2011 AIA Convention: Sustainability, Livability, and Political Will

Two programs offered two sides of the same coin with a message about what design professionals, government and civic leaders, and citizens need to focus on to create livable, sustainable communities. From the design/planning side Hillary A. Brown, FAIA, LEED AP, principal of NYC-based New Civic Works, and James S. Russell, FAIA, architecture critic for Bloomberg News, presented “Next Generation Green: Sustainable Communities and Infrastructure.” On the political side, former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, Salt Lake City Council Member Søren D. Simonsen, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, and Colorado State Representative Cheri Gerou, FAIA, discussed “Transitioning Iconic Urban Centers through Political, Community, and Design Leadership.”

Brown’s report focused on research directions and emerging trends for post-industrial infrastructure, and offered principles and guidelines for the next generation. She blamed the current (sad) state of infrastructure on “siloed thinking” that makes it “vulnerable” to politics and “locks us into long-term, carbon-intensive conventional public and private investments.” It was a whirlwind presentation, replete with numerous case studies, of what will be detailed in her forthcoming book from Island Press (2012), Infrastructural Ecologies: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works (a preview of the book, much of it included in her presentation, can be read here). Russell (whose latest book, The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, made its debut at the convention), highlighted transportation, describing it as being “a bit primitive in the U.S.” His presentation was rich with examples of projects — mostly overseas — that are “diverse, layered, multi-modal, and multi-functional.” He pondered: “Why can’t America build this way?” It’s our “one-size-fits-all mentality” with agencies that don’t work together and their failure to recognize the benefits that come with “shared landscapes” involving transportation and water, power, and land use management as urban amenities. “The whole can be more than the sum of its parts,” he said. If architects are to expand their role in infrastructure projects, “we need to change the status quo — advocate, envision, participate in the political process.”

A very similar message was delivered by Jeremy Harris, the former mayor of the City and County of Honolulu, who said that “our land use policies are flawed.” The main culprit: “Our cities have been built around cars instead of people because we base decisions on engineering instead of design.” He called for new design leadership to not force but encourage the political will to mandate sustainable strategies with a systems approach. He filled his own cabinet with architects instead of engineers, and described how architects in the private sector led to the revitalization of Waikiki’s urban core by promoting citizen empowerment and developing urban design and green guidelines and energy codes. He urged architects to “get on the radar screens of politicians.” A few concrete tactics: set up a Mayor’s Awards Program or a Mayor’s Design Charrette or Community Visioning Sessions. This makes the architect a mayor’s advocate rather than adversary. “Let the mayor take the credit. Then he or she will start to understand that you are valuable.” Unfortunately, the program got off to a late start, and the two architect/politicians on the panel got short shrift: yours truly had to bow out just as Salt Lake City Council Member Søren D. Simonsen, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, started explaining the mission and accomplishments of the Envision Utah initiative, “an unprecedented public effort” launched in 1997. Sadly, we cannot report on what pearls of wisdom Colorado State Representative Cheri Gerou, FAIA, may have proffered.