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Spatial Justice and Systemic Change: For Equitable, Healthy and Sustainable Places.

Thought-piece by Natasha Reid for Sound Advice's "Now You Know", a publication challenging spatial and racial inequality in the built environment through writings from 6o invited architects and urbanists. Curated by Pooja Agrawal and Joseph Henry. Published 2021.

Surely it is time to dismantle the foundations of inequality that our cities are built on

When the normal workings of an urban system is embedding inequality deeper into civic life every day, we urgently need bold, new equitable practices that radically rethink the status quo and create the circumstances for people to thrive. As designers, planners, developers, policy-makers and built environment professionals, can we consider how the current dynamics can be challenged and dismantled?

What can be done to bring about real and meaningful change?



Structural racial disadvantage is built into the fabric of our cities. Even if not explicitly done so, it is undeniably there.

The government’s racial disparity audit[1] underscores the enduring inequality in Britain, with housing and living conditions a fundamental measure of hardship. BAME groups remain significantly more likely to occupy poor quality housing, to suffer fuel poverty and to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods. The English Indices of Deprivation [2] takes into account factors such as overcrowding and unaffordability of housing, as well as “Living Environment Deprivation” such as low outdoor air quality. Across these factors, black african households are 75% more likely to experience housing deprivation than white british households.[3]

Long range studies such as the Marmot Review show that the more extensive housing deprivation, the more damaging the effects on people’s quality of life, health and life chances. Starkly put, people living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England will on average die seven years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods[4]. And every day, the disparity of housing and local neighbourhoods along racial lines is further perpetuating societal and health inequality our cities and communities.



If we are to create healthy, sustainable homes, places and communities, we need to give specific focus to those most affected by inequity and at greater risk. For people in situations of hardship, racial and socioeconomic disadvantages come together to create disproportionate impacts [5]. The issues are persistent and complex. Compound and difficult.

Poverty of housing and local environment impacts heavily on people’s physical and mental health; through lack of security, lack of access to green space and clean air, lack of safety and public amenities. Without these basic, fundamental necessities, further disadvantage perpetuates. For children living in overcrowded homes without heating, how does this impact their ability to learn at school? How does this affect their future opportunities and growth?

A deprived neighbourhood will give people less access to opportunity, jobs and services. It will impact the strength of social networks – the social capital of places - where people support one another in everyday life. Disadvantage accumulates to reduce access to life opportunities, social mobility and growth.



The concept of Spatial Justice is not new, emerging through the work of philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre and his concepts of the “Right to the City” (1968), influencing urban theory and the work of geographers David Harvey[6] (1973) and Edward Soja[7] (2010). The organisation of cities and places reflects and shapes inequality in society, and so the role of the built environment in this should be acknowledge and tackled intentionally.

Market-led forces won’t lead to design for the common good, nor address the complexity of the problems – which are multi-layered and interconnected. What is needed is a total shift in thinking, to see places as sites and enablers of social change, not as built assets.

Systemic design[8] is a nascent practice, but offers potential routes towards creating alternative power structures, and linking together disparate methods of action and groups.

New systems are needed to address different factors such as:

  1. Process giving marginalised groups and individuals access to design and development processes

  2. Distributionfairer access to the benefits of urban development and public goods such as environments that support life chances, social mobility, growth and health

  3. Coproduction with communitiesforming frameworks to support and enable people to start initiatives within their neighbourhood and have the agency to make change



It is key to involve those affected by development, so it is not done “to them” but “with them”. So that neighbourhood investment is channelled towards solutions that answer real and very specific needs. So that urban change can maximise the opportunities and existing social assets of a community and place.

For longheld patterns to be shifted, the spatial and racial injustice embodied in our places need to be at the forefront of the minds of all those involved in shaping cities. People who have not been part of the conversation need to be listened to and be active forces in the process.

Design is not the solution on its own, but the design of new systems can be part of the toolkit for spatial justice. Through the process of placemaking, the industry has the opportunity act with intentionality to create new routes to empower those that have been systemically underserved.

Shouldn’t everyone have the right to access to environments that support life chances, growth and health?
Shouldn’t we be making places so that everyone can thrive?

Written by Natasha Reid - Founder, MATTER . SPACE . SOUL

Read more about Sound Advice, founded by Pooja Agrawal and Joseph Henry, in this Dezeen article

Sound Advice photography by Timi Akindele-Ajani


[1] [2] [3] Ethnic disadvantage in the housing market: Evidence from the 2011 census. Race Equality Foundation briefing paper, April 2015. [4] [5] [5] [6] Social Justice and the City, 1973. David Harvey [7] Seeking spatial justice, 2010. Edward W. Soja [8]


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