely to build social and cultural infrastructure. It is also a question of knowing how to invest the money available to the municipalities in the staff to overcome the social need.