• New Orleans
    New Orleans

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Environmentalist John Muir's assertion is as true today as it was 100 years ago when he wrote these words. But as Muir surveyed the American topography at the turn of the last century, he likely could not have fathomed the vast urbanization that would define the world today. The human race is on the precipice of unprecedented change: For the first time in history, more than half of the global population will reside in cities. This great urbanization is coupled with a rising awareness that cities must embrace connectivity for future success. In the last several years, disasters—both natural and man-made, from the floods of Katrina to the economic devastation in shrinking cities like Detroit—have made it painfully clear that we cannot live in a vacuum. Cities are, to borrow from Muir, a complex system of interwoven threads. When one unravels, we all feel the effects.

Clark D. Manus, FAIA, CEO of San Francisco–based Heller Manus and president of the American Institute of Architects, believes that in the future architecture and planning must address regional design. Cities, he contends, must become integral components of larger communities, economies, and ecosystems if they are to thrive. “To try to solve the planet’s environmental issues on a building-by-building basis is noble, but I don’t think it’s big enough,” Manus says. “Sustainable communities can happen only when people are thinking collectively.”

That’s why Manus and like-minded fellow architects think it’s time for a regional revolution. Increasingly, architects recognize that they must look beyond a project’s property line in order to engage, restore, and enhance a region’s economic, environmental, and social vitality—not to mention the fiscal health of the profession.

“We’re at the point now where the carbon footprint is the barometer,” says Bruce A. Race, FAIA, AICP, founder of RACESTUDIO and associate professor of practice in the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University. “I talk to my students about how to build places that support lifestyles while having one-eighth the carbon footprint—because if they don’t do that, they’re going to spend their career moving cities from southern Florida. The innovation expected of them is unlike any generation before it.”

Regional solutions, Race contends, are critical to tackling the sustainability and economic issues that threaten the planet: air and water quality, energy consumption, mobility, and productivity.

That the world must think regionally is not up for discussion; how architects will help achieve this complex goal is. What does regional design look like? How do architects help communities work across disciplines, across geographic, cultural, and political divides, to coalesce around a unified and sustainable vision of place?

Regional approaches to urban planning that catalyze communities through design advocacy are “the essence of the profession,” Manus says. “It’s what the AIA believes is at the heart of what we can provide as architects.”

Which is why, from May 12–14, the AIA will convene the nation’s architects to explore best practices in regional design at the AIA 2011 Convention. The theme—Regional Design Revolution: Ecology Matters—reflects “the ability of architects to be effective and action-oriented when resolving the issues facing our communities,” Manus says. The event will happen in a city at the epicenter of a strong region, a place that epitomizes cultural identity: New Orleans.

Learning from New Orleans

Perhaps no other city in the nation has spent as much time thinking about architecture and urban planning as New Orleans. The massive natural disaster that leveled the city is, in many ways, the contemporary urban disaster writ large. The dismantling of New Orleans happened in a matter of hours; for cities like Detroit, it took decades. But the fundamentals are the same: We built cities we could not sustain. “New Orleans is one of the best examples in the country of what happens when you’re not paying attention to the local ecology, where your aspirations and natural place are not in sync,” Race says.

New Orleans is a completely singular and unique place, yet its problems are an emblematic to-do list for all American cities. How do you bridge racial and economic disparity? How do you celebrate historic connections to food, music, and architecture without harboring the prejudices and bad choices of the past? How do you restore a community’s economic vitality without losing the connections to its heritage? Addressing the multifarious social, political, and ecological issues calls for a regional response that respects both New Orleans’ unique culture and its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River Delta.

Today, New Orleans is doing more than merely rebuilding. The city is driving innovation in regionally sensitive building, planning, and sustainability—whether it’s with the LEED Platinum houses created for the Make it Right Foundation or the planning priorities that address the ecological, economic, political, and cultural truths of a city at the epicenter of a fragile ecosystem. “We’re trying to rebuild with a community objective of social justice,” says Allen Eskew, FAIA, director of local firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple.

Since the storm, New Orleans has increased its efforts to add density to its urban core while considering ways to shrink its footprint away from flood-prone areas like the Lower 9th Ward. Region-wide solutions to flooding and transportation are being discussed. Mathes Brierre Architects, among others, proposes tearing down the Claiborne Avenue Expressway that rips through the heart of the historic Treme neighborhood and substituting a light rail line that can evolve into an epicenter of economic development. And architects are looking at ways to use the region’s watershed cycles to the area’s benefit, instead of walling water away in hardened, inflexible canals.

“Everybody looks back at the five-year history of New Orleans and has a sense of what we can learn, what we can take back to our communities, and those things we shouldn’t repeat,” Manus says.

Race points to the many areas where architects address sustainable, high-performing building—from the single-family home to the commercial rehab to the neighborhood master plan. “We are all working on this at different scales and over time. Our profession can contribute to a regenerative model for a region,” he says. “Why not think about how we can, in a conference setting, come together and acknowledge that?”

In May, the AIA 2011 Convention will be an idea factory of innovative practices, products, and presentations, with lessons from New Orleans and from cities and regions across the country. “The whole profession is starting to reorganize itself to meet the demand for sustainability,” Race says. “That’s part of our profession. We love challenges. We love design.”