Last spring, a major collection of distinctly modern pieces by the American sculptor Steve Tobin was installed in one of the gardens at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. The title of the exhibition—“Exposed”—imagines what we don’t typically see when we look at a plant: the secret life of the roots. “Plant roots,” according to the literature accompanying the exhibition, “are vital components of the Earth’s ecosystem. Out of sight, their importance goes unnoticed.”
The installation might just as easily have been a metaphor for the infrastructure of transportation, open spaces, utilities, and communications that makes contemporary life possible. We rely on these as surely as a plant relies on healthy roots. But too often we as a society seldom look beneath the surface to understand if the systems are working together to support a sustainable environment. Instead of regarding infrastructure holistically, investment is all too often piecemeal.
According to a recent publication “Rethinking Infrastructure,” the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that between 2013 and 2030 the world needs to spend $57 trillion on infrastructure to fulfill global GDP projections. The authors of the report write that the challenge is not just the scale of the investment, but the difficulty of spending it well.
It is here where architects can make an impact. We believe that infrastructure is more than roads and bridges. We see infrastructure as a tightly integrated element of community that builds and ensures a high quality of life.
What do people experience as they move into and around our cities? Are there memorable moments that add color and texture to the daily commute? What about access to parks, streets, sidewalks, shop fronts, alleyways, and spaces between buildings? Are they inviting spaces? Do they facilitate interaction, socialization, and culture?
One thing is certain: The elements of the city ought to knit together to form a sense of place that supports a more healthy, productive, and democratic way of being.
As architects, we are, by both instinct and training, big picture thinkers. We see the intangibles. Like those who work the soil, our line of sight goes beyond the visible to what is typically unseen but nevertheless essential. This opens opportunities to lead. Through advocacy in the public arena and through our work, we have the skills to foster an integrated way of community building. Make no mistake: Our nation’s future depends on investing in the strategic thinking of architects.
Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA , is the 2015 AIA President .