With the nation still in recession, a one-month job loss total (January 2009's) not seen for 59 years, and an unemployment rate at its highest level in a quarter century, all sectors of the U.S. economy are experiencing tough times. Architecture firms have not been immune. Countless firms have been cutting staff, dropping salaries, or both; others are using the down time to regroup and prepare for the future.
For those involved in urban planning and design, there is something of a silver lining, says Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution and the director of the University of Michigan's graduate real estate program, where he also teaches.
There is a shift taking place in the built environment, Leinberger says: a focus on "walkable urbanism"?pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development that is largely based around local and regional transit. And with its creation of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, the $8 billion in stimulus money it has set aside for high-speed rail, and the $8.4 billion it wants to pump into public transit, the Obama administration seems to comprehend this fundamental change.
Urban development is funded through the administration's economic stimulus plan, as well as the yet-to-be-approved funding for transportation, housing, and urban development. Leinberger believes the priorities laid out in these two pieces of legislation will allow for the planning of new walkable urban areas. And he sees opportunities for architecture and planning firms that are likely scrambling for more business.
"We have a two- or three-year lull here where we need to do some great planning, particularly around rail stations, to ... put in place codes that allow for mixed-use, walkable urban development," Leinberger says. "That's the biggest challenge the planning field has right now. I've been telling municipalities throughout the country: Don't have developers plan the future of your communities?you do it. And this is the best time to do it."
Of particular interest to Leinberger is how transportation spending is divided in the stimulus package. "Historically, we spend 15 percent of our transportation dollars from the federal level on transit and bike trails and so-called 'alternative transportation,'" Leinberger says. "In this stimulus bill, it's 40 percent. That's the first time we've ever seen that kind of spending, [including] the national high-speed rail system. That's a stunning number."