Citizen Architect – Jorge Mastropietro, AIA
Since he opened his first practice in Argentina in 1992, Jorge Mastropietro has devoted his career—indeed his professional life—to creating walkable, livable communities. “We are losing our sense of community,” Mastropietro said. That loss has significant implications for the environment. Change must come from the bottom up, and as a Citizen Architect, Mastropietro works with local officials to reimagine suburban life, transform his own community, and educate citizens about reducing their carbon footprints.
A registered architect in Argentina and the United States, Mastropietro is a member of AIA and the Colegio de Arquitectos de la Provincia de Buenos Aires. In the United States, he spent five years as a project manager for Rafael Viñoly Architects before founding his firm, Jorge Mastropietro Architects Atelier (JMA). Based in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, JMA is an architecture, urban design, design/build, and CM practice focused on design innovation, development services, and highly sustainable methods, including Passive House. The firm is among a new breed of architecture firms that offer construction services and invest in, build, and market their own projects. In addition to his advocacy work, Mastropietro speaks at events and authors articles on various topics, including low-energy passive design.
Growing up in Buenos Aires, Jorge Mastropietro and his friends played in parks, walked to school, and felt like they knew everyone—because life was lived outside. The neighborhood was the center of civic life; today, Mastropietro is determined to show action at the community level is integral to changing policy and how we live and work.
“We are architects. We know how to plan, and we know how to fix things,” Mastropietro said. “We need to convince our neighbors to change, really convince them. I feel I need to do it in my own town.”
As an advocate for the environment, Mastropietro is worried about suburban America, where families live in large houses on generous plots of land and rarely send their children outside. Mastropietro pointed to the decline in the number of children walking to school as an example. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, in the United States in 1969, 48 percent of children five to 14 years of age walked or bicycled to school. Forty years later, that number had declined significantly, to 13 percent.
“Children do not walk. As a result, they are not healthy, but the environment also is not healthy,” said Mastropietro. “Cars are a problem, and simply switching to electric is not a solution on its own. We need to walk, bike, and move more—and we need communities that will allow us to do that.”
Observing this, Mastropietro put to use his knowledge of design, architecture, and development in his adopted hometown of Millburn Township, N.J. As a Citizen Architect, Mastropietro is attempting to transform Millburn/Short Hills into a city that tackles climate change by taking “little steps” that reduce waste, plastics, and auto travel.
Mastropietro’s journey into advocacy started when he became a member of the Millburn Environmental Commission. “As an architect, most of my work is with developers who are primarily worried about costs,” Mastropietro explained. “The only way to get things to change—to build better buildings—is through legislation or ordinances. Government has to create solutions.”
Once on the commission, Mastropietro got quickly to work. For example, to reduce waste in the community, he helped pass an ordinance to ban the use of single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers and reduce the use of single-use straws. He also is developing a pilot program for temporary sidewalks around schools to encourage more children to walk to class.
“As an architect, my work doesn’t end with the design of the building,” said Mastropietro. “We need to get involved in these commissions to make sure that future buildings make sense for a town, and that they will protect the planet for our children.”
Mastropietro also is a member of the Millburn Township Planning Board, for which he is currently working on plans to reduce vehicular usage and raise environmental awareness.
After noticing his influence on these panels, officials from his children’s school came calling—and Mastropietro willingly took his expertise there.
In fact, Mastropietro is a strong believer in the power of the local Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) to effect long-term change within a community. With the Millburn Township PTO, he is part of the Schools Safety Committee, which aims to create safer streets and bike routes for students traveling to and from schools.
For reluctant Citizen Architects, Mastropietro said the PTO is an easy place to start a civic life since school administrators have a substantial need for able and ambitious volunteers—especially those who, like architects, have knowledge in a certain area. “The Parent Teacher Organization is not only bake sales,” said Mastropietro. “Anyone can go to the principal to start a Green Team or School Safety Committee—and we should.”
As a member of the Millburn Schools Green Team, a committee that aims to raise environmental awareness at an early age, Mastropietro helped implement a program to eliminate plastic waste in school meals. He also is working to implement composting stations in the city’s schools.
Mastropietro, who founded his U.S.-based firm in 2007, has been able to both pursue his passion for a modern, environmentally sustainable design and devote more time to being a Citizen Architect.
That work now involves bringing his fellow community members, parents, and students before local officials to demand change. For the last year, Mastropietro has taken a leadership position in organizing a neighborhood association in Millburn. Among the group’s objectives are sharing information about the town and creating open communication networks with government officials to establish a stronger, greener community.
“As architects, we cannot just say a person should walk to school,” said Mastropietro. Citizen Architects need to help bring about change by demanding—and then help design—safe sidewalks and walkable, livable communities.
“We see the world through the eyes of an architect, and we can use this vision to write to our mayor or council,” said Mastropietro. “We are not going to get anywhere unless we get involved.”
–As told to Kerrie Rushton