If you’re flying to the 2011 AIA National Convention, choose a window seat. As you approach New Orleans, look out at the land below. From the air, the landscape resembles the circulatory system of a living creature.
Of course that’s the point: It is a living system—a dynamic ebb and flow of nutrients and life. If you can for a moment edit out all traces of human intervention, the equilibrium struck among the competing forces of water, land, and air in a system that stretches to the horizon is astonishing.
So is the beauty of a landscape laid down layer by layer since the last ice age. Even this high up, you can sense the pulse of life below.
The moment passes. Your eye now catches the straight lines of canals cut through the tissue of fragile wetlands; the refineries that choke the banks of the river; the gray sprawl of uncontrolled suburban development that covers what was once fertile land. If you had access to time-lapse photography, you’d see the Gulf of Mexico eating away at the grassy marshes that for centuries absorbed the storms that hurl themselves at these shores. It’s a system under stress.
Here in the Mississippi Delta, where a sustainable balance of the region’s abundance of natural resources is so delicate, the footprint of piecemeal exploitation is especially heavy. Here the lack of a comprehensive vision of how the cities, villages, woodlands, farms, and open land can reinforce rather than compete with one another has locked the region in a zero-sum game in which the gain of one constituency is purchased at the cost of another.
If the story is familiar and the consequences of exhausting the abundance we inherited predictable, why is it so difficult to change course? The evidence of our own eyes—whether it’s gridlock or the increasing occurrence of 100-year floods—should be enough to throw down a penalty flag on our play. Could our inability as a society to take meaningful collective action be less a failure of will or leadership than the way we talk about the threat?
One approach that does not work is scare tactics. Whether it’s scenes from the aftermath of Katrina or recent footage of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated communities in Japan, scaring people into doing the right thing seldom leads to positive long-term change, especially if a change in direction appears to entail sacrifice.
What’s called for is a vision—a way of looking at possibilities that energizes the public and invites its enthusiastic participation. Change is not the offspring of despair; the necessary precondition of meaningful change is hope.
What inspires me as an architect, what gets me out of bed every morning, is the belief that we are at one of those rare tipping points in history where the core competency of our profession—design—can make a difference in how our great-grandchildren tell their children the story of the 21st century. Where others would have us fear for our children, architects instead offer hope.
Like passengers on a plane, design lifts us and those we serve beyond what has been a zero-sum game to a place where we can see the interconnectedness of people and place. Rivers are not patches of moving water; they are highways that sustain and carry life. Cities are not mere aggregations of buildings; they are the creative nodes of a region that make efficient use of energy and celebrate diversity.
Towns are not shapeless developments that compete for tax dollars, but vibrant compact communities that support and in turn are supported by the city. Open spaces are not merely land waiting to be developed, but the lungs and breadbasket of a region. If there is any one lesson that can and must be learned from natural disasters, it’s how we are connected to the land and the land is connected to us.
The hope inspired by design offers a comprehensive vision for a future not of more or less, but of better. Exploring the shape of such a vision is the agenda of the 2011 AIA National Convention, “Regional Design Revolution: Ecology Matters.” The goal? For architects to take the lessons of New Orleans back home to be leaders of their own design revolution.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President