4 Unexpected Ways that Architects are Contributing to City Resilience

In 1961, the visionary urban theorist Jane Jacobs described the problem of architecture: “we expect too much of buildings and too little of ourselves.” Today, many architects are rejecting architecture-as-spectacle and focusing on process rather than product. They recognize that more than just serving those who can afford their services, design can make communities more resilient. Here are four ways architects are contributing to city resilience:

Architects as Mediators

The architect’s role is expanding. Architects have traditionally contributed to disaster response by providing building safety assessments, and to disaster recovery through shelter design and urban development. Architects are now assisting in the process of resilience planning through problem diagnosis, risk communication, and community outreach. Experts, like Marcy Monroe of AECOM, argue that architects are in a unique position to function as mediators, advisors, and educators. They think of urban improvements at a human scale and can provide visual tools like models and maps of aggregated data to stakeholders to assist in planning, policy making, and decision-making.

This is showing itself in new and exciting ways. For example, in a refugee camp in Kenya, an aid worker with architectural training used a map linking violence to a lack of open space to gain support for the construction of community playgrounds, which had a co-benefit of improving community health.

Active Design

Architects are capitalizing on urbanization trends to get people moving. Cities are growing denser, forcing them to build up. Taller buildings provide opportunities to increase people’s physical engagements with the built environment. New York City agencies collaborated with the AIA and the Center for Active Design to develop “NYC Active Design Guidelines,” a set of strategies to promote physical activity in buildings and urban spaces. For example, the guidelines included strategies to encourage use of stairs: designing fun and attractive staircases; placing stairs in visible, well-trafficked locations; and using signage to promote stair use.

Inviting stairs as part of active. From the “NYC Active Design Guidelines“.

Adaptive Re-Use of Dead Malls

Dead malls are unused and often derelict former shopping spaces, the product of shifting transportation, economic, and cultural trends, and overdevelopment of retail space.

The White Flint Mall, in Maryland, United States. now demolished. Credit Duck Pie.

Architects and community developers are reimagining these spaces into educational facilities, medical centers, and more. Some are being converted into vibrant, mixed-use communities—sections of asphalt parking becoming parks and gardens. Adaptive re-use projects like these strengthen communities by adding valuable public amenities, reducing urban decay, and leveraging existing infrastructure to reduce the financial and environmental burdens of new development.

Architects as Community Builders

AIA deployed its Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) to Birmingham, Alabama after it was hit by an EF-4 tornado in 2011. The nine-member team of volunteer architects and multi-disciplinary design professionals collaborated with over 450 residents and officials to develop a design for community recovery and reconstruction.

The Birmingham News gave the R/UDAT’s work credit for the transformative change occurring in the community, which included tens of millions of dollars in new investment towards a new library, a fire station, senior housing, and community gardens. The city is using these initial investments in public buildings to catalyze “opportunity sites” for private investment in mixed-use development, which will bring additional new resources and amenities to the area.