Three communities transformed by architects and civic leaders

By bringing together architects, civic leaders, planners, and community members, the American Institute of Architects’ Center for Communities by Design has served more than 200 communities in need over the last 50 years.  The design assistance programs aim for realistic, localized outcomes to address ecological, economic, and social equity concerns. These three US cities were transformed as a result.

Birmingham, Alabama

R/UDAT participants in Pratt City

In 2011, Birmingham was struck by an EF- 4 tornado that damaged or destroyed over 1,500 structures citywide. In Pratt City, a historic African-American community, almost 500 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and over 1,000 residents were displaced. Important public facilities in the neighborhood were leveled. In response, Mayor William Bell contacted the AIA and invited a national Regional/Urban Design Assistance (R/UDAT) team to work with the community and develop a long-term recovery plan. Today, the community boasts tens of millions of dollars in new investment, including public buildings, senior housing, storm shelters, and other improvements.

“What the tornado brought was not just building and roads. It’s really brought back community strength; people coming together. It’s not just a brick and mortar thing. It’s the people who live here – you can see them united.” – Andre Bittas, Director of Planning & Engineering – Birmingham, AL

Port Angeles, Washington

The reimagined Port Angeles waterfront at night

Through the second half of the 20th century, Port Angeles suffered a declining economy – the result of mill closures and reduced productivity from natural resource industries. In 2009, Port Angeles brought in a Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) to focus on downtown revitalization and waterfront development. The three-day process created enormous civic energy to pursue a vision for the city’s future. Community engagement instantly soared, as residents volunteered their time, equipment, and resources to give the downtown area a facelift. The city also moved forward with substantial investment in its waterfront, which inspired new public and private partnerships. Within five years, Port Angeles had over $100 million in new investment downtown.

“The SDAT experience was far more than just a planning exercise. This opportunity for our community was a catalyst for action, implementation and improvement. A primary outcome has been that the process awakened community pride and inspired a ‘together we can’ attitude.” – Nathan West, Director of Community & Economic Development – Port Angeles, WA

Santa Fe, New Mexico

A vibrant farmers market at the new Santa Fe Railyard

When a 40-acre railyard in Santa Fe was threatened by generic private development in the early 1990s, the city mobilized to purchase and protect the historic site. Over 6,000 community members, invested elected leaders, and a R/UDAT team developed a decade-long master plan, made possible through a partnership between a non-profit community corporation and the Trust for Public Land. In 2008, the Santa Fe Railyard had a grand re-opening attended by 20,000 citizens. The historic rail depot now serves as the northern terminus of New Mexico’s commuter rail, and the railyard’s cultural and commercial amenities draw new visitors every year. Today, Santa Fe enjoys a vibrant, multi-use civic space that preserves the industrial heritage of the rail line while strengthening the city’s future. Locals now refer to the area as the community’s “family room.”

“People see it as a real community space. I’m most proud of the democracy that happened. The greatest lesson is that we can work together.” – Gayla Bechtol, AIA – Santa Fe, NM

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.