There is now, and will continue to be, a great importance attached to planning. The ability to incorporate that skill within an architectural design firm will continue to be essential.
*“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” –***Eliel Saarinan**
Beyond environmental responsibility, planning is a discipline that within a large design firm can make up 10 to 15 percent of total revenue. This reinforces that planning is a skill that stands on its own, pays its own way and sustains itself without being labeled a loss leader or an extension of marketing within a design firm. Planning can lead to architectural projects, and architectural projects can lead to planning. Thoughtful overall development strategies also consider infrastructure improvements such as streets, transit line extensions, open space improvements and central city plans; many of which point to major commissions. When an architectural firm redefines itself this way, focus begins to change from the object (such as the building) to the larger systems that make up our urban areas.
The quote from Eliel Saarinen gives us a simple but meaningful clue to the future. Architects will confront many challenges in this new century – issues that are far bigger than any of us can address alone. As I look at what influences or affects our design work today in my own office, the following is clear. There is now, and will continue to be, a great importance attached to planning. The ability to incorporate that skill within an architectural design firm will continue to be essential. The four areas of planning that can add great value to architectural firms, as well as complement the more traditional services include:
Urban design and city planning
There will be a great need for intelligent urban design and city planning to repair and strengthen our built environments to make them more livable, more inspirational. Future growth will require clear direction to ensure mixed-use environments.
Throughout this century we must increase accessibility and provide innovative transportation systems to support expanding cities. The continued urban cycle of congestion, road maintenance, pollution, and sprawl are simply not sustainable.
The quality of our local and global environment is dependent on our ability to restore and conserve our natural resources. We need to be smarter in how we accommodate our expanding population without eroding the larger environment.
There is a great need for social, racial and economic equity in our cities. Creating livable, well-integrated communities is a step toward urban greatness and is the core of most city building initiatives.
The architectural design firm of the future will have to rely on its ability to integrate multidisciplinary skills to address and develop comprehensive, inspirational solutions to the complex urban problems we will face. Design excellence will remain important, but we may achieve it in an expanded and more collaborative way. Seeing beyond individual projects, designers can influence future growth within lively, robust urban districts and develop region-wide strategies. True “green” solutions will all be a major part of every designer’s role. True collaboration, rather than the traditional tension between private-sector design firms and public-sector planning agencies, should be an important part of this goal. Design firms that address larger planning issues and work collaboratively with city agencies will have the edge in winning significant urban design projects. Ellen Greenberg, Director of Policy and Research Congress for the New Urbanism, says both sides need to recognize and work toward bridging the present divide between the two disciplines.
“I’ve started to appreciate the fact that CNU is one of the few venues where architects and planners really talk to each other,” she says. “However, we talk past each other just as often, with different terms (or different meanings for the same terms), different frames of reference and priorities.”
Urban Design and City Planning
It is important for design firms to see themselves as more than building designers and look to the design of the full community and region in which they live and work. It is important to focus on the goal of “repairing” our urban environment, to rehabilitate our cities into desirable places to live, not just work. Denser, mixed-use environments are a good thing. Architects have typically committed most of their work to projects within urban areas and again need to work to convince the public that smaller, walkable environments translate into a better life and a sense of community.
However, our cities have changed. It is today rare for an urban core to be the primary home for regional commerce. Perhaps New York and Chicago are the only two cities in the U.S. that still look to their downtowns as the center of business. Most American city centers have bled away to expanding multiple suburban developments. Scattered key resources – schools, workplace, health care, and recreation – create difficult daily commutes. We realize this kind of growth causes us to spend hours a day in cars driving from one destination to another. And we know this pattern of haphazard development stresses our environment, contributes to global warming and burning of fossil fuels, loss of natural land, loss of farmland, and further endless sprawl that results in visionless communities.
The next step for us is to continue to rebuild our city centers and inner ring suburbs. By strengthening urban educational systems, we may attract families back into the cities where existing infrastructure can support growing populations.
Transportation systems have to be strengthened in this century to respond to the growing city population and corresponding automobile congestion. Transit systems must become more user friendly and missing links between existing systems must be created. “Trains and buses do not run in a vacuum,” says George Ranney, president & CEO of Chicago Metropolis 2020. “Regional land use decisions affect how we travel. Only 9 percent of new homes built in the Chicago metropolitan area between 1990 and 1995 were within a half a mile of a rail station, down from nearly 50 percent before 1990.”
Federal, state and local funding sources have to increase support of alternative transit rather than just continuing to pump money into highway construction and maintenance. City planners and architects must work together to create smarter growth strategies and more innovative transit systems. Regional gridlock is assured unless accessible, quality transit is part of our planning. This translates into the need to build significant transit infrastructure systems in this century. Although it is a project on a grand scale, it is no more of a challenge than what our great grandfathers took on at the end of the 19th century – laying the rails for cross-country railroads and extensive city transit systems. The generation that followed created the first round of highways and airports.
One of the major problems today is that many of us still ride in transit systems that are more than 100 years old. The Boston “T,” the Chicago “L,” the New York subways are effective but seriously outdated. Compared to London’s new Jubilee Line, it is obvious that it is time for the U.S. to rebuild its transit systems. We have also seen rebuilding efforts at many major airports. Transportation planning can help to communicate issues, identify funding sources, and support the design investigations into new systems, new technologies, better controls and management. Buses and taxis should also be rethought and upgraded to reflect higher technology and higher quality. The gyroscopic scooter, soon to be on the market, and other transit inventions may help us rethink how people move within urban areas.
And to go back to the most basic form of transit, street environment quality is critical if people are going to walk. Lighting, landscape, paving, signage are all critical in the design of successful streets.
There is a pressing need to “ramp up” the education of environmental issues including conservation and restoration. We all have seen the effects of urban sprawl. In this new century, design firms will not be able to sit on the sidelines. They will need to join with environmentalists to address the rapid erosion of our natural environment due to our society’s growth patterns. There are many startling statistics when one looks worldwide. From 1990-1995, we saw 250,000 sq. miles of forests, four times the size of Illinois, disappear in developing countries. Another startling statistic is the amount of oil consumed in six weeks in 2001 (half of which is used in transportation) would have lasted a full year in 1950. Both statistics are from The Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
New ways to generate energy, provide water, and treat waste will go far beyond the 19th century techniques that we still use today. We will hopefully move far beyond the present goal of energy conservation to energy creation in the design of buildings and urban systems. Rather than being designed to use a little less of the centrally generated energy, a building of tomorrow should be its own energy source, generating most of the energy that it requires.
To design professionals, these trends point to working on establishing urban growth boundaries, better recognition of the larger natural systems, restoration of the natural environment at all scales, and a better understanding of building technology and materials to better address energy demands.
There is a need for far better social, racial and economic equity in our communities. Affordability is a primary issue and will continue to be as we see the cost of living increase. With the median price of housing soaring, it is more and more difficult for lower-income families, young professionals, single parents, and elderly to find affordable, safe and healthy housing in areas that offer educational, cultural and recreational opportunities. And as housing prices climb, we see less racial integration within neighborhoods. Post war public housing projects throughout the U.S. need to be redeveloped soon. Integrating public, affordable and market rate housing has to be a common goal. Rebuilding America’s public housing projects into vital neighborhoods is a tremendous undertaking and should be done in a way that focuses on community building, not project building. This century should see the elimination of public housing as we know it in the U.S. and the architectural profession should play a major role in this effort.
All of these issues translate into stronger cities, better transit, a strengthened and restored environment and an integrated society. However, achieving these goals can be overwhelming and complex – they demand a long-term commitment. It also requires the accordance of many disciplines across the professional spectrum in order to address the many aspects and dimensions of these issues. A true collaboration of architecture and planning is part of this vision.
The world is too small and the issues too large for architectural firms not to become aware of and involved in them. Teaming with the planning disciplines to succeed in this century will be necessary to solve major issues. Transportation, urban design, environmental planning, economic and community planning disciplines are all key in the next generation of architectural work.
Rebuilding public housing projects into mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods will translate into large architectural commissions, especially for minority-owned firms. Better transportation planning translates into rebuilding city transit systems and stations and strengthening the public realm of our streets and parks. Environmental planning translates into energy-efficient building design and generation of new building materials and smarter buildings. Better growth patterns translate into walkable, higher density districts, mixed-use buildings and growth concentrated near mass transit.
Environmental deterioration and vast suburban sprawl paired with increasing population growth has occurred within a relatively short amount of time. It requires us as designers to seriously change the way we work to address these issues and take action.
In the 21st century, the architectural profession should evolve from building designers to collaborative stewards of the environment. We should strive to be leaders in the city design and transportation systems; to protect the environment and serve as educators on how we will plan for the world’s growing population in a sustainable way. It won’t be possible unless we team with visionary planners.