Rethinking equity in the built environment

The house next door to mine was torn down. My neighbors don’t quite remember the year, but the resident local historian, Maurice, who has lived on the block since the late 60s, was shipped off to Vietnam and, upon his return in 1972, the house had vanished. The product of “slum clearance” on Chicago’s west side, the home’s demolition was swiftly met by the efforts of Maurice’s mother, Audrey, who took to the land with a shovel, bulbs, and saplings. The lot soon became a garden: a grassy oasis that grows apples, roses, and other flora. A place that could have been yet another vacant lot became a gift for the people of our block.

I imagine that if I asked Audrey who the city is for, she’d say: “It’s for everyone.” And she made her own corner of this city just that.

I wax poetic about the garden next door because, as a critic who writes about the built environment, it is a blessing to be able to attend to such seemingly minor interventions designed and built by seemingly minor actors. Where I place my attention speaks volumes about my values. Blair Kamin’s new book begins with that same question in the title: Who is the City For? It’s a collection of 55 previously published reviews from his 28 years as the Chicago Tribune architecture critic, featuring new photographs by Sun-Times editorial board member, independent photographer, and author Lee Bey. The book assembles a menagerie of evaluations of some of the city’s most prominent projects: the Chicago Riverwalk, Maggie Daley Park, the 606, among others. He also includes commentary on the role of appointed commissioners and political powers in shaping our city. But I finished the book without a clear answer to the question at hand. Instead, I walked away with a different inquiry: What is the purpose of built environment criticism?

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The reviews are divided into five sections, each addressing different themes related to “the public realm.” Each review includes a postscript that updates the project with current information. I won’t spend time parsing through each review—all capture Kamin’s memorable watchdog ethos that had architects fuming or trembling every week.

But I turn my attention to his introduction, wherein Kamin attends to the fundamental question of who the city is for, through the premise of equity. 

“What can architecture, traditionally the provenance of the rich and powerful, do to make cities like Chicago more equitable, serving poor, working, and middle-class people, not just the one percent?” he writes. He goes on to define his terms of engagement: “I take equity,” he says, “to mean fairness or justice in the way that people are treated rather than the term’s economic meanings—a share of stock or the value of a piece of property after debts are subtracted.” He goes on, however, to say that evaluating “the share” in the context of public built spaces—the spaces we share as citizens such as parks and transit—can reveal for whom a city is designed and built.

Author Blair Kamin/Credit: Nathan Keay

Therein lies my fundamental issue with framing this book around equity: Kamin’s definition of equity might include justice, but in the stories where the idea is directly addressed, it is reduced to simply, “what happens in wealthy neighborhoods should also happen in impoverished neighborhoods.” If one place has more amenities, so should the other. 

In his 2019 article, “Rating Chicago’s Latest Wave of Parks and Public Spaces by the Three ‘E’s: They’re Better on Entertainment and Ecology than Equity,” Kamin revisits public parks—Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk, and Northerly Island—to comment on their successes creating new, engaging landscapes. Toward the end, he writes: “The trouble is location: most of these projects are along parts of the lakefront lined by affluent neighborhoods or in areas of Chicago that have gentrified or are gentrifying—in part due to the presence of these alluring public spaces. Their benefits need to be spread to other parts of the city, particularly the South and West Sides, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her chief planner, Maurice Cox, have targeted for revival.”

This is not justice. Instead, that ideology only addresses “fairness” using a snapshot view of “haves” and “have-nots.” It does not attend to repairing decades of disinvestment or the results of Chicago’s long-standing, systematic political decisions that blighted and starved our most vulnerable neighborhoods. Focusing on the “haves” and “have-nots” continues to center the needs of the “rich and powerful,” and, in his introduction, he extends that centering to their safety, too. He writes:

The recognition that cities are shared ventures…represents a far more viable long-term strategy than its opposite: containment of the poor, whether in ghettos, public-housing projects, or dysfunctional neighborhoods…The shootings and thefts that have spread from Chicago’s South and West Sides to the downtown and affluent North Side neighborhoods like Lincoln Park make clear the costs of failing to address the root causes of long-festering problems associated with high concentrations of poverty.

Using this logic to advocate for greater investment in Black and Brown neighborhoods frames precisely my struggle with this book. Public housing was founded under the ethos of “housing as a human right” and failed because of specific, racist political decision-making. Neighborhoods where vulnerable people struggle—not always unsuccessfully—to make their lives rich and full, despite generations of extraction, are not “dysfunctional,” nor are they “ghettos,” as Kamin refers to them; they are the results of exploitation. 

To have a “viable long-term strategy”—one that centers justice, not fairness—we must move our attention beyond comparative dichotomies. We must evaluate equity and justice in ways that don’t center the needs and desires of affluent neighborhoods, or their safety. After all, those two priorities are precisely what produced disinvestment in the first place. 

But that brings me to my first question: What is the purpose of built environment criticism? While Kamin’s writing is thoughtful and proves he can wield the pen, I cannot recommend this book to a reader seeking to understand the complexities of how architecture and infrastructure relate to equity. Instead, it comes across more as a curated selection of criticism’s past priorities. He invokes the need for the “activist critic,” citing his earlier book, Why Architecture Matters: one who, “[places] buildings in the context of the politics, the economics, and the cultural forces that shape them.” But the activist critic is limited, by Kamin’s own definition, to projects that are completed or in progress. Can critics, instead, amplify communities’ visions for the future, while practicing activist criticism? 

I might say that the next generation of critics should take a page from my neighbor Audrey’s handbook and make our task one of imagination. Criticism can, and perhaps should, actively participate in the grander project of radical, reparative world-building, while also holding powerful actors in architecture and city-making accountable for lackluster justice initiatives. No longer is this a question of who has nicer urban amenities; “who gets what” is a tired trope. Rather, critics should turn our attention to justice’s long view by not only contextualizing projects in history or politics but also in the ability of city dwellers to actualize a better future on their terms.

Who Is the City For? Architecture, Equity, and the Public Realm in Chicago by Blair Kamin
University of Chicago Press, hardcover, 312 pp., $29

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