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Civil society and the built environment

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by Journal Of Commerce

In February, I had the honour and good fortune to receive an invitation on behalf of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) to attend an address from His Highness, the Aga Khan, to a joint session of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
Allan Teramura
Allan Teramura

Architecture Matters |Allan Teramura

In February, I had the honour and good fortune to receive an invitation on behalf of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) to attend an address from His Highness, the Aga Khan, to a joint session of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.

The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the world’s Shia Ismaili Muslims and founder of the Aga Khan Development Network, which works to improve living conditions for people in 30 countries.

He spoke of the importance of civil society which he defined as “an array of institutions which operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are motivated by high public purposes.”

Professional associations, such as the RAIC, are included in this group, as are those that work in media, the arts and education.

It is his firm conviction that civil society is essential for the success of any democracy, as such organizations have unique talents and competencies upon which all societies rely.

Professional associations are particularly important, in his view, as they are bound to uphold ethical standards of practice that go beyond the mere commercial transaction.

If a situation exists that threatens quality of life, it is often civil society organizations that are best suited to speak out, to act or otherwise intervene.

Being a recognized authority on a subject lends credibility to opinions, particularly if it is clear that one is not advocating for commercial reasons.

While organizations that deal with the natural environment and human health are well known to the general public, those that deal with the built environment tend not to be.

This needs to change, as there are many issues to address, globally and locally.

For example, too many people in First Nations communities don’t have access to clean drinking water and functional sanitation systems.

Furthermore, the design and location of many of these communities, unrelated as they are to traditional practices and knowledge of the land, can exacerbate poor living conditions rather than improve them.

Our cities, meanwhile, are wasteful of non-renewable resources, and continue to grow in haphazard ways that threaten to make this situation even worse.

Buildings consume more energy than they should.

The willingness of civil society to deploy energies and skills can make all the difference.

An excellent example is the intervention of Architectes de l’Urgence du Canada, a non-profit group, in the northern Quebec community of Kitcisakik.

With volunteer labour and a borrowed sawmill, they introduced construction training and assisted the community to repair their homes and build new ones.

The community now can sustainably harvest timber and build dwellings as needed, breaking the demoralizing cycle of dependency that had developed over the years.

In Shia Ismaili culture, contributing one’s individual energies on a voluntary basis to improving the lives of others is a central principle.

For those of us not part of this community, it is more than philanthropy; it is an opportunity to achieve what the Aga Khan has described as “enlightened self-fulfillment.”

Other opportunities include advocating for changes in public policy.

The RAIC, for example, is in early stages of developing a strategy for implementing incremental changes to Canada’s energy codes, to align with the objectives of the 2030 Challenge.

As architects, we know that dramatic improvements to energy performance are achievable today, and it is our view that we have a responsibility to ensure that this is understood by the public and their elected representatives.

In the words of the Aga Khan “the voices of civil society are voices for change, where change has been overdue.”

Allan Teramura, MRAIC is the Architecture Canada | RAIC regional director for Ontario North, East and Nunavut. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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