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An insight into 'Next Gen: Architecture and Activism' at UIA Copenhagen 2023

Activists and change makers Nyasha Harper-Michon and Councillor HY William Chan discuss the need for activism in architecture at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023.

by Zeynep Rekkali JensenPublished on : Jul 28, 2023

In recent years, a new generation of young activists has emerged across various disciplines, including architecture and urban planning, dedicated to driving positive change and creating a more inclusive and sustainable future. At the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 in Copenhagen, a panel discussion titled 'Next Gen: Architecture and Activism - How to Make an Impact' featured influential activists and change-makers—Nyasha Harper-Michon and Councillor HY William Chan—who shared their insights on the intersection of architecture and activism. The session was successfully moderated by Connie Hedegaard, who has had climate action as a centerpiece of her political career.

After the thought-provoking panel discussion, STIR had the opportunity to conduct exclusive interviews with both Councillor HY William Chan and Nyasha Harper-Michon, delving deeper into their perspectives and furthering the discussion on the vital intersection of architecture and activism in building a sustainable and inclusive future for our cities.

Nyasha Harper-Michon and Connie Hedegaard | UIA Copenhagen 2023 | STIRworld
Nyasha Harper-Michon and Connie Hedegaard Image: Courtesy of UIA Copenhagen 2023
Archtivism is about breaking down the status quo, the industry's walls, and the existing systems that govern the architecture profession. – Nyasha Harper-Michon

Archtivism: Blending Architecture and Activism

Harper-Michon, a self-proclaimed 'archtivist,' introduced the concept of "archtivism" during the panel discussion. She defines archtivism as the delightful blend of architecture and activism, focused on breaking down barriers within the industry and fostering a more inclusive, regenerative, and resilient future for cities and communities. She emphasises that being an archtivist extends beyond the traditional confines of the architecture profession, encouraging everyone interested in co-creating and re-designing cities to claim the title. Archtivism aims to empower individuals from all backgrounds to actively participate in the betterment of their neighborhoods and cities, whether through professional roles or as engaged citizens.

In her own words, Harper-Michon explains, "Archtivism is about breaking down the status quo, the industry's walls, and the existing systems that govern the architecture profession. It's about building back better—towards a more inclusive, regenerative, and resilient future. Building on philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s idea: We all have the right to the city. I believe we should claim this right and seize the opportunity to co-create the type of city we all can thrive in. In contrast to the protected profession of architecture, archtivism has fewer barriers; there is no one way to be an archtivist. No one way to be citizen city-makers co-designing places and spaces we can all live, work, play and be ourselves in.”

Promoting Inclusion and Diversity in the Built Environment

As a purpose-driven architect and inclusion advocate, Harper-Michon outlined several strategies to create safe and inclusive spaces within the built environment. She actively shares knowledge, empowers others, and uncovers actionable solutions for climate action. For instance, Harper-Michon volunteers to teach lower-income children about architecture, making the profession more accessible to marginalised communities. She advises city officials on diversity and inclusion, ensuring that decision-making processes incorporate voices from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, she emphasises the importance of celebrating and advocating for projects that embody archtivist thinking, even if they challenge the status quo.

Harper-Michon shares her approach to promoting inclusion and diversity, stating: "I act as an archtivist through the people that I can impact and the projects and initiatives that those architecture industry stakeholders will create to address today's challenges and shape a better future."

Nyasha Harper-Michon and Connie Hedegaard | UIA Copenhagen 2023 | STIRworld
Councillor HY William Chan Image: Courtesy of UIA Copenhagen 2023

Addressing Global Challenges: A Call for System Change

Both Harper-Michon and William Chan emphasised that cities and the built environment are at the forefront of addressing pressing global challenges, including the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and growing inequality. They argue that traditional approaches to architecture and urban planning have contributed to these issues and necessitate a shift in mindset. Archtivism, as a form of system change, seeks to break away from old ways of thinking and design to foster truly regenerative, resilient, and inclusive cities.

Harper-Michon, a self-defined city girl, has called numerous cities her home, including Paris, Brussels, Port-of-Spain, Washington DC, and Amsterdam. Her deep sense of love for urban environments is evident as she highlights the vibrancy of cities—their social interaction, stimulation, and innovation. However, she candidly acknowledges the unpleasant reality that today's greatest global challenges are omnipresent within these bustling metropolises. In her view, the design of our cities is riddled with dysfunctions and inequalities that negatively impact urban populations daily, perpetuating the very issues they seek to address. With a passion for positive change, Harper-Michon firmly believes that cities and the built environment are instrumental in confronting these pressing challenges head-on. She calls for a reimagining and recalibration of how we approach urban design and architecture, viewing it as the greatest challenge within the profession. The list of challenges is extensive, from mitigating the climate crisis and addressing biodiversity loss to tackling rapid urbanisation and rising construction costs. Harper-Michon asserted that while there might not be a singular technical solution, there is a "soft solution"—one that entails a fundamental shift in how we think, design, and build cities to create more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable urban spaces.

Harper-Michon passionately highlights the urgency of the challenges at hand: "Cities are vibrant places of social interaction, stimulation, and innovation. But on the flip side, there's the unpleasant fact that today's greatest global challenges are omnipresent within our cities. In fact, they are actually built into them."

A Humble Recognition of Past Failures

Councillor HY William Chan highlighted the need for humility in addressing these challenges. He stressed the importance of acknowledging that the architectural profession has, at times, left certain communities behind and caused unintended consequences through its practices. Reflecting on past mistakes is crucial to understanding how the profession can move forward and create meaningful change.

Chan reflects on the profession's responsibility: "We cannot actually start any of these dialogues to solutions and action until we actually recognise that as architects, as a profession, we have left people behind. We really need to understand who's been left out."

It's really important for us to ensure that we are making decisions not just for the now but for tomorrow, for the next generations and their children. – Councillor HY William Chan
Nyasha Harper-Michon | UIA Copenhagen 2023 | STIRworld
Nyasha Harper-Michon Image: Courtesy of UIA Copenhagen 2023

The Role of Young Activists in Building a Better Future

Chan spoke about the role of young activists as both architects and politicians in shaping a sustainable future. He highlighted the importance of recognising the privilege that often accompanies being a vocal representative, as it may not always align with the needs and perspectives of marginalised communities. Chan stressed the significance of long-term thinking and understanding the impact of decisions on future generations.

William Chan emphasises the need for representation: "We really need to ensure that when we think about the future, we think about others who are not represented. It's really important for us to ensure that we are making decisions not just for the now but for tomorrow, for the next generations and their children."

Councillor Chan, in his role as a community representative and politician, advocates for the inclusion of all voices in the decision-making process. During the panel discussion, he stressed on the need to recognise how society arrived at its current challenges. Councillor Chan urged his fellow attendees at the UIA Congress to acknowledge the privilege of those present and to remember those who are often voiceless and underrepresented. He pointed out that the loudest voices may not necessarily represent the entire community, as they often have greater access to decision-makers and people in positions of power. He passionately spoke about the importance of understanding the perspectives of those who have been left out, emphasising that a one-size-fits-all solution cannot address the diverse needs of all communities. As a representative, he takes on the responsibility of ensuring that decisions are made not only for the immediate challenges but also with a focus on the long-term impact, considering the needs and concerns of all constituents, particularly those who might struggle to envision the future beyond their immediate problems. Chan’s advocacy for inclusion and representation serves as a reminder that true progress and positive change can only be achieved when all members of society have a voice in shaping the future of our cities.

The panel discussion "Next Gen: Architecture and Activism - How to Make an Impact" shed light on the critical role of archtivism in driving positive change within the architecture and urban planning community. Nyasha Harper-Michon and Councillor HY William Chan showcased the power of activism to address global challenges, foster inclusivity, and create a sustainable built environment. Through archtivism and collaborative efforts, these young activists are determined to make an impact and drive the transition to a brighter future for cities and communities worldwide. The panel's discussion on current issues in urban planning related to the climate crisis, particularly the social aspects affecting underrepresented groups in politics, struck me as highly significant. It highlighted how architectural design can play a crucial role in sustainable city development. I was delighted to witness the inclusion of young voices during the panel discussion. It was truly inspiring to hear the perspectives of Nyasha Harper-Michon and William Chan as the next generation of activists and architects, who are passionately driving positive change and advocating for a better future.

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