Workbook tackles injustice – and carbon – in built environment

To preserve affordable homes and help families build intergenerational wealth, the city of San Antonio, Texas, enlists contractors and volunteers to help lower-income residents restore windows, repair gutters and address other issues in aging homes.

Another community-based organization in the city is working with local university researchers to search for evidence of racial bias among demolition orders, while creating and supporting affordable housing through historic preservation.

The programs are examples of how communities can promote justice and equity while supporting sustainability goals, which is the focus of “Embodying Justice in the Built Environment: Circularity in Practice,” published April 15 by College of Architecture, Art and Planning researchers in collaboration with the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) and community partners.

The guide and workbook seek to help policymakers, practitioners and communities center justice principles while implementing strategies related to materials resource management, new construction and alternatives to demolition.

“It’s important that we engage in holistic and sustainable efforts to reduce carbon and work towards carbon-neutral futures,” said Jocelyn Poe, Provost New Faculty Fellow, visiting assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, and director of the Reparative Praxis Lab. “We can’t do that unless we center justice and equity in these efforts.”

San Antonio’s Rehabarama program and the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice’s efforts are just two of nine examples across the country highlighted in the guide. Others include a Savannah, Georgia, nonprofit that promotes deconstruction and material salvage and reuse while documenting building histories. A Portland, Oregon, program helps people of color and people with disabilities respond to code violations, while a Baltimore, Maryland, nonprofit is led by Black women who work to rehabilitate and buy homes in a historically disenfranchised neighborhood.

Tracy Morgenstern, director of climate justice at CNCA, an international group of cities working to achieve carbon neutrality, said the workbook is a “groundbreaking” resource that deepens knowledge of justice in the built environment and provides practical planning guidance.

“The injustices embedded in the built environment’s form and function have shared root causes with the climate crisis,” Morgenstern said. “Integrated planning practices are needed, then, to repair past harm to our communities and environment and advance a healthier, more just and carbon-neutral future.”

The built environment is responsible for more than 40% of annual global CO2 emissions, according to the nonprofit Architecture 2030. It has been shaped by systems of social, economic and political injustice, the authors write, evident in disproportionate access to safe, healthy and affordable housing; displacement of long-term residents and businesses; lack of proximity to services and good schools; exposure to toxins; and human rights and labor abuses in the production of raw materials.

“Linear construction processes that build and then throw away the built environment are extractive environmentally and socially,” said Jennifer Minner, associate professor of city and regional planning and director of the Just Places Lab. “‘Embodying Justice’ highlights systems-based, circular approaches that work toward both carbon neutrality and justice – promoting preservation, refurbishment and adaptive reuse as alternatives to demolition, for example, and more equitable maintenance and code enforcement policies.”

The authors identified five justice principles related to the built environment: that it is reparative, concerned with making right what has been wronged; fair, equitably distributing benefits and burdens; community-driven, centering historically oppressed and marginalized communities; grounded in a specific community context; and ongoing. With that foundation, the workbook encourages examination of the built environment’s social, economic and labor impacts, as well as opportunities informed by meaningful community engagement and rooted in local historical knowledge.

“Along all moments of the process, the workbook triggers questions related to justice and equity,” said Felix Heisel, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture and director of the Circular Construction Lab. “Viewing reuse and circularity only through the lens of carbon neutrality may be missing a lot of other benefits. This is an exciting moment to expand the lens and consider how circularity can help build a more just society.”

The workbook builds upon CNCA’s framework for dramatically reducing embodied carbon in construction. In addition to Poe, Minner and Heisel, Cornell co-authors included Ash Kopetzky and Maya Porath, doctoral students in the field of city and regional planning, and Gretchen Worth, program director of the Ithaca, New York-based Susan Christopherson Center for Community Planning. Additional partners within the Circularity, Reuse, and Zero Waste Development (CR0WD) network and CNCA members provided input and feedback.

The project team will host a webinar at noon on May 22.

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Jeff Tyson