Public Service: Now is the time for mayors to hire a chief architect.

“Architects are the civic problem solvers you didn’t know that you needed,” said AIA President Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC addressing the 2024 U.S Conferences of Mayors. 

Ensuring expert, licensed architects are on the ground guiding city leaders to protect and preserve America’s built environment is key among Dowdell’s agenda. As city leaders from coast to coast address the climate crisis through policies and legislation “having a chief architect advise mayors on issues around climate action, affordable housing, and health equity could be invaluable,” Dowdell said.

For decades, architects have worked with city leaders on matters like capital improvement, code enforcement, and city-owned property design, but as mitigating and responding to climate change tops the issues local governments face, mayors must include licensed architects as key leaders in their climate action plans. 

Several architects are on staff at City of New Orleans Capital Projects Administration.

“Cities need chief architects embedded in city government,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who was elected in 2018. “When I came into office, it was taking the city up to two years to go up to an architecture review. Once we hired in-house, we connected the dots and cut down those two years to 30 days.”

Beyond administrative improvements, it’s the expertise in energy efficiency, sustainability, and climate resilience an architect provides that Cantrell says is an investment in a city’s future, especially coastal towns. 

“We are on the front line of climate change,” said Mayor Cantrell. “My work is absolutely embedded in adaptations. That means meeting our people where they are, but also planning for the future so that we can live in this city for generations to come.”

New Orleans is not alone on the front lines. After studying 50 climate plans from across the United States, the National League of Cities (NLC) reports boosting energy efficiency in buildings as the most popular way cities are addressing climate change. 

Because more than 40% of U.S. greenhouse gases can be attributed to the building industry, architects are positioned to help eliminate and reverse the causes of climate change through the buildings they design and renew. When collaborating with architects who are part of the AIA 2030 Commitment,  a project is approached with a focus toward operational and embodied zero emissions, which also creates a net-positive impact on the environment, people, communities, and the economy.

“To be a 21st century city means growing in smart, sustainable, resilient, equitable, and inclusive ways. We must harness design in the built environment to address historic inequities, especially health disparities in our most vulnerable communities. As architects, we have a special responsibility under our professional license to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” said Dowdell.   

With lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Cantrell honors the history of New Orleans by protecting its future. 

Where we are in this country and this world, the work that architects do now means so much for future generations,” said Cantrell. “We are making it a priority in terms of how we build – build new - but also how we preserve historically. You can do preservation and new construction at the same time,” Cantrell said.

Reflecting on the 20 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina, Cantrell wants mayors and architects aligned in support of their communities.

“It is the best thing we can do as we build for the next generation,” said Cantrell. “You can tackle the issues on the front end, listen to the community on the front end, and on the back end get the results – that is a win-win for everyone. I encourage my brother and sister Mayors across the country to take a look and listen to what AIA is proposing.”