William Stewart

In less than a decade of shuttling between my Florida office to the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., I’ve watched a radical transformation of the traditional urban cores around Tampa Bay as well as our nation’s capital. Previously empty or marginal land is being built up. Older housing stock that still has good bones is being renovated and restored. People from all walks of life are abandoning the suburbs in which they were raised and moving downtown where retail, services, and amenities are seldom more than a walkable block or two away. The residential downtown is indeed coming back to life. That’s the good news.

But a number of troubling issues are not far from the glittering surface. For young artists and startup businesses, it’s increasingly difficult to find affordable space to put down roots and grow. Consider Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Back in the 1960s, when renting was comparatively cheap, abundant affordable space, together with urban density, powered New York’s emergence as the world’s creative capital. Today, the newest generation of dancers, painters, musicians, writers, and urban entrepreneurs have pulled up stakes, first to Brooklyn and now to Queens and beyond. The implications of this cultural diaspora have yet to be seen.

More pressing is the plight of residents who are being pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods and into the suburbs. Uprooted from relatively easy access to public transportation, schools, playgrounds, commercial amenities, and jobs, the displaced former urban core dwellers are least equipped to pursue the American dream of a better life for themselves and their children. Some might argue that this is the inevitable outcome of economics and public policy in which architects are simply bystanders. I disagree. As a profession charged with shaping the environment, we have to take a leadership role as advocates for accessibility to quality residential design and responsible urban planning, not just for the privileged, but for everyone.

A monoculture of any type is not sustainable, and we should not allow our communities to become one. Architects must stand united as community leaders and point this out. But we must also be prepared to offer credible and inspiring alternatives that result in livable, vibrant, and affordable communities for all citizens. If we don’t lead this effort, who will?

—Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President