Mention “home” and the image the general public sees is a detached house on a plot of land complete with lawn and a gas-fired grill. While those whose work is largely residential have transformed the landscape around the traditional city, the future for such practice may be brightest downtown.As urban sustainability and business development consultant Jeb Brugmann noted in his keynote presentation at the AIA National Convention in May, the future of the 21st century is decidedly urban. In 1900, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Recent projections have that figure vaulting to 75 percent by 2050. People migrate to cities in search of jobs and opportunities to make their lives better. If cities are poorly governed and organized, opportunities may be limited to breaking the law and lives of crime. However, if growth is guided by a true urban strategy that leverages the benefits of density, the inherent efficiencies and social mobility of cities can be among the most powerful instruments to drive positive change. Essential elements of such a strategy include good public schools, safety, and quality affordable housing. To provide the latter, architects can repurpose the rich stock of existing commercial and institutional architecture, which is among the greatest resources of the downtown. From Connecticut to California, warehouses, factories, and empty department stores are being transformed into condos and co-ops for students, artists, the young, and empty nesters.Increasingly, local and national AIA awards jurors are discovering excellent living spaces and new commercial spaces in cities. In the depressed residential market, adaptive-use projects have enjoyed greater success in retaining their value than housing built in the suburbs and beyond. In part, this has been supported not only by the rising cost of gas, but the fatigue of commuters stranded each day in mind-numbing gridlock.Equally important but not so easily quantifiable are those who bring back to life a city’s existing architectural fabric. Downtown design center employees, activists, urban farmers, bike-lane boosters, and preservationists (among others) contribute to the restoration of a vital sense of place. In an increasingly virtual world, anchoring our fast-paced lives in the fabric of our older cities speaks to our need for roots—no matter how many cloud-based applications become available in the coming decade.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President