AIA’s Strategic Council champions programs to address sustainable urbanization
Architects in San Diego and Columbus are facilitating efforts through collaboration and community engagement
By 2050 the United Nations predicts that 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, a startling projection that carries many implications for the natural and built environments. In 2016, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III, challenged world leaders, policymakers, and architects to address rapid urbanization. Representatives of 167 countries agreed on the New Urban Agenda, which called for standards to reduce poverty and inequality while promoting economic growth and human rights.
What makes the New Urban Agenda significant is its totalizing scope. It provides communities of varying size and need guidelines for developing reliable infrastructure, housing, and vital services. “The New Urban Agenda is the ultimate expression of human need for the next generation,” says AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA. “I know of no community that will not benefit from its principles of shared human progress.” While architects and planners have long contributed to urbanization schemes, these UN recommendations could be the key to finally creating a truly effective strategy suitable for the 21st century.
AIA pushes for real change
Recognizing the need to not only be involved in but to lead efforts to embrace the New Urban Agenda, AIA’s Strategic Council formed Communication, Advocacy, and Policy of New Urban Agenda (CAPNUA), an initiative focused on adapting the UN recommendations. The engagement initiative utilizes architects as facilitators, helping communities identify ways to take actionable, localized sustainable development measures. CAPNUA pilot programs kicked off in 2017 and— through the support of allied professions, civic leaders, and AIA components—U.S. cities are already benefiting.
A primary New Urban Agenda principle is access to adequate and affordable housing, a priority that AIA San Diego has started to tackle. The greater San Diego region will likely experience population growth of 1 million by 2050, requiring an additional 400,000 housing units. Current building rates in the area are about half what they should be to meet that demand. In 2017, Housing the Next 1 Million in San Diego County (HN1M) launched with a series of workshops on housing and community development topics including sustainability, resiliency, public health, and homelessness. Sessions explored the role of architects in society, and how they can act as leaders and facilitate action.
The first phase of HN1M culminated in a two-day design charrette to identify solutions for the housing crisis in 12 San Diego County neighborhoods. Teams comprised of architects, allied professionals, civic leaders, and community members worked together in service of their own neighborhoods. “Everybody had a slightly different perspective,” says Phil Bona, AIA, an HN1M coordinator and CAPNUA champion, “but because they were neighbors, they all agreed to listen to each other.” Bona finds that a bit of prep work before such an event is helpful, and he encouraged team members to go on neighborhood tours and identify suitable areas for growth.
But starting with a relatively clean slate is even more conducive to fostering collaboration. “We didn’t want to come in as architects and say, ‘This is how we’re going to save your future,’ or ‘These are the buildings we’re going to give you,’” Bona says. Instead, the San Diego architects came to the table with a blank sheet of paper and asked everyone, “What do you want to see in the neighborhood?” The HN1M charrette resulted in starter plans for each neighborhood; Bona says next steps include a communications campaign and taking plans to community boards for review.
Halfway across the country, Columbus, Ohio, is experiencing incremental urbanization—approximately 250 people per week are moving into the city. Home to a growing number of retail headquarters, Columbus suffers from a lack of public transportation to accommodate residents. In line with the New Urban Agenda’s principle to ensure sustainable and inclusive urban economies, local architects seek to address urban sprawl in Franklinton, a downtown neighborhood west of the Scioto River. The area has drawn the attention of developers and investors in the 15 years since the federal government installed a flood wall, a necessary improvement as Columbus sits between the Appalachian mountains and the prairie. According to CAPNUA champion Tim Hawk, FAIA, a citywide planning strategy is in the works, and Franklinton is an important piece of it. “The neighborhood is really in its infancy,” Hawk says. “It is a huge swath of land that is completely downtown and completely underdeveloped. It’s a perfect storm for opportunity.”
Before engaging the broader community in planning efforts, AIA Columbus members sought to coordinate with other design professions, seeking consensus about their potential roles and contributions. They pulled together a diverse committee including landscape architects and planners to organize the daylong “The City for Tomorrow: New Urban Agenda for Franklinton Symposium.” The event focused on daylighting challenges and opportunities in that part of the city. Through a series of panels and dialogues on such topics as SMART cities, placemaking, and diversification and resiliency, local design practitioners discussed how they can shape the future of Franklinton. “Our first goal was to create engagement amongst professionals,” says Hawk. “Our next step is to do charrette workshops, engaging and seeking feedback from individuals in the community.”
Elefante sees the field of architecture transforming as practitioners rise to the challenges of sustainable urbanization. “If architects embrace it with a genuine sense of accountability, the New Urban Agenda proclaims a relevance revolution for our profession,” he says. “It writes the ‘program’ for architecture's design assignment over the next generation.”
While that revolution may not be immediate, AIA members will continue to develop solution-oriented programs, strengthening their commitment to protect and serve the public.
Through our Blueprint for Better Communities initiative, we encourage members to facilitate conversations about the future of their communities. Join our upcoming webinar with Tania Salgado, FAIA, and Tim Hawk, FAIA, to learn how you can kick off similar programs.
Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.