Race and the built environment
Race Main A

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.

Q. What is race and how does it impact on the built environment?

Dr Kamna Patel:
Race is a social construct with material effects. It’s an imperial creation used to create, embed and justify a hierarchy among groups of people – and to then cement the power and privilege of those at the top. Its effects are manifested in every aspect of our lives, including the material form of the built environment. Who lives where? Who or what has access to infrastructure and resources? Who gets to decide what our cities are and can be? 

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?

Q. So what is missing from the knowledge environment? 

People and content that engage with race. We all come to see and know the world through our lived experiences. People at the sharpest end of racism are grossly under-represented in higher education, at every level.

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

Q. What is the Bartlett doing to play a part in addressing this?

The best thing about The Bartlett is its genuine commitment to doing better. That’s embodied in all my colleagues and in every conversation I’ve ever had here. We believe that it is the job of all of us engaged with the built environment, from architects and engineers to development practitioners and economists, to understand the structures shaping society and to work to make them fairer and more equitable. So, in collaboration with the Institute of Education, we’ve created a new ‘Race’ and Space curriculum, devised by a cross-disciplinary group of scholars.

‘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. 

Q. What sort of things does the ‘Race’ and Space curriculum cover?

The curriculum engages with two main questions: where is race in my discipline – the canon, new theory, research and methodology? And, where do I begin to introduce or advance analyses of race in the built environment? 

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

We Travel the Space Ways
jazz album, to Sonia Boyce’s 1987
English Born ‘Native’
paintings and Ryan Coogler’s 2018 movie
Black Panther

Q. What do you hope will be the outcome of embedding race in the Bartlett’s practice and processes?

Ultimately, that The Bartlett drives the creation of better towns and cities. Ones where those who plan, design and live in them are aware and motivated to change spaces – how they work and for whom – to redress racial-spatial inequities. 

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. 

Bartlett kamna.patel
Dr Kamna Patel

The Bartlett’s Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and Associate Professor in The Bartlett Development Planning Unit 

The Bartlett, UCL
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London WC1H 0QB
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