Why work with architects and designers?

Photo credit: Carl Bower.

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

21st century environmental and political challenges require a new way to approach community development. Six architects and designers share their thoughts on working with civic leaders to transform cities that work for everyone.

What major challenges can architects help communities overcome? How?

Stuart L. Coppedge, FAIA: Good architects can advocate for a process or solution without alienating those who disagree or who can’t “see it,” yet. Architects can address all sorts of challenges in an intelligent, holistic way, from transportation issues to homelessness, to environmental issues, education problems, and economic development. Most of us see such challenges as interrelated; none of them can or should be addressed in isolation.

Julie Snow, FAIA: Our work, by its nature, requires that we represent the many people affected by our work but are not necessarily at the table while it is created. We are willing to test possibilities and expand opportunities to address issues often thought of as beyond the sphere of the built environment, such as equity and engagement.

When solving big problems in a community, what unique abilities do architects and designers bring to the table? How does a community benefit when they collaborate with civic leaders?

Mara Baum, AIA: We are trained to stand back and look at the big picture of any given problem. Design thinking encourages empathy, collaboration and experimentation, and can be a very successful tool in solving problems in social, political, business, and other contexts. It is also part of our jobs to speak for those who may not otherwise have a voice. Exploring ways that a design or solution impacts everyone can also be applied to larger problem solving.

Taryn Sabia, Assoc. AIA: Architects are often skilled facilitators and can help civic leaders envision a “shared” future.  A shared vision helps a community move forward together, where each member of the community can be vested in the future. It is important to involve citizens in the design and planning process.

How can solving design problems locally contribute to broader change, creating a long-term vision for better cities?

José Alvarez, AIA: Small design interventions could have a large impact on our citizens, neighborhoods and communities. Localized design can increase community identity and involvement. Increasing health and prosperity as well as diversity. The chain reaction of positive change becomes the driver for stronger broader communities.

Peter Exley, FAIA: All change of note starts locally; for example, adapting a forlorn former Woolworths on Main Street into a children’s museum brings young families downtown, precipitating a need for restaurants and shops, creating a more prosperous and vibrant urban condition. A more attractive downtown instigates a need for residences, leading to more prosperity and recruitment of families looking to live, learn, work and play in an attractive and distinguished downtown. Imagine if this were a collective driven phenomenon – strategic, deliberate and calculated. With research and inclusive community collaboration, there are models replicable and relevant in all communities.

Taryn Sabia, Assoc. AIA: The design of the built environment directly impacts quality of life.  The role architects can play in creating long term visions for making cities more livable is to bring together multi-disciplinary teams to find solutions to issues of health, economic vitality, resiliency, equity, affordable housing, and mobility. Architects have an informed perspective on social, environmental, and public realm design implications of development. Translating a community’s needs into a visible and viable plan is the role of an architect.

What advice do you have for civic leaders who wish to engage with architects and designers?

José Alvarez, AIA: Bring the architects early in the process. Use their skills and strategic planning mindset to develop goals and a path to success. Use their innovative ideas and experience in your advantage to establish a framework of outcomes and risk.

Mara Baum, AIA: We are creative problem solvers who have the skills to think about issues beyond our immediate work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that you think we might not know about.  We may not have all the answers, but architects are rarely without ideas.

Stuart L. Coppedge, FAIA: Appoint them to board and task forces. Invite them to coffee and pick their brains. Answer them when they want to engage.

Peter Exley, FAIA: Invite architects to the table. Look to us as futurists to visualize tactical frameworks and solutions for our future cities.  Hold us accountable for it.

Learn more about these leaders:  Stuart L. Coppedge, FAIA – Principal, RTA Architects – Colorado Springs, CO | Peter Exley, FAIA – Co-Founder, Architecture is Fun, Inc. – Chicago, IL | Taryn Sabia, Assoc. AIA – Director, Florida Center for Community Design and Research – Tampa, FL | Julie Snow, FAIA – Founding Principal, Snow Kreilich Architects – Minneapolis, MN | Mara Baum, AIA – Sustainable Design Leader, Health and Wellness, HOK – San Francisco, CA | José Alvarez, AIA – Principal, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple – New Orleans, LA

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