In May, I was a graduating architecture student at the University of Maryland, cast with 53 of my classmates into the worst job market in decades. While my peers serve drinks and wait tables, I’ve gone to work for my county councilman. The job offer I received during finals week wasn’t thanks to an eye-catching portfolio—it was the culmination of three years of neighborhood blogging and activism. Five months in, I don’t draw plans, I answer phones. And I’m helping my boss, who represents nearly 1 million people, stop a half-century of suburban-style development dead in its tracks. In second-year studio, our critic had us review our site’s zoning requirements before designing. It was annoying then, but I couldn’t be more thankful for his insight now. Most designers would say buildings are born by putting pen to paper; in fact, the places we live, work, and play in are born in a government office, teased out through zoning codes and master plans. Those are written up by people with backgrounds in politics or business, and revised by lawyers and developers complaining that meddlesome planners hurt their bottom lines. Their outcomes are decided by the inside baseball of local government.
And then comes the harshest crit of all: Civic activists railing against “arrogant architects” imposing their will on the community. Finally, a brief appears on an architect’s desk, saying, This is what you can build.
My county, a suburban jurisdiction outside Washington, D.C., is embarking on an ambitious zoning code update, coupled with several master plans seeking to reform strip-mall corridors and office parks into urban centers. Planners and developers alike tout plans that could pass for studio assignments: tree-lined boulevards, mixed-use buildings, and public squares. No matter how appealing these ideas sound, they become anathema when placed before residents fearful of any changes to their cul-de-sacs and single-family homes. The thinking behind the schemes—regaining a lost sense of community; encouraging walking and transit use; jump-starting the economy—gets lost behind a shower of vague figures and formulas. Elected officials are unable to justify or explain them to constituents, who resent a system that seems to be hiding the truth. As a result, the county’s initiatives have been drowned in controversy.
And why shouldn’t residents be upset? A 2.0 floor-area ratio—a zoning term denoting how many square feet you can build relative to the size of the lot—can’t conjure a building’s appearance. You have to sell these ideas through visuals, the language everyone can understand.
The only one of the county’s master plans to be approved without any controversy was one for which county planning staff created a 3D flyover. Stakeholders got to see a real place, complete with trees and buildings, instead of an equation. They were able to make judgments about design and planning decisions and critique them accurately. A discussion that would’ve otherwise started with building density and ended there instead became much more. Architectural thinking may not be able to solve social ills. But in government, it can help settle the contentious back-and-forth between elected officials and the public.
Is this what I intended to do after college? Not at all. I would like to enter the design profession when the economy improves. But as local governments around the country struggle to counteract 50 years of sprawl and disinvestment, they’ll need people to show them how, and I’m glad to help. I hope fellow members of the graduating class of ’09 will consider doing so, too. Even if your municipality isn’t hiring, there are opportunities to work for nonprofit organizations or volunteer for community groups, putting your design expertise in the hands of those who need it most.
You’ve got a pen and a sketchbook. Now here’s your chance to put them to work.