You don't have to have been an actual mayor to oversee the influential Mayors' Institute on City Design at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). But it will likely be an asset for Maurice Cox, who is taking over the institute as NEA's new director of design. Cox, 48, who will also run the agency's grantmaking and other public programs, begins full time in January and replaces Jeff Speck, who left the position last May after four years to return to private practice.

Cox was a member of the Charlottesville, Va., city council from 1996 to 2004, spending the final two years of that period as the city's mayor. In 1993, he joined the University of Virginia's architecture faculty, where he is a professor of architecture. (Cox will be on a leave of absence from the university during his two-year NEA appointment.) He is a founding principal, with Ken Schwartz, of Charlottesville's Community Planning and Design Workshop and was a principal in the firm of RBGC Architecture, which he co-founded, from 1996 to 2005. His honors, apart from a feature on 60 Minutes, include a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard and the John Hejduk Award, for outstanding professional contributions, from his alma mater, the Cooper Union.

Your average citizen sees design “as some luxury item,” Cox tells ARCHITECT, so he tries to show people through a public, practical process the ways in which design can make their lives better or worse. “Part of the challenge is to get the public to understand [design] as a fundamental right,” he says. In his best-known design projects, such as the rebuilding of Bayview, a poor town on Virginia's remote Eastern Shore, Cox has urged residents—using a plain-spoken vocabulary about design and what he calls its “public necessity”—to take control of their environments.

Besides the Mayors' Institute, the NEA's design division runs the newer Governors' Institute on Community Design and the Your Town design programs for rural communities. The pool of Mayors' Institute attendees alone, Cox notes, constantly renews itself. And “mayors go on to be elected at the state level and beyond,” he says. “If you can change a few minds—a few strategic minds—you can make an enormous amount of progress.”