Dr Kamna Patel is Vice-Dean Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at The Bartlett. Here we interview her about the importance of understanding 'race' and its impact on the built environment.
The way race is applied is not fixed. Rather, it can be used as a lens through which to see these hierarchies and material patterns – not only because they are inherently interesting, or a novel field of enquiry, but because they are racist. And racism kills – it shortens lives and it negatively affects quality of life. For example, in the built environment, in what decision-making forums are racialised minority residents visible and their voices heard? I’m thinking of the 2017 Grenfell Inquiry into the devastating west London tower block fire in which 72 people died. What stake did the Grenfell residents have in the decisions made about the cladding and fire safety of their building?
Alongside the built environment is the knowledge environment, rooted in our work as universities. Who gets to decide what is researched and published? Who is given the resources to do it?
How many Black professors are there in built environment fields? Here at The Bartlett we have none. There’s a recent campaign, led by 10 Black women in UK academia, that draws attention to research grants awarded for work on the impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) communities. Not a single grant was awarded to a Black academic as principal investigator.
My own work is in development studies. Recently I reviewed six major journals in my field across 13 years of publication – around 9,000 papers – of which just two spoke about race and development. All this tells us where we are.
‘Race’ and Space is an open-access curriculum for self-directed study, so all students, no matter their field or level of study, can engage with it – and not just our students, but anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of this topic
‘Race’ and Space is an open-access curriculum for self-directed study, so all students, no matter their field or level of study, can engage with it – and not just our students, but anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of this topic. It references music, film and podcasts, so students can find different access points.
It doesn’t feel like an extra module you get no credit for – it feels interesting, fun and accessible. And, of course, it’s for teachers too – those who want to improve their own understanding of race, and to use our resources to help build better inclusive curricula for their students.
To explore these issues, we delve into themes such as Raced Landscapes, looking at how urban inequalities are produced and reproduced, and Speculative Futures, encouraging students to imagine new futures for overcoming racialised injustices.
The curriculum draws on incredibly wide-ranging materials. For example, Raced Landscapes engages with property-law discussions, housing studies and environmental justice debates, while Speculative Futures uses works from Afro-Futurism, sci-fi, art, architecture and poetics – everything from Sun Ra’s 1967
The curriculum plays a part in this by setting down a challenge. We’re an institution, and we’re in a sector, that values student voices. If the curriculum gets them saying, “We want more, we want this embedded in other aspects of our learning and teaching”, it helps to build a case for why we should. It will help to set the priorities of how we allocate our resources in years to come.