Blueprint for Better Cities

Perspectives on 21st century design and urbanism


Designing with energy performance in mind is nothing new for architects. It has been 45 years since the 1973 oil embargo forced our nation, and architecture, to confront the enormous energy burden of the building sector—to this day the largest of any economic sector. But energy-conscious design has taken on new urgency as human-causes of climate disruption are more fully understood. Achieving zero-net energy and carbon targets is architecture’s new imperative. Just as life-safety concerns were translated into binding code requirements in 20th century, zero-net energy and carbon guidelines and standards are being codified today in the 21st century.

For decades, energy policy has addressed energy performance and efficiency. With adoption of the Paris Agreement, policies have evolved, focusing directly on the elimination of greenhouse gases—primarily carbon dioxide. Architecture 2030 has played a pivotal role in helping architects understand the principles of zero-net carbon design and providing valuable practice tools. Following the Paris summit in 2015, Architecture 2030 released the 2050 Roadmap, a framework for achieving zero-net carbon targets in the building sector. In 2018, Architecture 2030 published the Zero Code, designed as an energy code supplement. Together with AIA’s 2030 Commitment, architects have the resources needed to transition their practices to achieve zero-net carbon targets.

But, energy is only one aspect of creating better cities—of creating, as we’ll see in the essays below, what AIA is calling a Blueprint for Better Cities.

Architects build. We express ideas in material form. Understanding material properties and performance has been an essential part of architecture since Vitruvius wrote about firmness. Architects “own” material decisions. Today, new material considerations are emerging for architects. Buildings “embody” tremendous investments in material and energy resources with profound environmental consequences. Health impacts from exposure to building materials has relevance for building occupants as well as those who process, handle, and install them. In addition to health effects from materials, the built environment profoundly effects the health and wellbeing of people. Of course, this is true for building occupants. Americans spend the vast majority of their time in spaces architects create. More broadly, the built environment is a significant factor in today’s major public health challenges, notably including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In field after field, research is focusing on environmental factors that affect happiness, cognitive ability, and productivity.

As cities around the globe struggle to respond to unanticipated challenges, sustainable development concepts are evolving according to resiliency principles. How can architects make cities less susceptible to disruption, able to recover more quickly, and at lower recovery costs? Sources of disruption vary from place to place; however, common disruptive forces include extreme weather events, rising sea levels, conflict and terrorism, failing infrastructure, and other natural and human causes.

Since 1960, global population has increased by greater than four billion, more than doubling. Especially in developed countries like the US, the building stock has exploded along with population. While growth will continue, economic projections predict that over the coming decades building renovation will significantly exceed new construction. Further, achieving energy and carbon reduction targets can only be accomplished by making improvements to existing buildings. Renewing and transforming the existing building stock will be job one over the next generation for architects.

To meet the challenges of the urban era, to create a Blueprint for Better Cities, the architectural profession will need all the resources it can muster. Today, access to the profession is limited for many. Minority populations and women are severely underrepresented in the profession. The architecture profession must resolve its systemic equity, diversity, and inclusion issues.

The future of the profession depends on it.

Read the following essays that frame different aspects of the urban experience, pointing to a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future.

Image credits


Getty Images/Polygraph


Todd Winters