In a room on U Street, N.W., in our nation’s capital, the young men and women of Inscape Publico operate a small, nonprofit firm. Their mission is to provide concept design services at significantly reduced rates to nonprofit clients, many of whom serve the region’s disadvantaged. With concept drawings, Inscape Publico’s clients (who have to make every dollar count) can work up accurate construction costs, which puts them in a better position to set realistic fundraising goals for projects that foster design excellence.
At the same time (and 640 miles to the south), Atlanta is engaged in the most comprehensive revitalization project in the city’s history. A master’s thesis by Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel was the catalyst for an emerald necklace of public parks, multiuse trails, and transit anchored by reusing 22 miles of existing but defunct railroad corridors that circle the city’s downtown. When completed, the Atlanta BeltLine, reported by Kim A. O’Connell in the previous story, will realize the vision of an integrated approach to transportation, land use, greenspace, and sustainable growth.
Perhaps the most dramatic chapter of this ongoing story is that Gravel’s vision caught the imagination of his community, sparking a truly inclusive grassroots movement of local citizens and community leaders. This was not a classic top-down plan imagined by “experts” in a closed room, the sort that Jane Jacobs railed against. Instead, design thinking empowered the public to take charge of its future.
O’Connell profiles a many-pronged movement whose ideas and actions have coalesced around the term “tactical urbanism.” Instead of defaulting to single large design strokes in an effort to re-create the energy of the so-called “Bilbao Effect,” cities, for a variety of reasons (tight budgets among them), are increasingly looking to upstart urban design firms like Rebar and the Street Plans Collaborative for innovative, actionable, and affordable ideas that use design to engage and build community.
What do these two examples have in common? They leverage the creativity, training, and the passionate leadership of diverse teams of young men and women collaborating with the public to make a positive difference. To be sure, the recession played some part in forcing or inspiring recent graduates to consider different and innovative ways to apply their training. But something larger is going on that’s having a transformational effect on the profession and the AIA.
Commentators on the subject have written at length about the Millennials (that is, the generation born between 1984 and 2000, more or less). Although there is a fair amount of disagreement about the profile of the “average” Millennial, a broad consensus has emerged that this newest generation to enter the profession is civic-minded, and that they are using their familiarity with social media and digital technologies to drive new ways of appreciating the power of design in their communities and the profession.
In one sense, the AIA’s Repositioning Initiative is a way of capitalizing on and supporting a new generation committed to broader, more nuanced engagement with the public. As our Repositioning research makes clear, the public admires the profession but really doesn’t know why architects are relevant. But the passion and impetuousness of youth argue that community-building projects should be standard practice, not exceptional. It’s this sense of urgency to enlist the public as partners in using design to shape more healthy, productive, and livable communities that carries the seeds of our renewal as a profession. We would be wise to nurture them.
Learn more about architecture’s 21st-century challenges at aia.org/repositioning.
Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President