Credit: William Stewart

What does extra legroom have to do with architecture? More than you might think. Late last year, New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni wrote about a family trip he was planning to the Six Flags amusement park in the Los Angeles area. He described the swelling cascade of extra options the traveler faces: Want the first crack at stowing luggage in the overhead bins, an aisle seat, or more legroom? For a small fee, those things are yours.

What bothered Bruni was not the endless nickel and diming; rather, he saw the marketing of all of these perks as further evidence we are fragmenting into a society of haves and have-nots. He acknowledged the choices we make of clothes, cars, and our homes have always served an additional function as badges of our status. But, increasingly, we seem to be finding more ways to advertise our clout and distinguish ourselves from our less-privileged neighbors.

Which brings me to the question that faces me as an architect: What is the nature of the social compact that grounds our profession and underscores everything we do? Since this most public of arts provides the setting for social interaction, how are we facilitating this interaction? How are we contributing to the resiliency that’s bundled in the word “community”? Is our placemaking gated or open, platinum for those who can afford it but something quite different for those who can’t?

At last October’s AIA-sponsored Remaking Cities Congress in Pittsburgh, there was a spirited exchange about how to tackle the challenge of reinventing older industrial cities. How could once-thriving urban cores like Turin, Italy, and Detroit, that had been the ladder for opportunity, once again support vibrant, healthy, and productive communities that are gateways to the prize of a better life? Somewhat to the surprise of both organizers and attendees, a common theme emerged. In workshop after workshop, speech after speech, the congress’s participants flagged an unintended consequence of the much-vaunted revival transforming an increasing number of older downtowns. They warned we may be seeing the emergence of what some called “bipolar” cities in which certain areas or neighborhoods that can pay the price thrive, while other less-privileged areas decline economically and sink into despair. Stated simply, the congress raised the issue of social equity.

A relatively new term, social equity means that there should be fair access to education, livelihood, resources, and full participation in a community’s political and cultural life. As a profession, we have made great progress in understanding how our work affects the way energy is used. We’ve even come up with a way to rank our work as silver, gold, or platinum. Led by the AIA, architects are making a convincing case that any conversation about health requires design thinking. And the increasing incidence of natural disasters has placed our profession at the center of discussions about mitigating their harm. But we should be making a similarly strong claim to initiate and lead discussions about social equity.

The federal government has stepped back from massive urban renewal and transportation projects. Rather than lamenting Washington’s retreat from a position of master planner, this is an opportunity for architects at the local level to create a forum for idea-generating conversations with community leaders and elected officials about equitable placemaking. In using the power of design to benefit the community as a whole, we will be advocating a platinum standard not just for some, but for all citizens, many of whom might otherwise be left behind.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, 2014 President