Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, 2015 AIA President
Photography: Carl Bower Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, 2015 AIA President

At first glance, transportation and residential design seem unrelated. One is about mobility and the other (unless you live in a truly mobile home or on a houseboat) is about rootedness. Yet how we get around determines how we put down roots and affects our outlook on the notions of community and connectedness. In this way, architects have a lot to talk about with highway engineers, planners, and elected officials—things such as advocating for land use policies that make the best use of human and material resources to help  foster vibrant, healthy, and resilient communities.

The relevance of our profession to this issue is not new: Think of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, whose master plan for the then-new city of Washington, D.C., was shaped by how best to move people and goods into and around the capital. Something similar happened halfway around the world a century earlier in Jaipur, India, where Jai Singh II consulted architects to design his observatories and Jaipur’s plan.

Fast forward to the 20th century. The automobile has shaped our world just as much as princes and architects have and, for the last century, it has been peerless in helping citizens realize their version of the American dream—freedom and a piece of land on which to build one’s own house. Cars are also expressions of financial freedom. The cost of ownership is relatively inexpensive and there are a lot of ways that you can buy one or  finance one. Today, Millennials are rethinking what freedom means. New car sales for the 18- to 34-year-old set have declined as urbanization has increased and the sharing economy of Uber, Lyft, and others has  expanded. There is a shift in attitudes about how we lead our lives, from notions of community and neighborhood to the definition of family. This opens up the possibility of new ways to think about community and mobility.

Architects whose focus is residential design can play a key role in designing homes for this emerging  constituency. What’s called for, however, is more than a focus on four walls and a roof. How will you live outside those walls? How will you connect with your friends? That’s design thinking applied to movement. That’s an issue for architects.