Get involved: Architects promote civic engagement at SXSW Mayors’ Summit

Civic I/O - architects and civic engagement

Most people don't think of architects or mayors when considering South by Southwest, but the conference's Civic I/O Mayors' Summit gave them a unique opportunity to meet and learn from each other.

The Civic I/O Mayors’ Summit at South by Southwest brought architects and mayors together to discuss policy shaping and community building

At the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas, attendees wearing virtual-reality headsets were swinging in brightly colored hammocks while mayors from across the country gathered with architects, artists, and futurists for the Civic I/O Mayors’ Summit. In a day-and-a-half full of panel presentations, interactive situational exercises, and working sessions, the mayors focused on the future and left with creative briefs for what might be the artifacts of their cities in 2030.

Charged with rethinking our cities, supporting their economic vitality, strengthening their social fabric, maintaining their infrastructure, and building their sustainable and resilient futures, mayors have a lot on their plates. “Increasingly, cities and local government are seen as the last frontiers for focusing on the greater good,” noted Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, as he welcomed the crowd to Austin. “Our challenge is to find reality and give hope.”

So how can architects become engaged citizens and contribute to large efforts of community building, policy, and municipal decision making?

Advice to architects from mayors at Civic I/O ranged from ‘get involved in government and call us up’ to ‘don’t presume we don’t get the design stuff and have patience with us.’ Essentially, these mayors said, “Be active, lend a voice, and stay in it for the long haul.”

Leaders share their stories

Architect participants at Civic I/O—including Jose Alvarez, AIA; Mara Baum, AIA; Stuart Coppedge, FAIA; Peter Exley, FAIA; Stephen Luoni, Assoc. AIA; Taryn Sabia, Assoc. AIA; and Julie Snow, FAIA—are doing just that as leaders in their firms who are reaching out to and participating in their local and regional communities.  

Alvarez, principal at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR), recalls the endless opportunities in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina to support the local government’s efforts to rebuild, and notes that opportunities to contribute are always there. “As architects, this is what we do,” says Alvarez. “We must engage with the community and be active in the civic realm. But we also must recognize that change often comes slowly and that policy takes time to develop.”

EDR’s Crescent Park, which has been widely celebrated for its impact and transformation of the New Orleans riverfront, required extensive outreach and education. “We met with the neighborhood on a weekly basis,” notes Alvarez. “We had the mayor’s support, but we also needed to help the residents understand and support the larger master plan.”

For Baum, vice president and sustainable design leader at HOK, architects are uniquely positioned to educate a variety of community stakeholders. “Our clients are often very large institutions or companies,” she says. “We can support civic engagement and policies by educating our clients about the larger impacts that they can have on their communities.” It is about the entire picture for Baum, who emphasizes that you cannot impact change if you do nothing. “If you don’t design the city you want, you get the city you get,” was her favorite statement during Civic I/O.

Architects seeking to participate in designing their cities by affecting municipal policy and decision making have options: Why not participate on community and school boards, establish or volunteer for civic-minded not-for-profits, and join the planning boards—or just attend a meeting and ask questions?

“We can support civic engagement and policies by educating our clients about the larger impacts that they can have on their communities.” - Mara Baum, AIA

Coppedge, principal at RTA Architects in Colorado Springs, Colorado, explains that architects must be engaged citizens. His firm is active at all levels of local government—from community task forces to City Council-appointed posts on the Historic Preservation Board and the Downtown Review Board. To architects aspiring to work with local governments, he recommends making a name for yourself by building a culture of help. “Become a resource for people,” he says. “Develop personal relationships and engage people early in their careers, so you can grow with them.”  

Exley, co-founder of the Chicago-based Architecture is Fun, encourages architects to get out of their typical circles and call up leadership. “Mayors and most civic leaders are available for appointments,” he says. “Do research and go see them; talk about aligned interests; talk about the creative problem solving and community building that architects do every day; offer help.”

Finding room to participate

Luoni, Sabia, and Snow all concur: The opportunities for participation are somewhat endless with local AIA and Urban Land Institute (ULI) chapters on hand to facilitate engagement at all levels. As reflected in Luoni’s and Sabia’s work, acting as a resource is fundamental to the effort. Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, encourages integrated planning that promotes social and environmental initiatives along with economic development. His approach is designer-driven and comprises advocacy, research, and planning.  

Bridging gaps is also fundamental to Sabia’s work as director and research associate professor at the Florida Center for Community Design & Research at the University of Florida. The Center for Community Design has taken on initiatives such as drafting an ordinance to allow community gardens and facilitating it through the City of Tampa’s approval process. “We can elevate design and engage a broad spectrum of the public simply by attending open mic sessions at City Council meetings,” she says. “Look for areas where you can help improve policy and start working.”

Snow, founder of Snow Kreilich Architects, recommends being strategic when engaging municipal leaders. “Read the State of the City address; look at what your local AIA and ULI chapters are working toward; find something that you are passionate about; and if it is not there, get a group of like-minded architects together and start a taskforce.”

Gabriella Gomez-Mont, a panelist at Civic I/O and founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad—an experimental research, design, and planning arm of the Mayor’s Office in Mexico City—argues that architects have a lot to offer their local governments and the larger communities. “The prominent role of architects in making our cities means architects have had a significant role in shaping our lives [beyond just] aesthetics and the objective experience of a city,” she says. “Thanks to new research in neuroscience, we now know that the urban forms that surround [us] influence our moods and even the very configuration of our brains. [We are] leaving behind modernistic ‘city as machine’ views—where productivity, velocity, and the like are the important ordering instincts. We can now understand cities as huge cultural artifacts, and architects are well poised to explore other ways of being for cities—and to explore health, ethics, belonging, and play.”

At Civic I/O, architects worked with mayors to think beyond their immediate realities.  Snow, like all of the architects who joined in the conversations, says the future is where architects live. “I thought it was fascinating to help the mayors imagine a hypothetical future,” she says. “They have so many pressing issues in the present, and the exercises really let us pull them out of their day-to-day concerns. But frankly, this is how we work; we build buildings thinking about how they will function for years. We must plan for future. We are designing the artifacts of the future.”

Catherine Gavin is a writer based in Austin, Texas.

Image credits

Civic I/O - architects and civic engagement

Scott Lahn

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