Sociology of the Built Environment
The built environment consists of all human-made structures and stands in contrast to the natural environment. The character of the built environment has historically reflected the nature of prevailing human activity and industry, evolving over time with advances in technology, trade, and transportation. From the industrial age onward, societies around the globe have witnessed unparalleled growth in the number of building developments and the array of materials used to construct buildings. The contemporary passion for owning land has fueled capital interests in the built environment, which has contributed to the accelerated pace of development. Inequitable and unhealthy situations for humans and the rest of nature continue to arise within the planning and construction of the built environment. Considering the projected increases in population and average age, new policies must be developed to address these concerns.
Keywords Architecture; Built Environment; Control of Land; Environmental Health; Land Ownership; Land Use; Natural Environment; Property; Public Health; Real Estate; Sustainability; Vernacular Architecture
Sociology of the Built Environment
The concept of built environment stands in contrast to what is understood as the natural environment and consists of all manner of structures erected by humans, including but not limited to residential, commercial, industrial, educational, civic, and devotional buildings. The physical dimension of the built environment and the living processes by which that environment is built together constitute a rich data field revealing insights about human behavior, social psychology, production and consumption patterns, and dispositions with regard to humans' relationship to or place within the natural world.
Examined macroscopically and historically, the diversity and evolution of our built environments can be probed for underlying social mechanisms and ideologies, for convergences and anomalies. Microscopically, in the design, construction, and use of just one building in the context of a sociopolitical community, we can observe a dynamism of interaction between aspects such as agency, participation, power, culture, space claiming, capital interests, social reproduction, policy, experience, and physical and psychosocial health (Szapocznik 2006). And while sociological exploration of the built environment produces a diverse array of claims, one fundamental finding is key: that we humans both shape and are shaped by the physical environment we build.
History of the Built Environment: From Hunter-Gatherer to Suburban Commuter
Looking broadly at Homo sapiens' 100,000-year tenure on Earth, one can imagine that during most of that history, humans impacted Earth in very natural ways, much like other hunting-gathering animals: producing and consuming only what was crucial to survival, dispersing waste across regions, and accumulating very few material goods (Lazlo & Seidel, 2006). A hunter-gatherer's relationship to the environment was, like that of modern-day humans, a paradoxical one. On one hand, nature's bounty was needed for survival; on the other hand, nature's unforgiving hazards jeopardized existence or diminished quality of life (Fitch & Bobenhausen, 1999). In the absence of naturally occurring shelter such as a cave, the construction of reliable shelter was most likely a very important development in the progress of certain groups, allowing them proximity to natural resources yet decreasing their exposure to harmful elements. And while this primitive "built environment" reduced nature's potentially negative effect on humans, it likely made an insignificant impact on the natural environment.
It is believed that about 10,000 years ago—about ten percent of humans' total evolutionary history—there occurred a decisive shift away from nomadic behavior and toward a more fixed or settled standard of living (Lazlo & Seidel, 2006). With the spread of agricultural knowledge and the refinement of tool technology, full-time farming became a viable option for survival. Accordingly, the character and composition of the built environment at that time likely evolved to suit a more settled lifestyle. The gathering together of more permanent buildings, including shelters and occupational buildings for storing and Processing, constituted what might be considered early cities. Settlements allowed an increase in the production and exchange of material goods and led to the creation of a more persistent waste stream within a limited land area.
While it is clear that civilizations since (and before) the dawning of the agricultural age have contributed to our species' progress in the form of technological advancement, amassed empirical knowledge, and increased mobility, it is interesting to note that until the relatively recent boom of industry and manufacturing, the technique employed in the construction of the built environment remained remarkably unchanged from the vernacular form, whereby building materials native to a given region were used and building expertise was passed from person to person over generations.
The unparalleled technological advancement witnessed in the late 19th and 20th centuries has left its indelible mark on the shape and content of the built environment. Industry, mining, and manufacturing made reliable the production of materials such as steel, increased access to resources such as fossil-fuel energy, increased the rate of production and assembly of goods, and vastly improved the methods of transporting such goods. This technological surge is made manifest in the growth of new architectural forms and in modified land-use plans. Cities have risen to unparalleled heights, and thanks to a growing transportation infrastructure, the suburbs have pushed the outer limits of urban development.
The Problem of Land Ownership
Inextricably linked with the concept of built environment is the idea of land ownership. In a capitalist society, nature has come to be known as a thing someone can own. Steinberg (1995) describes how 18th-century Europe witnessed a paradigmatic shift in what was meant by having property in land, which had conventionally meant that one owned the rights to use the land but then evolved to mean that one owned the land outright, as a possession. Steinberg notes:
Later in the eighteenth century, the famous legal scholar William Blackstone summarized the advent of a new era. "There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe." So it was that property became, in a word, fetishized. One can scarcely overestimate the enormity of the shift when property, previously conceived of as a right "in" something, assumes its new identity as the thing itself. (p. 14)
The segmentation and the free market exchange of the "nonideological matter-in-motion we call nature" (Steinberg, 1995, p. 10) plays a critical role in the direction, planning, and construction of the built environment, which requires a place to reside. The layering of capitalist logic over the natural world begets "the belief that all land should have an owner" as well as the idea that "the earth is put to best use when a person claims it" (p. 18), and this is where sociological examination might begin to appreciate how the built environment (its form, content, location, ownership, occupancy, use, etc.) manifests dimensions of social relationship, power, and inequity.
What Buildings Mean
Buildings are more than bricks and mortar; they are the physical manifestation of a plan involving multiple agents, motives, and desired outcomes. According to Fitch and Bobenhausen (1999), depending on one's relationship to the building project, the building plan can be interpreted in many different ways:
A plan is many things, depending upon how one looks at it. From the point of view of society as a whole, a plan is an instrument of policy, a means of facilitating a certain line of action. Thus the plan of an American city, or entire metropolitan area, or region, may be regarded as an instrument of socioeconomic policy for the production and exchange of goods and ideas…[f]rom the standpoint of the architect or physical planner, however, a plan is a representation of a horizontal plane passed through a building, city or community. In this sense, a plan is a solution for a given line of action. It inevitably reflects the designer's concept of how—within the limits given—a certain amount of space may be best organized for the specific operation to be housed. For the people who live or work in the completed building or city, a plan is something else again. It is the schema of a control mechanism that, to a large extent, determines how happily they live or how well they work together. (p. 299)
Fitch and Bobenhausen (1999) underscore the existence of diverse perspectives, including political, operational, and critical perspectives, in the planning and design of just one single building. When we consider the built environment, therefore, we must recognize this multiplicity of points of view and be aware of the web of forces that shape our physical environment. Put plainly, a building project means one thing to a venture capitalist or lending institution, another thing to an architect or engineer, and yet another thing to an end user, dweller, neighbor, historian, etc.
We must remember, too, Fitch and Bobenhausen's (1999) decree about the very purpose of human-made environments:
[T]he ultimate task of architecture is to act in favor of human beings—to interpose itself between people and the natural environment in which they find themselves in such a way as to remove...
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