Although there is a natural tendency to focus on ecological attributes of individual buildings, it’s important to remember that each structure is part of something much greater—a community. The greatest impacts can be made by buildings, infrastructure, and people working together on a larger scale to achieve ever greater efficiencies at a neighborhood, municipal, and even regional level.

The Washington, D.C.–based American Institute of Architects long has advocated this idea to the design community. AIA’s Communities by Design initiative aims to make communities more efficient and sustainable. Recently, eco-structure had the opportunity to chat with Joel Mills, director of the Center for Communities by Design. He shared his thoughts about the role community development can play in creating livable communities and a healthy planet.

What kinds of initiatives is the Center for Communities by Design involved with?

JM: We have many hands-on technical assistance programs, designed to make a contribution to the conversation about urban design and sustainability in communities. In 2005, we launched a program called the Sustainable Design Assessment Team. This was a response to the rising interest in sustainability at the community scale and the fact that a lot of people were struggling with how to approach the idea of building effective plans to become more sustainable.

Through this program, we work with approximately 10 communities per year, and involve hundreds of design professionals in the process. All the professional expertise is pro bono, so it’s a unique program, customized to each community. The idea is to have an intensive charrette process with a multidisciplinary team and provide the community with recommendations about long-term planning issues and about issues of sustainability.

AIA has made an institutional investment, taking the position that the profession of architecture is no longer just about a building—it’s about community-scale and in some cases even regional-scale design. We want to highlight the profession’s contribution to that dialogue through our public service programs.

What kinds of issues are you seeing in the communities you work with?

Sustainability and community design are both very context-specific. For example, we worked in Detroit last year, where the salient issue is land use but the context is a shrinking population. So the team’s core recommendation was around applying a strategy to take increasingly available land and reinvent the city with a network of urban villages and neighborhoods that are supporting the core in a civic context. It’s looking at how to use the vacant land in a new way and leverage that for economic development, whether that’s urban agriculture, green space, or the production of renewable energy.

A completely different context can be seen in our work in Fort Worth, Texas. This city is part of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, the fastest growing region in the country. There are over 6 million people and that population is projected to double in the next 50 years. In Fort Worth, air-quality and water-supply issues dominate the conversation. The city had a sustainability task force that debated vigorously about whether they should create regulations to push sustainable building or create incentive packages to encourage that progress.

One of the things our team found was that municipal government needed greater coordination around the initiatives taking place in the town. One of our key recommendations was to create an office of sustainability in the city to coordinate agency efforts around a common set of benchmarks and to serve as an intermediary for the various agencies. For example, there was a debate over pervious pavement. Some agencies were for it and others were against it because of questions about its durability. It’s important to have a structure in place to mediate those kinds of issues.

We had a project in the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans, where we found that local institutions have trouble partnering with each other. So what the team tried to do was to come up with a suggestion for something that would be immediate and have tangible, visible impact to demonstrate commitment and progress. One of the assets in that community was that they have a lot of vacant properties that the redevelopment authority held and wanted to dispossess itself of in order to spur recovery. The team came up with an idea to create community gardens across the entire area. Under the team’s proposal, each neighborhood would be granted one parcel to turn into a community garden, and an umbrella group would manage the process and capitalize the real estate holdings for additional investment. Through this strategy, all of the neighborhoods and institutions would be able to partner with one another on a project that would have immediate and demonstrative impact.

Do you find there’s a challenge getting communities to take a long-term, sustainable view of development?

There certainly is impatience about implementation, no matter what community you’re working with. People want to see results. In a lot of communities we work with, there’s existing frustration because there has been dialogue and planning initiatives that have not produced tangible results. One of the things we’re trying to do with our approach is to identify the immediate, short-term, low-hanging fruit that can be implemented at a small scale. These help build momentum and build partnership experience that can lead to mid-term and long-term goals in the community.

Our short-term recommendations vary in every community, but typically what we try to do is identify items where funding already exists, or no funding is necessary, and implementation can be handled in a way that connects to other issues a community wants to address. For instance, formalizing a community’s commitment to sustainability by signing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, or utilizing existing empty space in local public schools to house neighborhood revitalization organizations and take advantage of co-location benefits—these represent items that take advantage of existing public interests and assets and require no new resources. We try to give communities a range of recommendations so they can begin to build the capacity to take on larger, more difficult issues down the line.

Are there economic benefits in these projects?

Absolutely. For example, New Orleans is a community that has gone through a disaster and literally is rebuilding. It’s a gigantic opportunity to save millions of dollars by building in a sustainable way. The challenge, of course, is addressing immediate need and an immediate timeline while thinking long term. In a lot of communities, it’s difficult to think about short-term planning needs with a long-term perspective. I think to tie those things together and tie issues together is a critical piece of the puzzle. A lot of communities we work in that are growing and are economically thriving are trying to figure out how to manage infrastructure, water supply, air quality, and other issues that will, in the long term, affect their economic health if they’re not addressed. A good example of this dynamic is the Chattanooga, [Tenn.,] metro region, which is planning for the impacts associated with multibillion dollar investments from new manufacturing plants.

What goals do you have going forward? What challenges do you see?

There are a few challenges we see, one of which is being able to build a capacity at a local and regional community scale to address issues of sustainability effectively. There is a lot of interest at the federal level in terms of what our strategy is going to be and what policies are needed to facilitate that. Where the rubber meets the road is going to be at the municipal and regional level, in terms of tangible changes that effect long-term sustainability and the need to build the local capacity to implement those actions in a successful way.

[New York–based] Living Cities recently conducted a survey and found that 4 out of 5 large cities now are ranking sustainability as a Top 5 issue. The interest definitely is there at the municipal and community scale. The critical issue is going to be how we provide information that is both contextual and can be applied to unique circumstances while building the long-term capacity of both small and large jurisdictions to be able to implement successfully.

Second is the issue of scale. Last year we had 13 projects and that’s as many as we’ve handled in a single year. Obviously there are other associations, organizations, and foundations working on this issue in communities, but we’re all doing it on our own right now, so there’s a real issue in the field of bringing together our efforts in a more collaborative way to achieve scale. We’re facing some significant challenges with adaptability and the consequences of climate change. But there is an opportunity to take advantage of some of the new investment in communities through the economic stimulus and infrastructure investment and to do that work in a way that is sustainable. There has been a lot of emphasis on the stimulus funding, and the opportunity and challenge surrounding that is that we need to make sure that we’re making smart investments in infrastructure that will contribute to long-term sustainability and the creation of livable communities.

When we look at those issues, particularly the issue of scale, it’s going to require a lot more partnership and a lot more collaboration among all the groups involved in this work. That’s something we’re interested in pursuing so we can begin to achieve the level of change necessary to be successful.

I think it’s a very exciting time when we look at the possibilities because we have an increasing awareness about sustainability and climate change, and we also have this reinvestment in our communities through ARRA. There is a lot of major infrastructure investment that’s going to happen that hasn’t happened in decades. There’s an opportunity for us to plan the next century when we look at the built environment and make sure this contributes to sustainability and livable communities in a way that serves all of us for generations.