Citizen Architect – Angela Brooks, FAIA
Angela Brooks, FAIA, is a seasoned advocate at the local, state, and federal levels. With an emphasis on sustainability, affordable housing, and social justice, her mission is to convey to policymakers and public planners that design is not about a single building—it exists to create communities that improve the lives of the individuals who live in them.
Brooks + Scarpa Managing Principal Angela Brooks has been practicing architecture since 1991. She is a past-chair of the National AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Advisory Group. She has served as an advisor to the National Endowment of the Arts, Mayors Institute on City Design, and the Advisory Board of Solar Santa Monica. She received the National AIA Young Architects Award in 2009, and her firm has received more than 20 National AIA Awards, including five that also won Top Ten Green (COTE) Awards.
Angela Brooks, FAIA, was an advocate before an architect. Not only did she write her master’s thesis on how to make American suburbs more inclusive—she submitted that thesis to dozens of mayors for their review and consideration. “Most policymakers think architecture is what a building looks like, rather than what it is like” Brooks said in an interview. “They don’t realize that we design within a framework of policy; that those decisions have a direct impact on the built environment, and that we must have a seat at the table in order to improve the lives of their constituents.”
After finishing her degree, Brooks cofounded Livable Places, Inc., a nonprofit development company dedicated to building sustainable mixed-use housing in Los Angeles on under-utilized land. In her six years at Livable Places, she worked closely and developed relationships with leaders in the city planning department. Later, Brooks’ partner, Larry Scarpa, cofounded the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, which Brooks has participated in and which helps new architects become advocates and brings together nonprofit and community developers with redevelopment agencies to improve urban projects.
Brooks became a member of AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) Advisory Group in 2016 as President Barack Obama’s term in office was coming to an end. Faced with a very different agenda from the incoming administration, Brooks and her fellow committee members made the rounds on Capitol Hill, explaining to lawmakers the necessity of continued funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sustainability programs. One lawmaker Brooks met with said he had never met with an architect before. “It was helpful that this individual heard the business case for these programs directly from those affected,” said Brooks, “but also how federal policy impacts communities and the constituents who live in them.” The group’s efforts were successful in preserving funding for major federal environmental programs.
Brooks also has used her advocacy skills to advance AIA’s sustainability policy. She became the COTE Advisory Group chair in 2018 and was the past chair in 2019 when the AIA Board of Directors approved a landmark resolution sponsored by Betsy del Monte, FAIA, and co-sponsored by Brooks and 50 other architects that called for AIA’s 94,000 members to “exponentially accelerate the decarbonization of buildings, the building sector, and the built environment.” The resolution also calls for revisions to AIA public policies and position statements and advocates that AIA engage its membership, clients, lawmakers, and communities in a multi-year education, practice, and advocacy strategy.
Brooks credits the COTE Advisory Group for spurring architects to rethink their roles in communities. “After 30 years of COTE, the industry now considers environmental performance critical to good design,” said Brooks. “Every year, public media highlights the best work that meets this standard of architectural excellence, which ultimately helps our profession remain relevant.”
With her COTE service complete, Brooks now focuses most of her advocacy energy back at home in Los Angeles, a city that continues to grapple with rising homelessness and housing costs. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brooks sat for hours waiting for her turn to speak at a city planning meeting about an affordable housing project in her home neighborhood of Venice. Dozens of neighbors opposed the project, as did the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, but, Brooks’ and other supporters’ voices prevailed, and the project was approved.
Brooks credited her long history of advocacy—of building trust and relationships with elected officials throughout her career—for policymakers’ willingness to listen on a variety of issues. “People fear what they don’t know,” explained Brooks “And architects are best suited to show communities what the future can look like and dispel some of the fear.”
Brooks said there is plenty of work for architects in the area of affordable housing. That’s because climate change will disproportionately impact economically disadvantaged communities and the voices she refers to as BANANAs—Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything—are active in most neighborhoods, opposing projects that actually would contribute to the good of the community. As Brooks explained, most affordable housing studies indicate affordable housing development creates jobs, enhances economic activity, and add to the vibrancy of neighbhoods.
That data will not matter, however, unless the design community raises its collective voice to elected and appointed officials.
“If we’re not willing to ask ourselves if we’re doing enough to make things better, then we shouldn’t be architects,” said Brooks. “Every architect must be a citizen architect.”
In a May 2020 column for Architect, Brooks said, “Our profession’s success depends on our ability to lead on behalf of the greater good and to help those underserved by society. We are stronger—and more relevant—when we are connected to the lives of everyone and the space of the everyday.”
And where should a young architect start their journey on behalf of the greater good? Brooks advises that local AIA chapters will help new design professionals “get their foot in the door” with local council and planning commission members. Local advocacy is an opportunity for younger voices to drive a rethinking of the way the business of architecture is performed, encompassing issues such as social, environmental, and economic equity in the built environment.
In other words: even if you did not write your thesis on urban planning, start talking to those mayors now.
–As told to Kerrie Rushton