Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President

For the first time in history more than half the world’s people live in cities. How can architects help those in urban areas attain their design aspirations? That was the issue raised at the AIA Convention last month by keynoter and founding secretary general of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives—Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), Jeb Brugmann.

The point is well (and gratefully) taken by this architect. And even though the word “architect” does not appear as a topic in the index to Brugmann’s book Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World, it’s clear from the context of his research that the way buildings and the spaces evolve together makes a difference. In other words, design matters. It’s a key strategy for enabling cities to be engines of economic mobility.

But what about cities whose very reason for existing is challenged? Is there a role for architects to manage the process of change that preserves the historic function of the city as an incubator for opportunity?

As America’s boomtowns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries show, the disappearance of what had been vibrant communities is not a new phenomenon. Once the timber and coal in Thomas, W.V., and the silver of Nevada’s Comstock Lode played out, those who could often pulled up stakes; those who could not were left behind in poverty. What’s different today is the scale of collapse.

Downsizing became an issue in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. After the forced departure of tens of thousands of its residents, how (or even whether) to rebuild—especially in parts of the city such as the Ninth Ward—ignited passionate debate. In response to a site vulnerable to the next storm, would a rebuilt New Orleans have to be smaller?

Six years after the event, New Orleans is on track to reassert its historic position economically and culturally. Architects—in partnership with other design professionals, community leaders, and organizations such as Make It Right—are using design as a strategy to bring the city back to life.

Of course, it could be argued that a revitalized New Orleans was preordained. The city’s strategic commercial location has not changed. Energy continues to fuel (and, yes, sometimes foul) the economy. And its rich cultural assets ensure its role as destination for millions of tourists—as long as the waters can be kept at bay. The elements of a vigorous economic infrastructure are in place for revived commerce.

But what about America’s Rust Belt? Cities like Detroit find themselves in a downward spiral with no end in sight. 2010 U.S. Census data show that the Motor City’s population had plunged by 25 percent over the past decade. As reported by The New York Times on March 22, the number of people who left Detroit since 2000—237,500—is larger than the 140,000 who left New Orleans after Katrina. As the tax base erodes, the deterioration of the quality of life only accelerates.

Yet if cities are, as Brugmann argues, the most efficient and sustainable way to organize human activity and the best hope people have to improve their lives, we cannot allow America’s urban heartland to fail.

The stakes for America’s Rust Belt cities are enormous as Detroit seeks to reinvent itself. The outcome will have consequences not just for them; it will affect all who believe that cities are one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

Join our conversation at aia.orgweaetxdyvaydzcwq.

Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President