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Rural Studio

Created on 14-12-2023 | Updated on 16-01-2024

The Rural Studio, situated in Newbern, Hale County, Alabama, is a client-driven design and build research studio affiliated with Auburn University's School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Founded by Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, the studio emerged as a response to the perceived ethical void in architectural education and as a criticism of the disconnect between theory and practice prevalent in the early 1990s architectural landscape. Mockbee and Ruth aimed to transform architectural education by immersing students in real-world scenarios, integrating theory with hands-on experience, and fostering positive change in the underserved communities of Hale County in Western Alabama.

The studio's success in effecting incremental change is attributed to Auburn University's financial support, the diverse collaborations with local entities, and its enduring presence in Hale County. Operating two distinct design and build programs for third and fifth-year students, the Rural Studio emphasises technical skills in the former and social aspects in the latter. Students engage in community-focused projects, negotiating with clients, managing resources, and navigating socio-political landscapes.

The curriculum's unique structure, encapsulated in annual "drumbeats," encompasses technical, theoretical, and communication skills development, fostering a team-oriented approach. Learning outcomes span over analysis and synthesis, design and construction, teamwork and management, and ethos and responsibility. Hale County's socioeconomic challenges provide a contextual backdrop, shedding light on issues of poverty and housing insecurity. The Rural Studio serves as a transformative platform, exposing students to the stark realities of the United States and instilling a sense of responsibility for sustainable and socio-politically conscious architectural practice.

Initiating entity
School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, Auburn University

Educating students as local architects and global citizens while researching sustainable rural living, emphasising housing and essential systems for community well-being.

Educational/participatory methods
design & build; experiential learning; Problem-and-project-based learning (PPBL); transformative learning

Rural (under-served/under-resourced) areas in Hale County, Alabama with few cases in other, neighbouring areas of Alabama

Newbern Town, Hale County, Alabama (the studio’s physical location & main area of operations)

1993 -

Throughout the academic year, in both fall & spring semesters. 2 programmes of designing & building in phases: third and fifth year programme.

residents of Hale County, sponsors/donors, municipal authorities, local associations & schools, Auburn University

Object of study
Building Neihbourhood Live Project


“Theory and practice are not only interwoven with one’s culture but with the responsibility of shaping the environment, of breaking up social complacency, and challenging the power of the status quo.”
– Sambo Mockbee

Overview – The (Hi)Story of Rural Studio

Rural Studio is an off-campus, client-driven, design & build & place-based research studio located in the town of Newbern in Hale County in rural Alabama, and part of the curriculum of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture of Auburn University. It was first conceptualised by Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and D.K. Ruth as both an answer to the lack of ethical backbone in architectural education and a critique on the separation of theory and practice illustrated through the curriculum (Freear et al., 2013; Jones & Card, 2011). Both of these reasons mirrored and reinforced the way architecture was practised in the professional world in the early 1990s when, following the dominance of post-modernism, US architects were more preoccupied with matters of aesthetics and style, rather than the social and environmental aspects of their work (Oppenheimer Dean, 2002). Mockbee and Ruth aspired to create a learning environment and shape a pedagogy where students would be introduced to a real-world setting, combining theory with hands-on work and at the same time inscribing incremental, positive change on the Hale County underserved communities.

This incremental change is enabled by three main factors: (1) Auburn University’s commitment to providing stable financial support to the studio, paired with the various sponsorships that the studio receives from individual benefactors, (2) the broad network of collaborations that have been established over the years including local governing officials, external professional experts and consultants, non-profit organisations, schools, and community groups, among others, and (3) the studio’s permanent presence -and the subsequent accountability this presence fosters- in Hale County.

Unlike most design-and-build activities and programmes that adopt a “live” approach (i.e. work with/alongside real stakeholders, in real settings), Rural Studio has continuously implemented various types of projects ranging from housing and parks to community activities (e.g. farming and cooking), with five completed projects per year in Newbern and the broader Hale County area since its launching in 1993 (Freear et al., 2013; Stagg & McGlohn, 2022).

Studio structure and learning objectives

Within the Rural Studio, there are two distinct design-and-build programmes addressing third-year and fifth-year undergraduate students. As currently designed, the third-year programme primarily focuses on sharpening technical skills and exploring the process of transitioning from paper to the building site. In contrast, the fifth-year programme places greater emphasis on the social and organizational aspects of a project. Students may opt to join the Rural Studio activities either once during their third of fifth year, or twice, after spending their first two years on campus and having acquired a solid foundation in the basic skills of an architect. 

Third-year programme

The third-year programme accommodates up to 16 students per semester, inviting them to reside and work in Newbern on the construction of a wooden house using platform frame construction. Until 2009, the fall semester focused on design, from conception to technical details, while the spring semester concentrated on construction, culminating in the handover of the completed project to clients or future users. However, several issues called for a profound restructuring, such as the uneven distribution of skills (with students specializing in either design or construction, rarely both), a lack of a continuous knowledge transfer from past to current projects, and students’ limited experience in collaborating with larger teams.  

 In its current iteration, the third-year programme is dedicated to refining technical skills – such as understanding the structural and natural properties of wood- by implementing an already designed project in phases, while complementing this process with parallel modules on building a knowledge base(Freear et al., 2013; Rural Studio, n.d.).

  1. Seminar in aspects of design – students delve deeper in the history of the built environment of the local context, as well as the international history of wooden buildings.
  2. “Dessein” – in this furniture-making course, students focus heavily on sharpening their wood-working skills by recreating chairs designed by well-known modernist architects.

Fifth-year programme

The fifth-year programme consists of up to 12 students, organized into teams of four, who dedicate a full academic year on a community-focused design-and-build project. These projects, collaboratively chosen by the Rural Studio teaching team and local community representatives, ensure alignment with residents’ needs and programmatic suitability for future users. The programme is student-led, requiring participants to engage in client negotiations, manage financial and material resources, and navigate the local socio-political landscape, among other tasks. Projects can be either set up to be concluded within the nine-month academic year or compartmentalized into several phases, spanning several years. In case of the latter, students are invited to stay a second year, overseeing project progress or completion, if they wish, and become mentors to the next group of fifth-year students.

Curriculum and learning Outcomes

In the Rural studio, “students learn by researching, exploring, observing, questioning, drawing, critiquing, designing, and making” In the Rural studio, “students learn by researching, exploring, observing, questioning, drawing, critiquing, designing, and making” (Freear et al., 2013, p. 34). The annual schedules, or “drumbeats,” as they are called, serve to organise and frame the activities throughout each semester. These activities are designed to enhance the skills and knowledge of students, encompassing technical and practical aspects (such as workshops on building codes, structural engineering, graphic design, and woodworking), theoretical understanding (including lectures and idea exchange sessions with invited experts), and communication skills (involving community presentations and midterm reviews). These activities are conducted in a manner that fosters a team-building approach, with creative elements like the Halloween review conducted in fancy dress, and using food as a unifying element.

In terms of learning outcomes, there are four main categories identified*:

  • Analysis & Synthesis (researching, exploring, observing, questioning). Students learn how to identify, analyse and navigate the parameters that can influence a design-and-build process and lay out a course of action taking everything they have identified into account.
  • Design & Construction (drawing, designing, making). Students learn how to navigate a project from conception to construction, and develop a deep understanding of construction technologies, environmental and structural systems, as well as the necessary technical skills to perform relevant tasks.
  • Teamwork & Management (exploring, questioning, critiquing, designing, making). Students learn how to work in large teams, prioritise and allocate tasks, voice their opinion, negotiate, and manage human and material resources.
  • Ethos & Responsibility (observing, questioning, critiquing). Through place-based immersion in the local community over the span of 4 to 9 months, students get a deeper understanding of their own role and responsibility as architects within the local sustainable development, especially in contexts of crises, and learn how to trace and assess the socio-political, financial and environmental factors that influence a project’s lifespan.

*author’s own assessment and categorisation, based on relevant readings

Context of operations: Hale County, AL

Hale County, located in Alabama, is a black, working-class area and ranks as the second poorest county in the state (Oppenheimer Dean & Hursley, 2005). Historically, southern states like Alabama and Mississippi have been either the locus of an aestheticisation of the rural life and traditions of the past, especially in popular culture (Cox, 2011), or regarded as socially “backward”, marked by elevated levels of social tension, including discriminatory, racist and white supremacist attitudes (Bateman, 2023). Since the decline in cotton production, which began shortly after the American Civil War, Hale County has faced increasing precarity, with its the local economy heavily reliant on low-wage agricultural industries, like dairy. Given the predominant home-ownership culture in the USA and insufficient welfare safety-nets, the poorest members of communities like Hale County are grappling with urgent housing and living issues, resulting in a sizeable portion of the population facing homelessness or residing in precarious conditions, such as trailer parks (Freear et al., 2013).

Rural Studio provides students from other areas of Alabama and beyond, often hailing from middle-class families, with an opportunity to engage with and be exposed to the harsh realities of a version of the USA they may not have encountered or interacted with before.

Notable initiatives and projects

20k House

Initiated in 2005, the 20K House programme engage students in the creation of affordable housing prototypes tailored to the needs and financial capacity of prospective clients: 20,000 USD is the rough amount a minimum wage worker in the USA can receive as a mortgage. Beyond the immediate provision of housing, the programme aspires to draw academic interest in “well-designed houses for everyone” (Freear et al., 2013, p. 202). Additionally, the initiative incorporates post-occupancy evaluations as integral components of both the pedagogical approach and the continuous improvement of services provided to the local community.

Front Porch Initiative

Launched in 2019, this program revolves around the pressing issue of insufficient housing. Its primary goal is to establish an adaptable, scalable, and robust delivery system for high-quality, well-designed homes designated as real property. The design process takes into account the overall costs of homeownership over time, addressing specifically matters of well-being, efficiency and durability. (Rural Studio, n.d.; Stagg & McGlohn, 2022)

Rural Studio Farm

As part of the Newbern strategic plan, the Rural Studio Farm project seeks to immerse students in the realities of food production, exploring its social, cultural, financial, and environmental implications. Simultaneously, the project addresses the rapid decline in local food production in West Alabama (Freear et al., 2013; Rural Studio, n.d.). 

Alignment with project research areas

This case study resonates with two of the research areas of the RE-DWELL project - ‘Design, planning and building’ and ‘Community participation-, with a special focus on housing design education and sustainable planning, in particular with regard to the following research issues:

  1. Housing design education: Students engage in multi-stakeholder, hands-on projects in underserved rural areas and learn through a practice-based approach.
  2. Sustainable planning: Students are encouraged to adhere to the principles of environmental sustainability and affordability during the design process
  3. Inclusive design: Most projects not only address issues of accessibility, encompassing both physical and financial aspects, but also engage in community-building activities, such as the farm/gardening project.
  4. Vulnerable groups: For the majority of the studio’s lifespan, the focus has been on designing, constructing and providing of living quarters to marginalised individuals who cannot afford decent homes, most of them belonging to the Black community of Hale County.

Design, planning and building

Community participation

Policy and financing

* This diagram is for illustrative purposes only based on the author’s interpretation of the above case study

Alignment with SDGs


Based on the course’s learning objectives and the impact as it is documented through various local media, the following Sustainable Development Goals are associated with Rural Studio:

SDG 4 Quality education: Through direct contact and interdisciplinary collaboration on real-world problems, students have the opportunity to assess their own responsibility as future professionals in shaping urban landscapes, immerse themselves in the operational context through continuous engagement with the local community, facilitated by the physical presence of the studio’s premises in the area of operations. Furthermore, they refine their soft/transferable skills related to communication and collaboration, along with practical/construction skills. This enables them to better understand the interconnections between various stages in a design project’s life -conceptualisation, design, construction-, and the numerous factors that influence each one.

SDG 8 Decent Work & Economic Growth: The studio’s permanent physical presence in Hale County has enabled the solidification of bonds of trust. Through the studio’s activities, opportunities for employment and sustained learning for local residents have emerged, particularly in the construction and maintenance sectors.

SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities: Rural Studio contributes to reducing inequalities through a multi-scalar approach. Firstly, it provides equal opportunities for students, irrespective of gender, race or background, to engage in all aspects of a given project. Special emphasis is placed on ensuring diverse student teams, particularly in terms of are of gender, challenging the traditionally male-dominated building sector. Secondly, the direct contact between students and the local community helps dismantle preconceptions and stereotypes about “the South,” ingrained in the collective imaginary, prompting students to reflect on their own personal and cultural biases. Finally, there is an opportunity for local residents to explore alternative ways of improving their livelihoods, unconstrained by the laws of the global market.

SDG 11 Sustainable Communities and Cities: Through the studio’s enduring presence in the broader Hale County area for the past three decades, a measurable impact is evident. This impact can be traced  through the ripples created by over 200 completed design-and-build projects, encompassing housing and community initiatives. The level of engagement from the local community with the studio further underscores this influence. The projects, addressing various aspects of sustainable development -such as affordable budget, use of natural or recycled materials, local sourcing, construction methods easily maintainable by local craftsmen, and   establishment of communal and recreational activities- highlight the comprehensive approach of the studio’s activities and projects



Bateman, D. A. (2023). The South in American Political Development. Annual Review of Political Science, 26, 325–345.

Cox, K. (2011). Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture. The University of North Carolina Press.

Freear, A., Barthel, E., & Oppenheimer Dean, A. (2013). Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama. Princeton Architectural Press.

Jones, P., & Card, K. (2011). Constructing social architecture: The politics of representing practice. In Architectural Theory Review (Vol. 16, Issue 3, pp. 228–244).

Oppenheimer Dean, A. (2002). Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. Princeton Architectural Press.

Oppenheimer Dean, A., & Hursley, T. (2005). Proceed and Be Bold: Rural Studio After Samuel Mockbee. Princeton Architectural Press.

Rural Studio. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2023, from

Stagg, M., & McGlohn, E. (2022). Rural Studio and the Front Porch Initiative: The opportunities and challenges of place-based research. Schools of Thought: Rethinking Architectural Pedagogy Conference Proceedings, 126–138.

Related vocabulary

Community Empowerment

Housing Affordability

Social Sustainability


Area: Community participation

Community empowerment appears in the literature of participatory action research (Minkler, 2004), participatory planning (Jo & Nabatchi, 2018), and community development (Luttrell et al., 2009) as a key element of participatory practices, understanding it as a process that enables communities to take control of their lives and their environments (Rappaport, 2008; Zimmerman, 2000). Many argue that community participation becomes meaningless if it does not lead to, or pass through community empowerment. As the term is being used in diverse and ubiquitous ways, it runs the risk of ending up as an empty definition and a catch-all phrase (McLaughlin, 2015). It is therefore important to specify the perspective through which we will view the term and clarify the nuances.  Since its origins, empowerment has been used in two different ways. Firstly, top-down as the power that had been ‘granted’ by a higher authority, such as the state or a religious institution, and secondly, bottom-up, as a process by which groups or individuals come to develop the capacity to act and acquire power. Examples of the latter can be found in social groups such as feminists working in nongovernmental organizations throughout the global south in the 1970s, who found a way to address social issues and inequalities that enabled social transformation based on women’s self-organization (Biewener & Bacqué, 2015). The term was gradually appropriated by welfare, neoliberal, and social-neoliberal agendas whose priority was individual agency and choice. In neoliberal rationality, empowerment is related to efficiency, economic growth, business productivity, and individual rational choice to maximize profit in a competitive market economy. In social liberalism agendas, empowerment is understood as ‘effective agency’, where ‘agency’ is not an inherent attribute, but something that needs to be constructed through ‘consciousness-raising’ (McLaughlin, 2016). A broader definition sees empowerment as a social action process through which individuals, communities, and organizations take control of their lives in the context of changing the social and political environment to improve equity and quality of life (Rappaport, 2008; Zimmerman, 2000). Rowlands (1997), refers to four types of empowerment: power over, as the ability to influence and coerce; power to, to organize and change existing hierarchies; power with, as the power from the collective action and power within, as the power from the individual consciousness. Using this classification, Biewener & Bacqué (2015), adopting a feminist approach, understand empowerment as a multilevel construct with three interrelated dimensions: 1) an internal, psychological one, where ‘power within’ and ‘power to’ are developed, 2) an organizational, where ‘power with’ and ‘power over’ are strengthened and 3) a social or political level, where institutional and structural change is made possible through collective action. Thus, community empowerment links the individual level, which involves self-determination, growth of individual awareness, and self-esteem, to the collective level, relating critical consciousness and capacity building with the structural level, where collective engagement and transformative social action take place. This view of empowerment, which considers its goals and processes, has a social dimension that is lacking in other approaches that prioritize individual empowerment. Aside from the feminist movements, the philosophy and practices of community empowerment have been greatly influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and an advocate on critical pedagogy. Freire proposed a dialogic problem-solving process based on equality and mutual respect between students and teachers; that engaged them in a process of iterative listening-discussing-acting. Through structured dialogue, group participants shared their experiences, discussed common problems, and looked for root causes and the connections among “problems behind the problems as symptoms” (Freire, 1970). The term conscientization, that Freire proposed, refers to the consciousness that arises through the involvement of people in the social analysis of conditions and their role in changing them. This awareness enables groups to be reflexive and open spaces, to enact change or to understand those limited situations that may deter change (Barndt, 1989). Empowerment can be understood as both a process and an outcome (Jo & Nabatchi, 2018). As a process, it refers to “the development and implementation of mechanisms to enable individuals or groups to gain control, develop skills and test knowledge”(Harrison & Waite, 2015) and it entails the creation of new subjects who have developed a critical consciousness and the formation of groups with a ‘collective agency’ ‚ or ‘social collective identity’ (Biewener & Bacqué, 2015). Empowerment as an outcome refers to “an affective state in which the individual or group feels that they have increased control, greater understanding and are involved and active” (Harrison & Waite, 2015). This can lead to a transformation of the social conditions by challenging the structures and institutionalized forms that reproduce inequalities. The values and the significance of community empowerment can be further applied in the participatory and community-based approaches of the housing sector. Examples of such approaches in the housing provision are the housing cooperatives, and self-developed and self-managed housing groups. Housing cooperatives aim at promoting co-creation to engage future residents, professionals, and non-profit organizations in all the stages of a housing project: problem-framing, designing, developing, cohabiting, managing, and maintaining. Such organisational models stress the importance and pave the way for community empowerment by uniting individuals with similar interests and ideals, enabling them to have housing that responds to their needs, preferences, and values. The participation of the residents aims to strengthen their sense of ownership of the process, the democratic decision-making and management, and the social collective identity, making community empowerment an integral characteristic of cooperative housing initiatives. With this social perspective, residents can gain individual and collective benefits while contributing to fairer and more sustainable urban development on a larger scale (Viskovic Rojs et al., 2020).

Created on 03-06-2022

Author: Z.Tzika (ESR10)


Area: Design, planning and building

Housing can be perceived as consisting of two inseparable components: the product and the process. The product refers to the building as a physical artefact, and the process encompasses the activities required to create and manage this artefact in the long term (Turner, 1972), as cited in (Brysch & Czischke, 2021). Affordability is understood as the capability to purchase and maintain something long-term while remaining convenient for the beneficiary's resources and needs (Bogdon & Can, 1997). Housing Affordability is commonly explained as the ratio between rent and household income (Hulchanski, 1995). However, Stone (2006, p.2) proposed a broader definition of housing affordability to associate it with households' social experience and financial stability as: "An expression of the social and material experiences of people, constituted as households, in relation to their individual housing situations", ….. "Affordability expresses the challenge each household faces in balancing the cost of its actual or potential housing, on the one hand, and its non-housing expenditures, on the other, within the constraints of its income." Housing costs signify initial and periodic payments such as rent or mortgages in the case of  homeowners, housing insurance, housing taxes, and so on. On the other hand, non-housing costs include utility charges resulting from household usage, such as energy and water, as well as schools, health, and transportation (AHC, 2019; Ezennia & Hoskara, 2019). Therefore, housing affordability needs to reflect the household's capability to balance current and future costs to afford a house while maintaining other basic expenses without experiencing any financial hardship (Ezennia & Hoskara, 2019). Two close terminologies to housing affordability are  “affordable housing” and “affordability of housing”. Affordable housing is frequently mentioned in government support schemes to refer to the housing crisis and associated financial hardship. In England, affordable housing is still concerned with its financial attainability, as stated in the UK Government's official glossaries: "Housing for sale or rent, for those whose needs are not met by the market (including housing that provides a subsidised route to home ownership and/or is for essential local workers)", while also complying with other themes that maintain the affordability of housing prices in terms of rent or homeownership (Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities, 2019). The affordability of housing, on the other hand, refers to a broader focus on the affordability of the entire housing market, whereas housing affordability specifically refers to the ability of individuals or households to afford housing. In the literature, however, the term “affordability of housing” is frequently used interchangeably with “housing affordability,” despite their differences (Robinson et al., 2006). The "affordability of housing" concerns housing as a sector in a particular region, market or residential area. It can correlate affordability with population satisfaction, accommodation types and household compositions to alert local authorities of issues such as homelessness (Kneebone & Wilkins, 2016; Emma Mulliner et al., 2013; OECD, 2021). That is why the OECD defined it as "the capacity of a country to deliver good quality housing at an accessible price for all" (OECD, n.d.). Short-term and long-term affordability are two concepts for policymakers to perceive housing affordability holistically. Short-term affordability is "concerned with financial access to a dwelling based on out-of-pocket expenses", and long-term affordability is " about the costs attributed to housing consumption" (Haffner & Heylen, 2011, p.607). The costs of housing consumption, also known as user costs, do not pertain to the monthly utility bills paid by users, but rather to the cost associated with consuming the dwelling as a housing service  (Haffner & Heylen, 2011). “Housing quality” and “housing sustainability” are crucial aspects of housing affordability, broadening its scope beyond the narrow economic perspective within the housing sector. Housing affordability needs to consider "a standard for housing quality" and "a standard of reasonableness for the price of housing consumption in relation to income" (p. 609) (Haffner & Heylen, 2011). In addition, housing affordability requires an inclusive aggregation and a transdisciplinary perspective of sustainability concerning its economic, social, and environmental facets (Ezennia & Hoskara, 2019; Perera, 2017; Salama, 2011). Shared concerns extend across the domains of housing quality, sustainability, and affordability, exhibiting intricate interrelations among them that require examination. For instance, housing quality encompasses three levels of consideration: (1) the dwelling itself as a physically built environment, (2) the household attitudes and behaviours, and (3) the surroundings, encompassing the community, neighbourhood, region, nation, and extending to global circumstances (Keall et al., 2010). On the other hand, housing sustainability embraces the triad of economic, social, and environmental aspects. The shared problems among the three domains encompass critical aspects such as health and wellbeing, fuel poverty and costly long-term maintenance  proximity to workplaces and amenities, as well as the impact of climate. Health and wellbeing Inequalities in health and wellbeing pose a significant risk to social sustainability, mainly in conditions where affordable dwellings are of poor quality. In contrast, such conditions extend the affordability problem posing increased risks to poor households harming their health, wellbeing and productivity (Garnham et al., 2022; Hick et al., 2022; Leviten-Reid et al., 2020). An illustrative example emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, where individuals residing in unsafe and poor-quality houses faced higher rates of virus transmission and mortality (Housing Europe, 2021; OECD, 2020). Hence, addressing housing affordability necessitates recognising it as a mutually dependent relationship between housing quality and individuals (Stone, 2006). Fuel poverty and costly long-term maintenance Affordable houses of poor quality pose risks of fuel poverty and costly long-term maintenance. This risk makes them economically unsustainable. For example, good quality entails the home being energy efficient to mitigate fuel poverty. However, it might become unaffordable to heat the dwelling after paying housing costs because of its poor quality (Stone et al., 2011). Thus, affordability needs to consider potential fluctuations in non-housing prices, such as energy bills (AHC, 2019; Smith, 2007). Poor quality also can emerge from decisions made during the design and construction stages. For example, housing providers may prioritise reducing construction costs by using low-quality and less expensive materials or equipment that may lead to costly recurring maintenance and running costs over time (Emekci, 2021). Proximity to work and amenities The proximity to workplaces and amenities influences housing quality and has an impact on economic and environmental sustainability. From a financial perspective, Disney (2006) defines affordable housing as "an adequate basic standard that provides reasonable access to work opportunities and community services, and that is available at a cost which does not cause substantial hardship to the occupants". Relocating to deprived areas far from work opportunities, essential amenities, and community services will not make housing affordable (Leviten-Reid et al., 2020). Commuting to a distant workplace also incurs environmental costs. Research shows that reduced commuting significantly decreases gas emissions (Sutton-Parker, 2021). Therefore, ensuring involves careful planning when selecting housing locations, considering their impact on economic and environmental sustainability (EK Mulliner & Maliene, 2012). Moreover, design practices can contribute by providing adaptability and flexibility, enabling dwellers to work from home and generate income (Shehayeb & Kellett, 2011). Climate change's mutual impact Climate change can pose risks to housing affordability and, conversely, housing affordability can impact climate change. A house cannot be considered "affordable" if its construction and operation result in adverse environmental impacts contributing to increased CO2 emissions or climate change (Haidar & Bahammam, 2021; Salama, 2011). For a house to be environmentally sustainable, it must be low-carbon, energy-efficient, water-efficient, and climate-resilient (Holmes et al., 2019). This entails adopting strategies such as incorporating eco-friendly materials, utilizing renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and implementing sustainable water management systems (Petrović et al., 2021). However, implementing these measures requires funding initiatives to support the upfront costs, leading to long-term household savings (Holmes et al., 2019). Principio del formulario Furthermore,  when houses lack quality and climate resilience, they become unaffordable. Households bear high energy costs, especially during extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves or cold spells (Holmes et al., 2019). Issues like cold homes and fuel poverty in the UK contribute to excess winter deaths (Lee et al., 2022). In this context, climate change can adversely affect families, impacting their financial well-being and health, thereby exacerbating housing affordability challenges beyond mere rent-to-income ratios.    

Created on 17-10-2023

Author: A.Elghandour (ESR4), K.Hadjri (Supervisor)


Area: Community participation

From the three pillars of sustainable development, economic, environmental and social, the latter  involving social equity and the sustainability of communities, has  been especially neglected. Ongoing problems caused by conflicting economic, environmental and social goals with regard to the processes of urbanisation continue. underpinning economic growth that contradict principles of environmental and social justice (Boström, 2012; Cuthill, 2010; Winston, 2009). Research on sustainable development highlights the need for further investigation of social sustainability (Murphy, 2012; Vallance et al., 2011). Social sustainability has been interpreted as an umbrella term encompassing many other related concepts; “social equity and justice, social capital, social cohesion, social exclusion, environmental justice, quality of life, and urban liveability” (Shirazi & Keivani, 2019, p. 4). A vast number of studies have been dedicated to defining social sustainability by developing theoretical frameworks and indicators particularly relevant to urban development and housing discourse (Cuthill, 2010; Dempsey et al., 2011; Murphy, 2012; Woodcraft, 2012). However, with a lack of consensus on the way of utilising these frameworks in a practical way, especially when applied to planning, social sustainability has remained difficult to evaluate or measure. Consequently, planning experts, housing providers and inhabitants alike understand social sustainability as a normative concept, according to established social norms, and less as an opportunity to critically examine existing institutions. Vallance et al (2011) provide three categories to analyse social sustainability, development, bridge and maintenance sustainability: (a) social development improves conditions of poverty and inequity, from the provision of basic needs to the redistribution of power to influence existing development paradigms; (b) the conditions necessary to bridge social with ecological sustainability, overcoming currently disconnected social and ecological concerns; and (c) the social practices, cultural preferences as well as the environments which are maintained over time. Maintenance social sustainability particularly deals with how people interpret what is to be maintained and includes “new housing developments, the layout of streets, open spaces, residential densities, the location of services, an awareness of habitual movements in place, and how they connect with housing cultures, preferences, practices and values, particularly those for low-density, suburban lifestyles” (Vallance et al., 2011, p. 345). Therefore, the notion of maintenance is especially important in defining social sustainability by directly investigating the established institutions, or “sets of norms” that constitute the social practices and rules, that in turn, affect responsibilities for planning urban spaces. A conceptual framework that appears frequently in social sustainability literature is that of Dempsey et al. (2011)⁠ following Bramley et al. (2009), defining social sustainability according to the variables of social equity and sustainability of community and their relationship to urban form, significantly at the local scale of the neighbourhood. In terms of the built environment, social equity (used interchangeably with social justice) is understood as the accessibility and equal opportunities to frequently used services, facilities, decent and affordable housing, and good public transport. In this description of local, as opposed to regional services, proximity and accessibility are important. Equitable access to such local services effectively connects housing to key aspects of everyday life and to the wider urban infrastructures that support it. Sustainability of community is associated with the abilities of society to develop networks of collective organisation and action and is dependent on social interaction. The associated term social capital has also been used extensively to describe social norms and networks that can be witnessed particularly at the community level to facilitate collective action (Woolcock, 2001, p. 70). They might include a diversity of issues such as resident interaction, reciprocity, cooperation and trust expressed by common exchanges between residents, civic engagement, lower crime rates and other positive neighbourhood qualities that are dependent on sharing a commitment to place (Foster, 2006; Putnam, 1995; Temkin & Rohe, 1998). In fact, “the heightened sense of ownership and belonging to a locale” is considered to encourage the development of social relations (Hamiduddin & Adelfio, 2019, p. 188). However, the gap between theoretical discussions about social sustainability and their practical application has continued. For example, the emphasis of social sustainability as a target outcome rather than as a process has been prioritised in technocratic approaches to planning new housing developments and to measuring their success by factors which are tangible and easier to count and audit. Private housing developers that deal with urban regeneration make bold claims to social sustainability yet profound questions are raised regarding the effects of gentrification (Dixon, 2019). Accordingly, the attempted methods of public participation as planning tools for integrating the ‘social’ have been found to be less effective - their potential being undercut due to the reality that decision-making power has remained at the top (Eizenberg & Jabareen, 2017). Therefore, social sustainability is not a fixed concept, it is contingent on the interdependence of the procedural aspects (how to achieve social sustainability) and substantive aspects (what are the outcomes of social sustainability goals) (Boström, 2012). From this point of view, social sustainability reveals its process-oriented nature and the need to establish processes of practicing social sustainability that begin with the participation of citizens in decision-making processes in producing equitable (i.e. socially sustainable) development. As a dimension of sustainable development that is harder to quantify than the economic or environmental aspects, the operationalisation of social sustainability goals into spatial, actionable principles has remained a burgeoning area of research. In such research, methods for enhancing citizen participation are a particularly important concern in order to engage and empower people with “non-expert” knowledge to collaborate with academic researchers.

Created on 03-06-2022

Author: A.Panagidis (ESR8)


Area: Community participation

Sustainability is primarily defined as 'the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment' (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, n.d.) and is often used interchangeably with the term “sustainable development”(Aras & Crowther, 2009). As defined by the UN, sustainable development is the effort to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations, 1987) and is often interpreted as the strategies adopted towards sustainability with the latter being the overall goal/vision (Diesendorf, 2000). Both of these relatively general and often ambiguous terms have been a focal point for the past 20 years for researchers, policy makers, corporations as well as local communities, and activist groups, among others, (Purvis et al., 2019). The ambiguity and vagueness that characterise both of these terms have contributed to their leap into the global mainstream as well as the broad political consensus regarding their value and significance (Mebratu, 1998; Purvis et al., 2019), rendering them one of the dominant discourses in environmental, socio-political and economic issues (Tulloch, 2013). It is, however, highly contested whether their institutionalisation is a positive development. Tulloch, and Tulloch & Nielson (2013; 2014) argue that these terms -as they are currently understood- are the outcome of the “[colonisation of] environmentalist thought and action” which, during the 1960s and 1970s, argued that economic growth and ecological sustainability within the capitalist system were contradictory pursuits. This “colonisation” resulted in the disempowerment of such discourses and their subsequent “[subordination] to neoliberal hegemony” (Tulloch & Neilson, 2014, p. 26). Thus, sustainability and sustainable development, when articulated within neoliberalism, not only reinforce such disempowerment, through practices such as greenwashing, but also fail to address the intrinsic issues of a system that operates on, safeguards, and prioritises economic profit over social and ecological well-being (Jakobsen, 2022). Murray Bookchin (1982), in “The Ecology of Freedom” contends that social and environmental issues are profoundly entangled, and their origin can be traced to the notions of hierarchy and domination. Bookchin perceives the exploitative relationship with nature as a direct outcome of the development of hierarchies within early human societies and their proliferation ever since. In order to re-radicalise sustainability, we need to undertake the utopian task of revisiting our intra-relating, breaking down these hierarchical relations, and re-stitching our social fabric. The intra-relating between and within the molecules of a society (i.e. the different communities it consists of) determines how sustainability is understood and practised (or performed), both within these communities and within the society they form. In other words, a reconfigured, non-hierarchical, non-dominating intra-relationship is the element that can allow for an equitable, long-term setting for human activity in symbiosis with nature (Dempsey et al., 2011, p. 290). By encouraging, striving for, and providing the necessary space for all voices to be heard, for friction and empathy to occur, the aforementioned long-term setting for human activity based on a non-hierarchical, non-dominating intra-relating is strengthened, which augments the need for various forms of community participation in decision-making, from consulting to controlling. From the standpoint of spatial design and architecture, community participation is already acknowledged as being of inherent value in empowering communities (Jenkins & Forsyth, 2009), while inclusion in all facets of creation, and community control in management and maintenance can improve well-being and social reproduction (Newton & Rocco, 2022; Turner, 1982). However, much like sustainability, community participation has been co-opted by the neoliberal hegemony; often used as a “front” for legitimising political agendas or as panacea to all design problems, community participation has been heavily losing its significance as a force of social change (Smith & Iversen, 2018), thus becoming a depoliticised, romanticised prop. Marcus Miessen (2011) has developed a critical standpoint towards what is being labelled as participation; instead of a systematic effort to find common ground and/or reach consensus, participation through a cross-benching approach could be a way to create enclaves of disruption, i.e. processes where hierarchy and power relations are questioned, design becomes post-consensual spatial agency and participation turns into a fertile ground for internal struggle and contestation. Through this cross-benching premise, community participation is transformed into a re-politicised spatial force. In this context, design serves as a tool of expressing new imaginaries that stand against the reproduction of the neoliberal spatial discourse. Thus, sustainability through community participation could be defined as the politicised effort to question, deconstruct and dismantle the concept of dominance by reconfiguring the process of intra-relating between humans and non-humans alike.

Created on 08-06-2022

Author: E.Roussou (ESR9)


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