biden-harris via whyy

How Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Can Help Architects

Following their wise cancellation of the Trump executive order on architectural style for federal buildings, the Biden administration promised to promote a better guide for architects working in the public arena. What kinds of policies might they implement to do so?

More than 500 architects, planners, and artisans throughout the world attended TAG 4, a conference sponsored by Dr. Nir Buras and the Classic Planning Institute, in late February. Many powerful ideas about reforming environmental design were presented there. In addition, enlightened architects are working in concert with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture to promote brain science as a vehicle to ameliorate the ugly and unhealthy buildings that many contemporary architects promote and design. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) continues its effective efforts to guide planners and policy makers worldwide in the creation of better parks, neighborhoods, and cities. In Washington, the AIA has finally moved to put adaptive reuse on its lobbying agenda and gives design awards in that category. Now is the right time to bring this new knowledge to bear on the most pressing problems facing the nation. 

Though published lists often cause bureaucrats to glaze over, let me offer the following suggestions to federal officials planning the new infrastructure and climate crisis agendas:

  • Subsidize all construction jobs that fuel the infrastructure retrofits, the creation of a renewable energy grid, utility improvements, transit projects, and housing needed to modernize the nation’s built environment.
  • Go beyond LEED and FEMA guidelines in producing new building, health, and planning standards for a greener, more sustainable, planet.
  • Incentivize private developers to construct more affordable and alternative housing throughout the nation.
  • Empower groups such as the AIA, APA, NCARB, and ASLA to practice more sustainable design by giving professionals the power and agency to direct regional development, stripping away the red tape that has prevented this in the past.
  • Use directives to reform the dysfunctional system of federal contracting that has produced nightmarish buildings like the San Francisco Federal building, the old Tuscaloosa, Alabama courthouse, and Cabrini Green (among so many “projects”) in Chicago.
  • Rewrite the car-oriented transportation policies that have destroyed neighborhoods and killed countless pedestrians since the construction of the interstate highway system and its tributaries;
  • Promote sustainable, non–fossil-fuel public transit, such as electric buses, vacuum-tube underground transit, light rail, rentable mini-vans, and bullet trains.
  • Promote evidence-based, science-inspired research on all design solutions, planning proposals, and federal policies.
  • Compel architecture and planning schools to teach subjects based on this kind of research, avoiding the “theories” that drive most education today.
  • Pursue a pluralistic, people-oriented program of design standards and policies, rather than one based on decades of failed urban renewal, transportation, housing, and public sector architecture.
  • Seriously consider alternative design strategies, such as traditional and vernacular sources, classical architecture (from all cultures), permaculture planning, Native American building traditions, regional materials and idioms, and non-Western languages of building.
  • Offer federal grants to all institutions (not only universities) that follow more pluralistic, evidence-based avenues for environmental enrichment and repair.
  • Consider the best practices, smart codes, transect urbanism, and new transportation paradigms promulgated by the CNU, as they have been singularly successful during the past 30 years.
  • Abolish the antitrust policies that have prevented architects from establishing fair fee schedules, and promote the establishment of labor unions in that profession, as well as other design studio environments.
  • Pass the $15.00 federal minimum wage legislation.
  • Offer scholarship and grant incentives to young people who wish to pursue the building trades as an alternative to university education.
  • Make architecture, construction, and design work as attractive, lucrative, and esteemed as that of the IT, financial management, medical, and legal professions. 

This list is hardly comprehensive, and it certainly can’t be successfully implemented in just eight years. It will take successive administrations and sympathetic lawmakers to fix what is wrong with the design and construction industries. Of course, banking and lending laws will also have to change to promote fair distribution of capital resources and prevent the predatory behavior of wealthy capitalists that has destroyed our economy since the Reagan administration. 

City and regional governments will also have to change direction in order to create truly healthy, beautiful, and safe cities and parks. I am hopeful that such changes are in the wind. There is evidence that some cities—such as Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas—are using smarter codes and policies than in the immediate past. The U.K. has initiated a “Building Beauty” campaign for housing construction in England, Scotland, and Wales. 

Architects should not be discouraged by the Trump administration’s venal swerve toward capitalist hegemonies that already carry undue influence over planners and developers. The recent announcement of a supertall tower next to Grand Central in Manhattan is already facing stiff opposition from citizens groups. Hudson Yards will likely face bankruptcy in coming years. New zoning in many cities is limiting height and bulk for office and housing developments. We shall see improvements in our wherewithal to design better developments in the very near future.

Though I recently wrote on Common Edge about several trends that augur ill for our profession, I believe that younger policymakers and better-informed lawmakers are likely to redress some of the negative pressure weighing on us. We can’t afford to lose focus, engagement, and political activism as we struggle to get back on course in our efforts to “build back better.” Are you listening, Mr. President and Madam Vice President?

Featured image via WHYY.


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