2018 AIA President Carl Elefante, FAIA
Photography: Carl Bower 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante

For architects in “traditional” practice (like me), it is hard to pay much attention to anything beyond our daily lives. The never-ending cycle of seeking new work while successfully completing work under contract demands so very much. When am I supposed to find time for larger issues and trends? Why should I care? How do they affect my firm, our clients, the community?

As AIA President, I feel a duty to relate to the daily lives of members like you (and me) the broad professional, industry, economic, and even global trends that the AIA’s extensive intelligence resources track. This column starts with the most important: the dawning of the “urban era.” Today, for the first time in the history of human civilization, the majority of people across the globe live in cities. It changes the relevance of architects and architecture from this time forward—no exaggeration.

The population explosion that started in the 19th century (1 billion by 1800) accelerated exponentially in the 20th (from under 2 billion to more than 6 billion) and continues into the 21st (exceeding 7 billion around 2010). As mind-boggling as these population numbers are, the shift from rural to urban dwelling is even more extreme. Over the same period, urban population shifted from about 3 percent in 1800, to 14 percent in 1900, to 54 percent today. Projections put urban population at 84 percent by 2100. It can be difficult to relate these silent numbers to the bustling life around us.

What do these numbers mean for you and me, to our profession and our practices? They mean that our future lies in cities. They mean that whatever people need and desire must be satisfied in cities. They mean that architects, who are designated by our culture, laws, and economy to shape the built environment, have the power to address those needs and desires.

We have the responsibility, but we also have the opportunity.

The new realities of the urban era propelled architecture to heightened importance. We don’t just shape buildings; we shape lives. Every social, economic, and environmental challenge is directly affected by our work. This isn’t just a generational change, it’s historic.

When the AIA was founded in 1857, it addressed a world that looked and functioned differently than it does today in terms of settlement patterns. For the most part, architects came from the wealthy and educated classes. They worked for their peers. At the dawning of the urban era, architecture’s client base is expanding exponentially. Every community, everywhere, has needs and desires that can be met only by shaping the built environment that shapes their lives.

If the architectural profession embraces the opportunities of the urban era, the numbers tell us our future is secure. If not, how long will it be until others do it for us?