Urbanism’s Schisms
Illustration: Lauren Naseff | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

This month, attendees at the AIA’s Grassroots Leadership Conference in Detroit will look at the role that architects can play in solving the challenges of rapid urbanization—as well as the challenges that cities have faced for decades. Income inequality, infrastructure that struggles to meet demand (and in some cases is crumbling altogether), homelessness, and the legacy of ineffective urban-planning decisions define the scope of work for 21st-century design interventions. Those issues also suggest ways to approach urgent topics such as resilience and affordable housing. Here are a few hot spots, some of which will be on the table for discussion in Detroit:


Population: 305,841 (2013)
Population change since 2000: -8.6%
Estimated median household income: $42,004 (Pennsylvania: $52,007)

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, several of Pittsburgh’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, such as East Liberty, have lost hundreds of residents over the past 15 years. Out-pricing and gentrification have also pushed low-income residents out of the city, leaving a lot of buildings largely vacant. On the flipside, according to data collected by the city, violent crime has dropped. Data from the American Lung Association notes that levels of air pollution have also dropped—owing to the conversion of some area coal-burning power plants to natural gas. If Pittsburgh City Paper is correct, the Steel City’s fortunes will continue to change for the better: Its population is poised to grow again for the first time in 60 years.

Washington, D.C.

Population: 646,449 (2013)
Population change since 2000: +13.0%
Estimated median household income: $67,572 (Greater Washington, D.C., region: $90,149)

At the close of 2014, the District of Columbia had 97 homicides on the books. A year later, there were 154—an increase of nearly 60 percent. That’s a far cry from the 20-year high in 1996 of 397, but the uptick troubles local residents. Traffic snarls put the region at or near the top of most “most-congested” lists, owing to two transportation failures: the city’s revamped streetcar system is still stalled and Metrorail breakdowns have contributed to a steady decline in ridership, according to The Washington Post, even as the population has grown almost one point per year since 2000. The city is also projected to sink a full six inches over the next century. While Washington, D.C., is not technically built on a swamp, as some claim, it may very well turn into one.

Columbus, Ohio

Population: 822,553 (2013)
Population change since 2000: +15.6%
Estimated median household income: $44,426 (Ohio: $48,081)

Ohioans drive more than 100 billion miles each year, according to the Buckeye Institute, much of it during commuting hours—and the combined annual cost of congestion for commuters and businesses is nearly $2 billion. Yet, according to the 2015 Texas A&M Urban Mobility Scorecard, Columbus commuters spend only 41 hours stuck in traffic each year (compared to the 82 hours that Washington, D.C., commuters spend), perhaps owing to the fact that the city invested $20 million in a system of bike trails connecting the suburbs to downtown and the newly restored $44 million riverfront park system.


Population: 652,405 (2013)
Population change since 2000: +15.8%
Estimated median household income: $70,172 (Washington: $58,405)

The Downtown Seattle Association touted the city’s boom in a 2011 report, noting that the crime rate is at a historic low and sidewalk café culture continues to expand. Yet a Boston Consulting Group report noted that the city’s public transportation infrastructure struggles to keep pace with the nearly 16 point population uptick over the last decade. Homelessness, too, continues to surge alongside the city’s growing affluence, creating a greater gap between poor and rich. In fact, Seattle is fourth in the nation for homelessness relative to population, behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.