Social movement towards spatial justice : crafting a theory of civic urban form




Wilson, Barbara Brown

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Building codes are socio-technical regulations that govern the manner in which the built world is designed, constructed, and maintained. Instituted in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of humans in the built world, codes also serve as an index of always changing societal values. If codes do not co-evolve with social values, however, they often perpetuate standards that no longer reflect the priorities of mainstream society.
As crises arise and as cultural practices change, regulatory institutions are charged with creating new or amend old codes to reflect these societal shifts. Emergent social values are often dismissed by the general public, misrepresented by their political representatives, or abstracted by the louder voices of the market and the state. In a few critical moments in modern history, however, society successfully adopted and institutionalized previously underrepresented values into urban form. Social movements provide a primary venue for such paradigmatic change. They do this through the production of new knowledge that aims to alter the cognitive praxis of its citizenry and to generate the momentum required to codify grassroots ideals into the built world. Exploring how this confluence of socio-technical innovation functions within the built world, this dissertation addresses the primary research question: What is the relationship between urban social movements, the values they espouse, the building codes they construct, and the liberative function of the spaces produced? In this dissertation, I investigate three established and one emerging social movement to discern the characteristics of democratic code formation that lead to civic urban form. These four case studies are analyzed in terms of their origins, the claims made, strategies employed, and outcomes achieved. Patterns are then extrapolated from this analysis to identify qualities of collective action that contribute to the codification of civic urban form.
The research discussed herein was conducted in two phases to develop a historical base from which to evaluate contemporary efforts to codify civic urban form. The first phase of this exploratory investigation tells the story of three intrinsically valuable, but also comparable case studies of social change in the United States: the community development strategy pursued by the civil rights movement, the architectural accessibility platform advocated by the disability rights movement, and efforts to institutionalize new building practices through voluntary building assessment systems by the environmental movement.
The second phase extrapolates patterns from the established cases to inform the investigation of proto-movements currently coalescing around issues of spatial justice. Both phases are then reflected upon in order to propose a theory of civic urban form that recognizes the dialectic between social movements, emergent social values, building codes, and the physical spaces they inform. The thesis statement underlying this dissertation is that urban social movements in the U.S. require a myriad of different activist organizations— radical and mainstream, professional and grassroots— to simultaneously employ diverse strategies through an integrated frame of collective action in order to institutionalize new types of civic urban form. Based on the theoretical framework developed to conceptualize the production of civic urban form, I go on to argue in the concluding chapters that urban social movements currently seeking various means to codify the tenets of sustainable development in the United States might benefit from couching their collective actions within an integrated action frame of spatial justice.



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