Jun 18, 2014
THEME: Sustainability

Designing for the Planet, Protecting Human Rights

At Perkins+Will, environmental, economic, and social sustainability are a part of everything we do. We share that passion for holistic sustainability with the firm and feel a responsibility as architects to ensure that what we do today does not have a negative impact on the generations of tomorrow. Focusing on sustainability also has a more immediate concern, grappling with the devastating effects of climate change affecting populations around the globe. While climate change is often discussed in relation to its environmental impacts, there is also a significant social burden that is often less recognized.

In Minneapolis, we recently had an opportunity to get to know an amazing organization, The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT). We partnered with the organization to provide pro bono design services for their new headquarters, and like any good design project, it allowed us to become knowledgeable about the important work that they do. CVT provides healing services to victims of some of the world’s most horrific atrocities. As we completed the various phases of the design process, learning about them and their needs and later working through design concepts and material selections, it became more and more clear that there is a direct link between our organizational mission and theirs.

The effects of climate change on the planet and human rights are directly connected. In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted Resolution 7/23 which states, “…climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.” The impact can be seen in diminished food supplies, driving people out of their homes and livelihoods, thereby directly limiting access to the most basic of human rights: food, water, and shelter. As resources become scarcer, organizational bodies such as governments become less stable, and less represented social groups become more desperate and disenfranchised, often leading to government sponsored torture. This is precisely the kind of thing that CVT deals with and fights to end. As architects, we have the power to design buildings and cities that are resilient to the effects of climate change and that regenerate the degraded environment thus having a positive impact on human rights equality.

There are numerous examples of climate change ultimately impacting human rights and working with CVT brought a few into focus for us. One example occurred in 2010 following the devastating floods from extreme monsoonal rains in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan which affected some 20 million people. Massive loss of shelter, food, livelihood, and infrastructure triggered large monetary donations for victims from around the world, but corrupt officials blocked the money from ever reaching flood victims. A small group of activists began protesting this injustice only to be imprisoned and tortured. These activists became political prisoners of the global climate crisis and are part of a growing epidemic. A recent report published by Global Witness, identifies a sharp increase in killings of environmental activists in recent years. The report reveals a near tripling in the number of environmental activist murders between 2002 and 2012 and very few of the killers have faced consequences. Taking a vocal position against environmental degradation and climate change has become highly risky. Other examples such as the growing number of climate refugees in the Maldives or the unequal burden imposed on poorer, more vulnerable countries like Bangladesh continue to reinforce the ongoing human toll of climate change. That toll is an equally important aspect of the discussion around how we deal with a changing planet.

Climate change has a direct implication on human rights and our work with The Center for Victims of Torture made that profoundly clear to us. If we fail to commit to more sustainable ways of designing, building and living, not only are we degrading our planet, we are also degrading the quality of human lives that share it with us. Look for further detail about our project with CVT and the impact our pro-bono design program has had on their organization in the coming weeks.

This post was authored with Meredith Hayes Gordon.

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