Throughout history, the built environment has been a powerful force for social coordination and control – both physically and metaphorically.

Take the Great Wall of China or Germany’s Berlin Wall. Though constructed many centuries and thousands of kilometres apart, these structures became lasting symbols of social, cultural and ideological barriers that separated people.

However, buildings can also bring people together.

Building designers and owners are finding new, innovative ways to transform their assets into forces for social equity, transforming the nature and culture of communities in the process.

Here are some of the most interesting social equity initiatives that I’ve seen recently:

Homes for Homes

Developed by one of Australia’s most successful social enterprise organisations, The Big Issue, Homes for Homes is a voluntary funding scheme that encourages homeowners, property developers and banks to make a tax deductible donation of 0.1 per cent of their property price at the time of sale.

The money raised is distributed to social and affordable housing service providers to help fund building projects in areas where affordable social housing is most desperately needed.

GBCA-member Grocon and Capital Estate Developments have both backed the scheme, committing to devote a percentage of proceeds from the sale of close to 3,000 dwellings to the program in 2015 alone.

A helping hand to the homeless

In May, Grocon announced that it would partner with local homeless support and advocacy group Launch Housing to make end-of-trip shower amenities available to homeless people in Melbourne. The initiative is proposed for Grocon’s 13-storey Northumberland commercial office project in Collingwood, currently awaiting planning approval.

Grocon’s assistant development manager Angie Darby has said the facilities are “envisaged as a respectful offer to support people who are homeless, maintaining their comfort and dignity while sorting out their housing crisis.”

Launch Housing will manage the facilities, providing a valuable forum through which to connect people with assistance and outreach services.

The skills exchange

Construction workers are second only to farmers, foresters and fisheries workers when it comes to self-employment. In a highly-competitive, transient and tender-driven market, finding work can be an endless source of stress for tradies.

Recognising that as many as 10,000 building and construction personnel would work on Sydney’s landmark Barangaroo urban renewal project over the course of a decade, developer Lendlease has partnered with TAFE NSW and the Property Services Industry Skills Council (PSISK) to create an on-site learning and skills development hub for the project.

The Barangaroo Skills Exchange (BSX) gives construction workers the opportunity to build upon and learn new skills – from literacy and numeracy, to IT, construction trade skills and leadership. The aim is to help improve workers’ long term employment prospects while boosting their confidence and engagement while they work at Barangaroo.

“We do a hard job, we are like footballers, we make pretty good money but we know it is for a limited time, and retirement is still a long way off,” said one worker.

“The BSX is providing me an opportunity to set myself up for the future, I have a lot of skills that I would like to pass on to the next generation. For the past twelve months I have been undertaking the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment with the eventual aim of becoming a WorkCover assessor in high risk areas such as crane driving, rigging and dogging.”

The democratisation of public space

The Sydney Opera House achieved a 4 Star Green Star – Performance Pilot rating in 2015, picking up valuable Innovation points for its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – a first for an Australian performing arts venue.

Staff are trained in culturally-respectful behaviours, and the Opera House has appointed of a Head of Indigenous Programming to lead the wide range of Indigenous arts festivals and workshops hosted at the venue.

Naomi Martin, the Opera House’s environmental sustainability manager says expanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artistic content and audience participation, and increasing education and employment opportunities, is “helping to raise cultural awareness in the arts and more widely.”

In addition to its RAP, the Opera House has developed an Access Strategic Plan (ASP) to help make the building and performances accessible to all. Highlights of the program include autism-friendly shows, audio-described tours of Vivid LIVE for the hearing impaired, and Oddysea – a highly specialised interactive theatre experience for young people with special needs.

The design of a city can speak volumes about the values shared by its citizens, and the way that people are organised, managed and sustained within it. Where equity lives, resilience, cohesion and equality thrives. I’m excited to see how this new focus on social equity will shape Australia’s built environment into the future.