Healthy communities are built on purpose

Covering 834 acres in the center of New York City, Central Park was built in the mid-1800s to serve as an escape for residents and a place where all were welcomed. One of the designers, Frederick Law Olmsted, said at the time, "What we want to gain is tranquility and rest to the mind."

This iconic park required planning and an understanding that healthy and equitable communities are built with intention. These values are at the center of the AIA’s 2020 healthy communities policy platform. The platform states that "AIA is committed to a future built environment that improves individual health and prepares communities to weather a variety of storms."

In a year when literal and figurative storms continue to batter the country, this is an ambitious but worthwhile goal, according to Emily Roush-Elliott, AIA, member of AIA's Government Advocacy Committee and a leader of the AIA Housing and Community Development Knowledge Community.

“This year, more than ever, the importance of a stable, safe place to live has been made clear,” says Roush-Elliott. “In my work, I see firsthand the burden of stress and instability carried by individuals whose homes are deteriorating and unsafe, who occupy overcrowded homes or who do not know if the home they occupy today will be available to them tomorrow.”

At the top of AIA's priority list is addressing the nation's housing crisis and need for new connected infrastructure. In its annual report on affordable housing, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition reveals that "the U.S. has a shortage of 7 million rental homes affordable and available to low-income households." This number has not significantly improved since the coalition began tracking the gap in 2016. This challenge, combined with the reality that more than 500,000 people live on the streets each night, was a significant driver for the issues included in the platform.

“While the causes of the housing crisis are numerous, so are the roles that architects can play in building a more equitable future,” says Roush-Elliott. To encourage progress toward this goal, AIA suggests expanding new construction of affordable housing, increasing funding for Section 8 vouchers, and streamlining the process for affordable housing developers to get new projects approved. “Architects can specify healthy materials, pilot efficient design and construction practices, and advocate for local equitable zoning and code enforcement,” Roush-Elliott adds. “Beyond these activities, architects are also often well-positioned to write grants, join development teams, and provide guidance to housing agencies such as their State Housing Finance agency.”

Pandemic concerns also play a role in pushing for more resilient buildings in all communities. For example, many existing structures are not designed to safely handle extended stay-at-home practices that the country has experienced during the pandemic. Residents do not have sufficient ingress and egress corridors to socially distance, packages and mail are gathered at central locations, and common areas are not designed to provide a safe escape from quarantine. This is especially true in existing low-income housing clusters.

The platform emphasizes the benefits of reinvesting in public buildings like schools, first responder facilities and hospitals. Architects have played a leading role in retrofitting health care facilities to meet expanded needs during the pandemic. Helping these and other civic buildings become more resilient aligns with AIA’s goal of encouraging community reinvestment.

"Civic buildings are central to daily life in many neighborhoods," says Tim Hawk, FAIA, chair of AIA’s Government Advocacy Committee and an at-large director to the AIA Board. "Schools are more than just learning centers. They are voting locations for elections, performance venues for concerts and theater and gathering places for public meetings."

If civic buildings are the beating heart of these communities, Hawk says that connected infrastructure like trains, buses and multimodal streets serve as the arteries that feed economic life into cities. The AIA platform even calls for a national high-speed rail strategy.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, Americans take nearly 10 billion trips on public transportation each year and more than 70% of these trips are people traveling to their jobs. Even though existing conditions have limited travel of every kind, it is clear that quality transportation infrastructure is key to future economic growth.

From housing to schools to infrastructure to transportation, the policy platform recognizes that it takes a purposeful, holistic approach to build healthy communities. “The platform’s Healthy Communities policies acknowledge the scales at which architecture can be an asset or a liability,” Roush-Elliott says. “From specifying materials that can contribute to respiratory health to acknowledging the way that public space can be equitable or inequitable, ‘Healthy Communities’ underlines the ways in which architecture impacts us all.”

Just as early city planners in New York City knew that residents would need the green space of Central Park, architects are leading the charge to plan and reinvest in a new generation of communities – whether urban or rural – that provide healthy and equitable options for residents.

Learn more about AIA’s economic policy platform and get involved with AIA Advocacy.

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