Rebuilding America's infrastructure starts with thinking locally

Published: January 28, 2017

Build America Summit - Russ Davidson

AIA President Russell Davidson, FAIA, convened the first-ever, two-day Build America Summit on November 29-30 in Midtown Manhattan.

AIA's first-ever Build America Summit emphasized the need to reinvigorate public amenities beyond roads and bridges

In the wake of a presidential campaign in which America’s crumbling roads and bridges were a central issue, the American Institute of Architects recently gathered some of the best minds in architecture, development and local government to deal with an equally urgent priority: saving the nation’s social infrastructure—the schools, libraries, community centers and parks—that keeps neighborhoods livable and Americans connected to one another.

AIA President Russell Davidson, FAIA, convened the first-ever, two-day Build America Summit on November 29 and 30 in Midtown Manhattan as an urgent call to action. Indeed, the numbers presented at the summit paint a picture of neglect of the country’s social infrastructure. Some examples:

  • While public works spending has grown in the last 20 years, social infrastructure spending is trending downward, and the gap between the two is approaching $100 billion (see chart below);
  • The shortfall on school construction spending alone is approximately $46 billion per year, according to the Center for Cities & Schools at University of California-Berkeley;
  • Spending on infrastructure such as schools and wastewater treatment plants is currently at a 30-year low, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

This slide from AIA chief economist Kermit Baker's presentation illustrates that while public works spending has grown in the last 20 years, social infrastructure spending is trending downward.

“I see this in my work here in the New York metropolitan area,” said Davidson, president of KG+D Architects of Mount Kisco, New York, in his opening remarks. “In nearby Yonkers, the city needs $2 billion in capital funding for its 25,000 students. Children attend school in buildings only a few miles from here which are virtually unaltered from the time they were built in the 1890s.”

Davidson continued to offer evidence of a failing system: “The numbers tell the story that while spending on physical infrastructure has continued through the recession, spending on social infrastructure has not recovered, leaving a backlog of many billions of dollars.”

The 250 summit attendees heard the same message over and over—investment in social infrastructure has a catalytic effect on private development and jobs—and that a very small portion of our GDP can have a huge stimulating effect to local economies while simultaneously serving a social need, making communities more energy efficient and resilient. This is especially true of inner cities and rural communities where schools, libraries, religious buildings, and community centers are the lifeline for many residents.

Attendees heard from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu about how rebuilding 22 schools from the ground up in New Orleans brought people and private investment back after Hurricane Katrina. They heard from keynote speaker developer Jonathan Rose, author of The Well-Tempered City (2016), drawing from his experience as a developer to note that the infrastructure conversation centers too frequently on shovel-ready projects rather than those borne from transformative thinking. "Right now, we don't have a vision equal to our challenges," Rose said.

The event's purpose was to harness its participants’ collective insights and wisdom to improve the argument that renewing and renovating public buildings—specifically schools, libraries, community centers, and parks—is just as crucial to the nation’s future as modernizing its roads and bridges.

Survey says

Americans largely agree, according to the results of a public opinion survey presented by AIA EVP and Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA.

The AIA's survey, taken in October by the Harris Poll, found that sentiment on the need for investment in libraries, schools, community centers, and other public spaces runs quite deep. While the two recent presidential candidates defined infrastructure as roads and bridges, the public has a much broader perspective: 94 percent of Americans say that well-maintained public buildings are important to the future of their community. And nearly three-quarters of Americans consider public schools in good condition a “must have” in the communities in which they live.

Jonathan Rose, developer and author of The Well-Tempered City, dazzled attendees with a powerful keynote on the summit's first day.

“The public is clear about the need for affordable housing and quality public schools,” Ivy said. “These are key findings and they are real numbers. Americans expect public buildings to improve their lives.”

With that serving as Ivy’s challenge, summit attendees participated in a program that explored the inevitable elephant in the room—namely, how the incoming administration will handle federal funding for infrastructure projects of all shapes and sizes. In response, the strongest guidance was from speakers with experience at the local and state levels. Their advice was to not wait for the federal government’s help, but to identify state and local resources to rebuild or repair the essential elements that help communities thrive.

“Trump has a very ambitious (infrastructure) proposal, but we need much more than that,” said Kevin McQueen, board chairman of Washington, DC-based Partners for the Common Good, a self-described 'capital aggregator' organization whose mission is to advance economic justice and opportunity for low income people and communities. “You can’t do equitable investment unless you plan for it.”

Making it work locally

So how can towns and cities plan properly and fill any funding voids? David Dixon, FAIA, senior principal and urban design group leader at Stantec, reminded the crowd that shifting demographics have given urban centers considerable wealth at an opportune time.

"Some cities have become so valuable that they can pick up the slack," he said, reemphasizing the "moral and ethical obligation" of cities to provide necessary public amenities and affordable housing.

"How can a smaller city compete with a mega city?" asked Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District of New Orleans. "Play up what you have."

Indeed, Weigle and Mayor Landrieu both emphasized how New Orleans has reinvigorated itself in the wake of not only Hurricane Katrina but a decreasing population throughout the latter part of the 20th century. After the infrastructure failure of Katrina, which crippled an already struggling city, Weigle and his organization turned its legendary downtown area into a hub for digital media and tech firms and have doubled the residential population.

Mayor Landrieu, in particular, spoke of the desire to rebuild or reinvest with other community stakeholders that are committed to growing together. "Cities are not asking for handouts," he said. "We're asking for great partnerships."

The need to build for everyone

If the money can be acquired, from local governments or public-private partnerships, the question then turns to equity. Building for the public means taking all community needs into account and ensuring that everyone's voice is heard in the design process. This requires foresight into the complications that emerge in all projects, even well-intentioned ones.

"When you build a school, you create an arbitrary line," said Kathryn Madden, a visiting lecturer at Clark University and former principal at Sasaki Associates. "What happens to the people on the other side?"

"Most states do not know the condition of their public school facilities," added Jeff Vincent, deputy director of the Center for Cities & Schools at the University of California, Berkeley, begging the question as to how they can be trusted to improve what they don't properly oversee in the first place.

Artist Greg Gersch illustrated each day of the Build America Summit to add color to an already colorful event.

In short, tapping local channels of wealth can be lucrative but also limiting. It puts the future of the community in the hands of an exclusive few, who have the power to shape their surroundings and create new boundaries. The need then becomes to look beyond short-term challenges and solve issues before they occur.

That thinking—and the ability to see long-term—can come from architects, as long as they're focusing on the right problems.

"We jump to ask 'How can architects solve Problem X?' without listening," said Jess Zimbabwe, AIA, executive director at the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership.

Listen and collaborate

As such, a large portion of the Summit was dedicated to soliciting ideas and perspectives from attendees about the future of America’s infrastructure. Nearly every panel and keynote provided time for questions from the audience, who engaged with expert speakers on a wide variety of subjects to engage in a dialogue that will be crucial moving this issue forward. AIA used this Summit to launch an organization-wide initiative to seek input and feedback on AIA values and priorities from both its members and the design and construction industry as a whole.

Another important movement in that regard was a panel on the summit's final day, which featured Ivy and representatives from numerous other industry associations. Leaders from the American Planning Association, the American Society of Interior Designers, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Urban Land Institute, and the International Code Council were all featured and agreed that allied organizations must work together more closely, echoing that these unique times call for collaboration and mutual understanding.

Ivy, noting that AIA and numerous other building industry leaders recently came together on a joint resilience statement, wondered, "Can we go beyond this resilience agreement to build something even more lasting?" AIA's poll already shows that the American people are eagerly expecting a new emphasis on public buildings that are designed properly and built to benefit their communities.

In the coming weeks and months, architects must—and will—make this urgent expectation known throughout their local communities and on the national stage wherever and whenever possible, Davidson said. But they cannot just take for granted that the incoming administration and Congress will hear them. They must convince policy makers at all levels of their cause using provable facts and reasoning.

"The holistic improvement of our communities must include the whole built environment," Davidson said. In his appeal to attendees to help underscore the urgency, need and rationale for making America’s social infrastructure renewal effort a reality, Davidson quoted the former South African Anglican archbishop and social activist, Desmond Tutu: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”

John Schneidawind is the director of public affairs and media relations at AIA; Steve Cimino is AIA's digital content manager.

Image credits

Build America Summit - Russ Davidson

Jim Richards

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