Why communities need design thinking
An architect and councilperson explains how to become a community leader, and why it's so valuable
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Before people care about how much you know, they need to see how much you care.” With that in mind, architects need to demonstrate their capabilities and contribution to an organization or community before being seen as an asset and a resource. Through development of the Citizen Architect program, AIA’s Center for Civic Leadership is building the foundation for more robust engagement between architects and the communities where they live and practice.
Architects possess a skill set essential to becoming successful participants and leaders. Among others, these competencies include critical areas like ideation, resource management, creativity, commitment, passion, and the ability to see what is not yet there. Through the lens of my personal career, I have experienced all of these aptitudes. They are motivated and fueled by being dedicated to the principle that architects can—and should—be positive agents for real and meaningful good. I currently serve as an elected public official in Orange Village, Ohio, where I am able to initiate and lead change to build a preferred future for my community and set an example for those around me.
By way of example, I have played a significant role in pursuing legislative efforts where the knowledge and values of architecture and design have directly resulted in producing community initiatives. These include the development of a local sustainable building standard, producing an ordinance to allow and encourage the use of photovoltaic systems, and development of a collaborative partnership with several other communities to improve traffic on a major local thoroughfare.
The Orange Goes Green Certification Program was initiated in 2009 and involved the development of a set of sustainable building standards, resulting in the introduction of a local certification system for both residential and commercial buildings within the community. This program has been shared with the other communities across the county and includes a workbook identifying how to meet the standards and why they are important.
Architects have a place as catalysts for civic initiative and AIA can provide the means to make that happen.
Then, as a number of residences approached our planning commission to install photovoltaic systems for which no law existed, the council sought development of legislation for regulations to permit solar panel installations. My efforts resulted in writing and passing a model law to promote and support local photovoltaic systems.
Finally, during the course of review for a major new development project, I recognized the need to collaborate on addressing current and future traffic on a major artery serving four adjacent communities. As such, I realized that no individual community could address the issue without the cooperation of the others; therefore, no strategies had been pursued to affect change. I reached out to our state legislator, along with the regional Department of Transportation director, and proposed the installation of a sophisticated electronic system to improve traffic. With their engagement and the involvement of the four communities' mayors, an agreement was created, funding was obtained, and the project came to life. The result has been the installation of the first traffic-reading management system in the state.
How to get involved
Recognizing that architects can influence the community and help address local problems, the next step is figuring out how to get involved. There are two levels of involvement: “volunteer” and “STAR.” First, become a respected volunteer and demonstrate your leadership skills and knowledge. This will lead to recognition as a STAR (strategic trusted advisor resource) who is sought out when community needs arise. The second cannot happen without the first being cultivated; they are both born from the same place.
In my own case, I began by volunteering to serve on the community’s design review board. Through that experience, I recognized the value of my skill set. When a vacancy on our city council arose, I submitted my credentials for consideration and was selected over ten other candidates. My appointment was largely due to my background and profession; in my interview, I was able to verbalize issues the community recognized as important to the future. I subsequently ran for election and won my seat for a four-year term; when it ends, I will be running again.
Through many years of participating in and leading groups—including AIA components, business groups, educational programs, civic organizations, and appointed and elected bodies—I have had an opportunity to be very involved in my community. These experiences can form the foundation of a very worthwhile journey, or they can be an end in and of themselves. Either way, architects have a place as catalysts for civic initiative and AIA can provide the means to make that happen. Building a cadre of community-engaged architects starts with identifying those already connected and leveraging them as an asset; the Citizen Architect program is the resource that will help AIA members find their purpose and their place.
Judson Kline, FAIA, is president of CIVITAD Services, LLC, assisting economic development professionals in implementing projects and programs. Previously a partner and vice president with Herschman Architects for 36 years, he is also a councilperson in Orange Village, Ohio, serving on the Planning Commission/Design Review Board and chairing the Orange Sustainable Building Committee.