Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President
Photography: Carl Bower Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President

Communities everywhere are facing challenges with water. In Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri, and especially in Texas and Florida, storm-induced floods have recently destroyed lives and property, on scales that defy description.

Also upon us—and slower to destroy, certainly, but with staggering prospects for disruption—are inexorable gains in sea levels. Rising seas are a key element of plans and programs for AIA Florida, as portions of that state begin to experience the effects.

Disaster impacts can last for decades— some last forever. Every season seems to bring new difficulties, more trouble. And this is happening all over the globe.

So let’s sound this encouraging note: Architecture and design can really help.

The challenges are great—warming waters, saltwater encroachment, rising sea levels, crumbling bulwarks, mounting carbon levels, dwindling forests, growing metropolises, and, with them, ever-expanding areas of impermeable urban surface. Today, we probably have only an inkling of how cities will have to adjust relationships with the water that is over, under, and all around them.

We will need new design measures as well as new planning and development rules. We will have new and different costs, and adjustments in how we work and live. Some changes will be thrust upon us by need and circumstance; others we will seek.

Like other challenges, many of which are interrelated, water has much to do with physical design—the care we take in how we juxtapose buildings, land, water, people, and infrastructure. Urban planning and architecture are at the core of efforts to house and feed rapidly expanding poor populations, to reduce harmful climate impacts, to promote health.

We must develop and adopt new measures, concepts, practices, and policies. We must reduce unwanted environmental impacts, helping people to meet new realities.

That is why, in the wake of Sandy and Katrina, the Institute began to invest in programs that foster community resilience, and now, after Harvey and Irma, AIA members are applying lessons learned. Our chapters are assisting communities all over the country hit by catastrophes—helping them to be better prepared next time.

Our purpose is first to learn from experts in sea-level forecasting, from architects innovating with new designs for high water, from industry leaders preparing for a future with higher sea levels, and from officials improving policies for land planning and development. Next we must stimulate the public demand for architecture by showing how design makes communities stronger. This year, and no doubt for some time to come, architects have a responsibility to address water in their work on behalf of clients, and in their influence over communities in light of architecture’s great capacity to ensure the health and safety of everyone—no matter where they live, play, or work.