William Stewart

I borrowed the title above from a New York Times op-ed by Thomas L. Friedman. The gist of his argument is blunt: When it comes to the kind of creative and bold thinking that will grow a productive, sustainable economy, forget about Congress and your state capital. The real action is happening at city hall.

I’m not as inclined as Friedman is to give up on Washington or, in my case, Tallahassee. There are elected representatives in both who are trying hard to come to grips with some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century, from health and rebuilding our infrastructure to the ramifications of climate change. The AIA will continue to support legislators who have shown a commitment to investing in our future, and we will advocate vigorously for policies that advance constructive and responsible change. But, in the short-term at least, the gridlock of partisan politics shows no sign of abating. This has opened up an opportunity for local leadership from elected officials, neighborhood activists, and AIA members.

Want alternatives to the automobile? Look to those cities that have invested in public transportation and dedicated bike lanes that support a more active, healthier lifestyle. Or how about reducing our carbon footprint? Check out those cities that have mandated sustainability in all municipal projects. What to do about the rising toll of natural disasters? Take a cue from local officials—from Moore, Okla., to Newark, N.J., in partnership with local AIA components—who are collaborating to rebuild, but also to reimagine how lives and property can be protected by designing resiliency into our communities.

Building on years of working with communities to address local problems, the AIA launched Decade of Design last year. Key activities include supporting university-based research, disseminating shared learning, and demonstrating realistic solutions. Through research, prototype, and demonstration projects, this multiyear initiative is investigating and documenting the correlations between the built environment and health to develop evidence-based guidelines and design solutions that support human and environmental health in and around cities. Results are being shared online and in print, at conferences and workshops, in person and virtually.

An argument could be made that, just as the AIA is repositioning its organizational structure and priorities in the face of the challenges of the 21st century, something similar is happening in our communities. A pair of Brookings Institution scholars calls it the “Metropolitan Revolution,” and the AIA has enlisted to be a part of that revolution. Architects are leading friends, neighbors, and colleagues to make their communities better places to live. For the immediate future, at least, it offers the best hope for achieving the goal of a more productive, healthier, and sustainable society.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President