AIA components in states bordering Mexico reject wall on ethical, environmental grounds

Border wall prototypes

Members in border states weigh in on what a wall could mean

The proposed $25 billion wall along the US/Mexico border raises questions that have proven divisive to society. Experts and pundits alike have responded in several ways as to the propriety of such a wall. But, more specific questions about the economic, environmental, and security implications of a border wall continue to vex observers for several reasons, not least of which is a dearth of details from the Trump administration or the Department of Homeland Security.  

In 2017 and 2018, AIA state components and chapters in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas wrote resolutions and letters with the support of their boards of directors opposing a border wall and questioning its cost-benefit relative to infrastructure projects all over the country that they deem higher-priority.

Avoiding the partisanship of immigration policies and border security, the AIA state components and chapters in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas focused instead on areas that underscore the architect’s expertise: programming, design analysis, environmental impact assessments, and community engagement as they relate to infrastructure at different scales.

Robert Miller, AIA, 2018 president of AIA Arizona, led the charge in drafting a template articulating his component’s concerns, which he shared with AIA chapters in Arizona and, ultimately, components in Texas, California, and New Mexico. Keeping the AIA Code of Ethics at the forefront, Miller says, helped him conceptualize the statement as something that members could support outside the context of their own partisan views. Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico have submitted statements to their respective Congressional delegations, while California plans to do so in the near future.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to propose alternate infrastructure, brick-and-mortar projects, even some shovel-ready projects as opposed to the border wall itself.” - Steven Alano, AIA, 2018 president of AIA New Mexico

“We are now trying to make a broader case to the public about the issues,” says Miller. He emphasizes the porousness of culture and commerce in southern Arizona border towns, a sentiment echoed by Nicki Dennis Stephens, Hon. AIA, executive vice president of AIA California Council (AIACC).

"We do have members who work in Mexico,” Stephens says. “Any of those border towns in California have a culture of a free and open border, and there’s a lot of migration and interaction that happens.”

Each resolution takes the stance that any proposed taxpayer funds allocated to the wall construction may be better spent on a bevy of other projects benefiting the public interest, such as the repair of existing roads and bridges, technology to curb illegal activity, construction of new public schools, and investment in a nationwide grid.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to propose alternate infrastructure, brick-and-mortar projects, even some shovel-ready projects as opposed to the border wall itself,” says Steven Alano, AIA, 2018 president of AIA New Mexico.

The 1,933 miles of the US border with Mexico cuts through a variety of environmentally and culturally sensitive regions, including Native American reservations; private land; rivers, reservoirs, and streams; and federally protected public lands and national parks. A wall, argues Alano and others, would divide and disrupt the surrounding landscape in unprecedented ways. The Texas Society of Architects (TxA) calls the wall a potential ecological and economic disaster as it pertains to geography and agriculture in the Lone Star State.

“We think that with everything we do, we have an obligation to protect our environment,” says Paul Dennehy, AIA, 2017 president of the Texas Society of Architects. Texas, more so than the other border states, has natural boundaries like the Rio Grande that would pose challenges to wall construction.  "When you look at the Big Bend region of Texas, it’s just one of the most beautiful national parks, you’re crazy to put a wall there,” Dennehy says.

Stephens echoes Dennehy’s concerns. “Whether you believe in the wall or not, you’ve got to wonder what the larger environmental impacts are going to be with constructing something like this,” Stephens says. “I’m not sure we can foresee all of those now.”

Designs that challenge architecture’s ethics

While US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has stated that any meaningful construction of a wall is at least 10 months off, eight 30-foot-tall wall prototypes were erected in San Diego by the Department of Homeland Security in October 2017. An ongoing series of tests will help CBP determine the characteristics they view to be most desirable in a wall. They anticipate issuing a subsequent request for proposals in another three to four months.

“AIA National strongly supports our components and chapters, whose boards of directors have tried to make sense of the administration’s requests for wall funding,” says Carl Elefante, FAIA, 2018 AIA President. “In my view, they have taken steps to avoid the rancorous partisan rhetoric that has surrounded the border wall, and instead have focused on its environmental and professional implications.”

“AIA National strongly supports our components and chapters, whose boards of directors have tried to make sense of the administration’s requests for wall funding.” - Carl Elefante, FAIA, 2018 AIA President

Last year, at the behest of 2017 AIA President Thomas Vonier, FAIA, the Institute’s National Ethics Council (NEC) reviewed key questions surrounding the proposed wall along the US/Mexico border. The NEC’s immediate past chair, North Carolina architect Paul Boney, FAIA, asked a special task force composed of council members to consider the ethical implications of such a project in light of the AIA Code of Ethics, to which all AIA members are bound.

In September the NEC submitted to President Vonier its advisory about the impact of the placement and construction of the border wall on private land ownership and use; the potential for harm to surrounding ecosystems; and the unknown danger to archaeological and paleontological sites, among other issues. In addition, the advisory noted that AIA members must make their own decisions about the proposed wall—it is not AIA’s role in this instance to tell its members the projects they should and should not accept.  The advisory is intended to provide ethical contexts for architects to consider as they pertain to the wall.

The NEC’s advisory followed the AIA National’s statement Where We Stand: Immigration and Visa Restrictions, issued in February 2017, which took issue with the Trump administration’s travel ban and visa restrictions on the basis of ethics, as well as the ways in which it negatively affected the design and construction industries. It followed the AIA National’s statement on buildings as infrastructure, issued in September 2017, which stated that any conversation about investing in the nation’s infrastructure must include public buildings.

While the component resolutions are not binding for members of AIA or its components and do not prohibit them from working on border wall related projects, they echo the NEC’s statement in asking members to carefully consider the potential ethical and environmental implications.  

The Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California resolutions were not unanimously supported in every component. Marc Tolson, AIA, a member of the Texas Society of Architects, thought that TxA’s statement was too politically charged. He supports the construction of a border wall on the basis of protecting law and order in the region. “A wall is a great thing. It promotes safety, it promotes rule of law,” he says, adding that the economic stimulus of wall-adjacent projects like roads and housing for workers would be good for the local economy.  

“I think a wall is an infrastructure project,” he says, countering the argument that any allocated money would be better spent elsewhere. “It’s good for architects.”

Planning for the unknown

In conversations with AIA National, several component leaders expressed frustration with the lack of specific design criteria or any kind of feasibility study in support of the wall’s efficacy from the Trump administration. “We don’t have a study that shows, if you built this, how likely is it to actually solve the problem, as opposed to move the problem?” Miller says. “We have those mockups [in San Diego] in place, and we have the President asking for appropriations to pay for it, but we don t have the proposal. So we’re being taxed for the idea of a wall, not for a specific proposal.”

“We don’t have a study that shows, if you built this, how likely is it to actually solve the problem, as opposed to move the problem?” -  Robert Miller, AIA, 2018 president of AIA Arizona

As of February 15, two bills before Congress proposed waiving 36 different environmental laws to enable the wall’s construction—but much is still unknown.

Britt Lindberg, AIA, AIACC’s 2018 president, underscores her organization’s position on the need for a more reasoned and methodical approach to the wall proposal.

“We’re asking for more study, more data, more backup information that would support how a border wall would solve the problems, or the issues, that it is said that it will solve,” Lindberg says.

“Our thinking was – the border is a complex of nested issues,” Miller says. “And in order to stay out of a lot of the political ones, we thought, well, let’s limit our public case to environmental destruction and the greater benefit that could be had by investing in other things that could have real benefit to the citizens of this country and to a wider group.”

Email your thoughts on this issue to govaffs@aia.org or call (202) 626-7442.

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.

Additional resources

AIA State Components’ statements regarding the proposed border wall:

AIA New Mexico

Texas Society of Architects

AIA California Council

AIA Arizona

AIA Local Chapters’ statements regarding the proposed border wall:

AIA Grand Canyon

AIA Phoenix Metro

AIA Southern Arizona

AIA San Diego

Image credits

Border wall prototypes

AP/Elliott Spagat

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