The built environment is the most potent representation and material manifestation of people’s presence on the planet, and in the course of its construction, ongoing management and maintenance, and the daily rhythms of use, it has profound effects on people’s lives and the qualities of ecology and the environment. Our lives are shaped by the design and emplacement of buildings and infrastructure, and there is a directionality embedded into them that influences much of what we do, how we do it and how we experience places. From the pavements and roads that provide the connections directing people from one place to another, to the juxtaposition of buildings and their interior design that shape how people move within and between spaces, the designed and constructed environment is formative in influencing social encounters and interactions. It is also closely intertwined with the functioning of the world’s biosphere, and is significant in the ongoing degradation and deterioration of local and global ecosystems.
Such is the importance of the built environment that there is a need to build in ways whereby it works well for all species, but the reality is that this is very far from being so. Too much of the built environment is based on speculation in land and property, or the propagation of a casino capitalism characterised by investments in risk-taking ventures that prioritise the construction of high-value-added buildings and infrastructure. This reflects the construction of buildings as a commercial asset, or part of an exchange economy in which their use, and usefulness, appear to be less important than the maximisation of returns from investment.
Building is indivisible from the actions of governments, and there is no construction that is not simultaneously shaped by state policy programmes, particularly relating to the promotion of economic development. Gordillo (2014) recounts the emergence of state-sponsored investments in the Chaco region in Northern Argentina, in which building and construction are characterised by waves of ‘disruption by bulldozers’ as countless villages are destroyed to make way for new buildings, roads, bridges and towns as part of opening up the region to cattle ranching and agribusiness. For Gordillo (2014), the emergent built environment in Chaco is part of the destruction and spatial obliteration of indigenous communities, a process similar in many other areas. Thus, in Chinese cities like Shanghai, government policy encourages the demolition of traditional lilong housing and alleyways as part of the city’s modernisation, a process that involves the displacement of people and their removal to often peripheral, semi-suburban estates.
Both examples illustrate the power of construction to transform space and the social fabric of places, while drawing attention to the role of the state in shaping the (re)production of the built environment. Construction is a highly organised, and institutionalised, process involving many actors, and foremost is the state, which has a major stake in ensuring the supply of buildings and infrastructure. In this chapter, I develop the understanding that the political stratagems of states are linked to the proliferation of building and construction. States, and supranational bodies like the World Bank, support a growthist agenda that, while claiming to benefit all, is part of a politicised strategy that encourages ‘building without limits’.
In previous chapters, I have set out some of the broader socio-political and economic dynamics and processes that shape the construction of the built environment. In this chapter, I explore the substance of how building and construction can affect people’s quality of habitation and everyday lives, and how what we build is significant in shaping human welfare and physical and mental well-being. It is a truism to say that the primary objective of a building is, or ought to be, the facilitation and support of people’s functioning and activities. These activities are many and varied, and constantly evolving and changing; yet, buildings and spaces are often constructed in ways that render them static, or impervious to the ways in which people seek to interact with(in) them. From major road systems that do not permit ease of pedestrian access from one part of a city to another, to the construction of buildings with poor acoustics and sound insulation, the design of the built environment is not always attuned to, or understanding of, the sensory nature of the human body.
This point was brought home to me when spending time with Ann, who depends on using her wheelchair to move around the built environment.1 Ann struggles to get to her local shops because the environment does not enable her to propel her wheelchair with any ease. The pavement outside her house is broken and uneven, and there are no kerb cuts at the main road she has to cross to get to the parade of shops.
This accessible critique of urban construction reimagines city development and life in an era of unprecedented building.
Exploring the proliferation of building and construction, Imrie sets out its many degrading impacts on both people and the environment. Using examples from around the world, he illustrates how construction is motivated by economic and political ideologies rather than actual need, and calls for a more sensitive, humane and nature-focused culture of construction.
This compelling book calls for radical changes to city living and environments by building less, but better.
There is much awareness of the harm caused by construction to the environment but little that is being done to prevent or mitigate it. While politicians and the executives of leading corporate organisations deliberate and debate about the effects of building, their inaction is evident by the acceleration in global construction activity, including significant increases in the rates of material extraction, use of energy and deterioration of the earth’s ecological and environmental systems. From Amazonia to Indonesia, vast tracts of land are being laid to waste to provide raw materials for construction and the trappings of Western lifestyles. The destruction of tropical forests is generating one of the largest mass extinctions to beset the earth, with, as Weisse and Goldman (2020: 1) note, the tropics having lost 11.9 million hectares of tree cover in 2019. Much of this was used in building projects, ranging from the construction of walls, floors and ceilings, to the reconstruction of boardwalks in US beach resorts (Rainforest Relief, 2013).
The loss of habitat and biodiversity is referred to by some observers as ‘ecocide’, or a process of widespread, global devastation and destruction of ecological systems (Higgins, 2010). Construction is at the forefront of ecocide and asset raiding the natural world, and in places like Amazonia, the demand by the building industry for its products is interlinked with land grabs, illegal logging and mining, and threats to the lives and habitation of indigenous people (Funes, 2019). Viana (1998, quoted in Taccioni et al, 2003: 8) estimates that in the 1990s, over 80 per cent of logging in Amazonia was illegal, with large quantities of timber sent to reputable building contractors, particularly relating to hardwood flooring.
On a Sunday morning in May 2016, 5 Norfolk Court, high-rise social housing located in the Gorbals, one of Glasgow’s inner-city neighbourhoods, was blown up. It was the last demolition in a neighbourhood that, over the years, had become synonymous with poverty and poor housing, and its destruction seemed symbolic of the dismantling of a community’s social fabric. The demolition of Norfolk Court can be viewed in many different ways. For some local residents, it was the welcome clearance of buildings that had failed to provide basic amenities, which were delipidated and where the wind whistled through cracks in the facades (Daily Record, 2013: 1). The poor quality of construction, and the lack of maintenance by the council, meant that the buildings suffered from chronic dampness, and the breakdown of facilities such as lifts was commonplace. As a member of the Gallagher family said, ‘the buildings were old, and had a lot of problems. It was for the best that they come down’ (quoted in New Gorbals Housing Association, 2016: 1).
Other residents were less happy, as they saw the destruction of Norfolk Court as the loss of social ties in their local community and the onset of an uncertain future. As one local resident, Katrin Reedik, recalled just before the demolition of number 66 Norfolk Court in 2013: ‘I just wish that they would refurbish the blocks instead of destroying them…. If they were well-maintained and in good order, I would happily stay. I don’t want to go’ (Daily Record, 2013: 1). Another resident, Betty Olsen, felt unhappy about having to leave and lose close contact with neighbours and friends: ‘We all looked out for each other.
Construction is a positive action insofar that it involves the creation of objects, or the crafting of materials to produce an artefact that has value, whether that is a dwelling to enable people to live well, or a road or rail system to facilitate people’s ease of mobility and movement. There is, though, a paradox at the heart of all building activity, in that for all that is crafted and created by construction, the process, necessarily, involves disruption to people, places and ecologies. This can range from the excavation and movement of earth to create groundworks for new building, in which local ecologies may be damaged or destroyed, to government officials serving compulsory purchase orders, requiring people to leave where they live to make way for comprehensive rebuilding programmes. In both instances, the building process can be conceived as inherently disruptive and implicated in transforming the nature of habitation and the environment.
One of the more unusual instances of localised disruption to social life is the fad for subterranean excavation to construct residential basements (Baldwin et al, 2019). Baldwin et al (2019) note that between 2008 and 2017, planning applications for the construction of 4,650 basements were granted permission in the seven most affluent boroughs in London. While the majority were one storey, or 3 m, in depth and occupied the footprint of the house, 112 were classified as mega-basements or three storeys in height (Baldwin et al, 2019: 8).
In July 2015, I was based in Japan and had been spending most of my time working in Tokyo. While Tokyo is a spectacular city, it is the epitome of a concrete jungle and so an invitation by a colleague to visit the southern Japanese island of Kyushu seemed like the opportune time to experience some of Japan’s green spaces. The train ride from Tokyo to the main city in Kyushu, Fukuoka, is 1,100 km and takes six hours to complete. The route traverses the populated south coast of Japan that, as was evident from my journey to Fukuoka, is dominated by a strip of major urban settlements. The views from the train’s window were fleeting glimpses of urban Japan interspersed with ‘blackouts’ as the train rapidly entered and exited numerous tunnels. The experience was like looking through a kaleidoscope with a bewildering array of ‘quick-fire’ glimpses of buildings and urban infrastructure. There were rare sights of green spaces, though these were never without buildings in view. By the time I arrived in Fukuoka, I could have been forgiven for thinking that countryside does not exist in Japan.
My Japanese experience is illustrative of most of the contemporary world, in which the built environment is integral to our everyday lives and fundamental in influencing how we interact with one another and patterns of living and habitation. There are few places left untouched by the excavation of the earth’s resources for construction and this, along with the combination of materials to create new structures, ranging widely from houses to roads, and dams to water pipelines, is the defining feature of people’s domination of the planet.
Since the beginning of human occupation on the earth, roughly 200,000 years ago, building and construction have been part of people’s activities to create habitable and liveable environments. Building is necessary in enabling human beings to function, ranging from the provision of shelter, or nurturing spaces that provide the means for people to reproduce themselves, to the construction of public buildings that support everyday life. Construction has gone well beyond the (re)production of the built environment purely as a means of subsistence, or to assure basic reproduction, to become the defining, ecological and environmental imprint of people upon the earth. In contrast to other species, which (re)produce constructed artefacts as a survival strategy, humans have evolved construction to create a culture and political economy of building, in which what is constructed far exceeds, and is often irrelevant for, subsistence and species survival.
The world we live in has changed from one where until the 18th century, building was relatively sparse, to one where it is now difficult to find a place that has not been built upon. Everywhere has the imprint of human intervention in nature and bears the marks of a world (re)made by people combining materials to create constructed artefacts. What many regard as wilderness areas, such as Amazonia and the polar regions, have long been places of industrial and infrastructural construction, and reflect what Fry (2009: 1) describes as ‘our anthropocentric mode of worldly habitation’.
Speculation is a dominant feature of contemporary land and property markets and is significant in fuelling the rise in building and construction activity. It is most obvious in the changing vistas of major cities that, since the late 20th century, have spawned numerous tall or vertical buildings, often replacing land uses that command low rental values (Graham, 2016). Goldman (2011) suggests that we are living in an era of speculative urbanism, in which an objective of politicians is to transform land deemed to be of marginal use into lucrative real estate, primarily by attracting flows of global investment to fund the construction of new buildings and infrastructure. From the skylines of Shanghai and Mumbai to those of Lahore and London, the evidence of speculative construction consists of ever-escalating rates of urban development, shaped by the core logic of capitalist urbanisation in which the appropriation and redevelopment of land is intrinsic to the (re)production of economic value.
Speculation is not only the staple diet of capitalist land and property markets, and the driving force behind the building booms of the early 21st century, but also an enduring feature of human society. Investors looking to make lucrative gains from the purchase of land will take a risk on its development, with the expectation that, over the course of time, its market value will increase. Such developments are described by Shin (2013) as ‘pre-emptive’, or part of an anticipatory mode of acting in which actors tend to supply more than ‘can be consumed and with the expectation that demand will follow’.