In the wake of this month’s historic election, two news items are a signal to me that when the frenzied transition-to-power dust settles, it’ll lay on a renewed commitment to restore livability, sustainability, and affordability to long-neglected American cities.
The first item is a small part of the epic election we’ve just witnessed. In Barack Obama, Americans have elected perhaps the first president who understands cities and neighbordhoods as complex, interdependent, and dynamic peices of urban fabric. As a community organizer in Chicago, Obama self-consciously made the contemporary city his milieu, and saw what made some blocks flourish and others decline. He saw why some housing projects failed and others helped to lift residents out of poverty. Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are more typically thought of as our nation's first architecture presidents, and the urban renewal projects of the JFK and LBJ eras got lots of leaders talking about urban development, but that tainted legacy is more remembered for what it couldn't accomplish than for what it could. Obama is the first president to appear city-literate—to understand from a community planning standpoint how the distrubution of uses and building stock of a locality affects the lives of the people who live and work there. And if that weren't enough, Kamin also brings us word that both Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden see themselves as would-be architects.
Appropriately, Obama's campaign platform addressed a host of urban policy issues seldom represented by mainstream American politicians, from urban infrastructure, design, and sustainability, to affordability and job development. To manage these initiatives, he’s also pledged to create a White House Office of Urban Policy; a promise the AIA has been carefully tracking. To me, that sounds like a good job for an architect. Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune thinks so too (as evidenced by the presence of Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett , formerly Chicago’s city planning commissioner) and is optimistic about architects making their way into an Obama Administration.
The second piece of news is about what architects are already doing to address the livability and sustainability of our cities and neighborhood. This week, the USGBC’s LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system opened up for public comment. (You can submit comments online here). LEED ND is the first program to apply well-defined metrics of sustainability to entire urban-scale developments. When public comments close on Jan. 5, 2009, we’ll have a few weeks to digest it all, but then after the inauguration, it’s time to help the 44th president of the United States of America catch up on it. There’s likely to be a more receptive ear and a wider spot at the table than there has been in decades.