Change happens quickly, or slowly. It happens through purposeful action, and by serendipity. Change can be both productive and destructive.

The myriad changes that happen in our lives urge us to grow, expand, and adapt; acting creates a space for life learning. In more than four decades of practice (three decades since my epiphany following the bridge collapse at the Hyatt Regency, and two decades since we began working with communities to rethink and rebuild following disasters), I have been inspired by and changed by colleagues, fellow professionals, clients, and diverse stakeholders. 

Each time I experience some confidence with my knowledge and design capacity, someone or something appears to remind me that life is a journey and that even now I am far more ignorant than knowledgeable. One of the first reality checks came in college when I was selected by the Dean of Architecture to spend time with 14 other classmates on a special design project with Buckminster Fuller. In my mind, the selection proved that I was exceptional, or at least an accomplished designer, but in the first week that illusion quickly dissolved as Bucky taught me the larger view of systems thinking: to see the world as an interconnected web of forces and influences; that each design decision resulted in either a positive or negative change to the vitality and resilience of “spaceship earth,” no exceptions. He once said to me, “Bob, the only way to make significant change is to make the thing you’re trying to change obsolete!” I’ve seen this truth proven over and over again.

Scores of mentors and teachers have followed Bucky to inform my journey and help me and my colleagues discover that most of the problems we face cannot be solved at the building scale, nor can they be solved by an individual, no matter how brilliant and talented. In documenting our firm’s history for the 2011 AIA Firm Award, we came to realize the power of the years of accumulated partnerships — thousands of individuals and organizations — that helped us seek better design solutions and transform our profession and industry. 

Through initiatives like AIA’s Committee on the Environment and Top 10 Green Design Awards, USGBC and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the Living Building Challenge, and the recently developed REGEN (USGBC’s beyond LEED Platinum pilot). Among the most recent teachers are citizens of a dozen communities with which we have worked* in the shadow of natural disasters.

A Disaster in the Making

The rate of natural disasters around the world is increasing in both frequency and intensity. For example, 2011 saw a marked increase in disasters caused by drought and flooding, becoming the most devastating year in terms of property damage worldwide by July. While writing this, in spring of 2012, the annual “tornado alley” of the Midwest has expanded to include Minnesota and Texas. Natural disasters have always occurred, but human activity*, for the first time in history, has changed the frequency and impact of these events. Additionally, the exponential growth of human global population is pushing every ecosystem far beyond “carrying capacity” and places whole communities, cities, peoples, and countries in the path of natural or man-made disasters. The most dire climate models and predictions we learned about from scientists, while living in Antarctica in 1992, have all been far surpassed in just two decades.

With China, India, and Africa’s populations quickly transitioning from agrarian to urban, an unprecedented growth of urban development has resulted. As these nations follow in the footsteps of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, these cultures are repeating the many mistakes made by Russia, Europe, and North America: polluting land and making a vastly disproportionate investment in corporate and industrial growth over health and quality of life for citizens. These mistakes represent the societal building blocks of our industrialized cultures that provided great gains in the past, and have resulted in impossibly large problems for the 21st century. With one billion urbanites anticipated in China by 2030, an astounding level of new infrastructure and city building has to occur to keep up with the demand. The model being used to develop these cities of tomorrow is based on fundamentally obsolete thinking of yesterday, resulting in vast wastelands of quickly built, barely designed forests of skyscrapers — places devoid of memory, culture, scale, or heritage. 

With just a few notable exceptions, these mega-cities are not built to conserve energy or water, and they do even less to promote healthy people and ecosystems, food production, or community development. As a result of this built-in inefficiency, vast ecosystems are being scraped clean to make way for the mega-infrastructure to supplement the new (and ever-increasing) demands on energy, water, and food. These cities do not represent the development of civilization, but the erasure of culture, and the compounding of the daunting challenges facing the human race in the years to come. What we need is to create a change in our basic understanding of what cities do, how they are assembled, and the natural capital on which their success depends.

Reinventing the City

Historically, city planners have used a heavy hand to make sweeping decisions for “the greater good” that give little to no consideration to the lives of the residents they will directly and immediately effect. For example, American planners of the 1950’s carved away whole neighborhoods to make way for highways that divide once-whole communities while “red-lining” other portions of U.S. cities to passively enforce racial and economic separations; likewise, the infamous “Hassmann Plan” to modernize medieval Paris gouged straight-lined boulevards into the city during the mid 19th century. Our work in disaster response (which is just one type of city-scale planning) has evolved in many ways since we began this type of work, following the Great Mississippi Flood in 1993. Of course, the tools and technology have improved over nearly two decades, but the most important advances are in the community process. 

We began with educating communities about climate change and the health and cost benefits of energy efficiency. Through each subsequent recovery project, we have evolved that approach to become one that we think of as a “collaborative dialogue of discovery,” which is created through facilitated community conversations (face to face and through social networking). This transformative work has revealed that when all the residents, stakeholders, and consultants come together as a collaborative community, a creative force emerges. 

The force of transformative change can happen overnight. It starts with an idea, a conversation, or a simple action. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, communities have a unique opportunity to come together to create a better and more resilient future for their children. We have seen the power and dedication of residents who seized this opportunity to create a better future in New Orleans, Greensburg, KS, Springfield, MA, and many other communities buried in the wake of unimaginable devastation. These cities, neighborhoods, and people have responded with a largely unified desire to adapt and redesign the places they call home to embody an increased resiliency and enhanced quality of life. These are just a few examples of a growing number of cities and towns struggling to reinvent their meaning and purpose by looking beyond the mistakes of the past. In each case, the change began small, and grew into a movement with an unexpected “butterfly effect” far beyond their geography. 

Greensburg, KS lost 95 percent of its buildings to an EF5 tornado in 2007. After a collaborative dialogue of discovery, the citizens of Greensburg made a unified commitment that would lead them to become the first city in America to adopt LEED Platinum as their standard, double their energy efficiency, build a municipal wind farm that generates four times the energy the city consumes, and build a K-12 school that received a 2011 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Award. The citizens of Greensburg have been credited by FEMA, the New York Times and two presidents (Bush and Obama) as envisioning and implementing a national model for rebuilding to create new vitality. The tangible example for these catalytic projects has enabled the mindset shift towards a new way of living and working together, a way that embraces the unique genius of “place” without losing the sense of “self,” and making the old model completely obsolete.


Looking to the fu1ture, and drawing from these examples, it is clear that a fundamental transition — a movement — is happening in the way we design, interact with, and live in communities around the world. We are making and witnessing a transformation of purpose, not only towards a more environmental way of designing, building, and operating places for human habitation, but also in a trend towards social-minded (and socially emergent) architecture. It is strongly evidenced in architecture that is created through conversation, actions, inspiration, and sharing — architecture that teaches the architect what a place needs to be in order to give expression to the best a community has to offer.

In several of our recent urban planning and disaster recovery projects, we have used a newly developed software platform called MindMixer to enhance our ability to engage with a wider community of participants. In developing a city recovery plan for Tuscaloosa, AL, our community engagement effort not only included several town hall meetings that far exceeded participation expectations (we were completely overwhelmed by the huge turnout), but also used this software to pull together comments and opinions gathered through more than 39,000 visits by community members in just the first two weeks, and many times that  before the design was complete. These collected discussions provided a continuous public forum with hundreds of ideas that directly informed the redevelopment plan. 

This is just one of many evolving tools that is refining our ability to process the overwhelming flow of information and opinion, and guides the planners of the future to make decisions based on the input of a vastly larger number of individuals and stakeholders. 

Through ongoing participation with the Biomimicry Institute, we are starting to incorporate the study of the resilient existing natural systems of these places, as a means to inspire new ways to promote passive sustainability in our designs. Through this way of thinking, we learn how to listen to and observe the non-human teachers in each place and identify the intrinsic value of and relationship between existing or recovering natural systems and the human community developing within them. Our current challenge is to discover the most effective way to promote a growing symbiotic relationship between the human and natural systems that can deepen over time. 

Shaping Tomorrow

Disasters caused by nature and neglect will not stop anytime soon. But our ability to adapt, anticipate, and build resiliency into our cities and culture must certainly improve — for where is the safe harbor from the growing specter of climate change? 

Change can come to a place overnight. The following is an excerpt of a poem titled “To Our Mother Tornado”, written by some of America’s youngest disaster victims in Springfield, MA as they identify the importance of the tornado that tore their community asunder as both a destructive and a powerfully catalyzing force — the spark that started the conversation for a better future that they have the opportunity to create and experience. 


They wrote and performed this piece of transcendent art for their town in the midst of a struggling recovery effort, but with clear vision beyond the current struggles to a new kind of world and town they want to call home. What will their children see, when our work is done?

* Every peer-reviewed scientific report agrees that the increased use of fossil fuels (and associated release of carbon and other atmospheric pollutants) combined with deforestation, wetland reduction, and ocean acidification have accelerated climate change.