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It’s Time to Build a Nation of Citizen Urbanists

In this month’s blog, Joel Mills, Senior Director at the American Institute of Architects Center for Communities by Design, argues that, in response to the pandemic, a broad and democratic base of citizen urbanists is required to co-create sustainable cities for the future:

In response to the pandemic, professional circles are abuzz with discussions about how to change the physical framework of cities but little thought about the need to change the nature of our work and who is included in it. If we are going to create sustainable cities to succeed this century, we need to build a nation of citizen urbanists to do it.

Everyone needs to develop an urban fluency to understand what will be necessary for us to respond to the defining challenges of our time and how we can all participate in the process.

Our Cities’ Pre-existing Conditions
If we want to be ready for the next crisis, we need to consider our vulnerabilities. To put it in medical terms, our preexisting conditions require real focus. The pandemic has highlighted dynamics that were in place prior to the outbreak. Many jurisdictions were under incredible stress. It has brought new awareness to how inequality shapes our lives by highlighting how disparate healthcare access, affordable housing gaps and economic security issues have led to starkly higher infection and death rates for vulnerable communities. According to one pre-pandemic global survey, wide majorities of the public fear the future and the pace of change while doubting government’s ability to understand technological changes and respond to them effectively. Our future success hinges on the ability to re-build trust in institutions so that we might facilitate a successful transition to a healthy and equitable urban society. It’s time to move from a nation of urbanites to a nation of urbanists by involving our citizens more directly in public life. Our efforts moving forward should be predicated upon several key ideas.

City-building is the Grand Calling of the 21st century
Cities matter — now more than ever. Despite all the anti-urban rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, we need to come to terms with our urban reality. Most of our citizens live in urban areas. In America, cities are also the driving force behind our economy. The top 23 metro areas account for half of our national GDP. Following the 2008 financial crisis, America’s cities reportedly drove 70% of the nation’s job growth. However, cities are more than simply the hubs of our economic vitality. Today, cities are the central organizing mechanism for the survival of humankind. Cities reportedly consume 78% of the world’s energy and are responsible for more than 60% of global carbon emissions. We can’t solve the key issues threatening our collective future without more integrated and sustainable cities.

City-building is the grand calling of the 21st century and it requires a unified, integrated effort.

Our contemporary approaches are demonstrably inadequate. Despite valiant attempts to build more cross system collaborations over the past two decades, our present-day methods of city-building are still characterized too often by professional silos. We have designed our cities with a balkanized orientation that assumes topics as centrally connected as land use, housing and transportation can be understood and strategized for independently through professional specializations and expertise applied solely in that realm. We can see the effects of this approach in cities across the world today in housing crises, strained transportation systems and segregated lives. We need to destroy our professional silos to build more resilient cities. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that the era of top-down, siloed city-building is over.

The Future of Urbanism is democratic
Our collective success as a civilization requires fully integrated processes with robust public participation. No government designs a city alone. We must all become citizen urbanists. The pandemic should be a gamechanger for considering not just the built environment we are designing, but the process by which we are building it. People are the foundations of our cities. The answers to our challenges must come from the bottom up, not the top down. Our strategies must be powered by the grassroots and integrated at scale to have meaning nationally — and globally. Local government is still the most trusted level of government and is advantaged as the most accessible level to facilitate civic participation. However, there remain substantial gaps in public participation expertise and capacity at all levels of government that pose barriers to making progress. Too often, what we are witnessing today are the consequences of widespread misapplication and improper design of public processes that backfire in controversy and conflict because they don’t meet public expectations for involvement or reflect community values. The result is a precipitous increase in community conflict and a corresponding public demand to have a meaningful role in public decision-making processes. The stakes are going up. This is not only an American issue — city leaders must respond to a rising democratic movement globally. The mantra of the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda deliberations should echo in the ears of every city planner in the world: “nothing for us without us.” Meaningful public participation is the path to restored trust and confidence in our institutions.

The Urban Fabric Must Heal and Connect
Trickle-down urbanism doesn’t work. As a result, inequality has become the central issue of our times. Prior to the pandemic, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that a growing sense of inequity is undermining trust across the world. The overriding crisis in public trust is reflected in the physical makeup of our cities. Neighborhoods are the building blocks of great cities, but they are not designed for equal success. Media coverage of the pandemic has captured the connection between our unequal realities and associated risk, as vulnerable communities who are disadvantaged have suffered most. Connections between civic health and physical health are readily apparent and the statistics tell a dramatic story. According to a 2018 study, over 50 million Americans live in “at risk” or “distressed” communities. Another recent study found that the number of poor neighborhoods in metropolitan areas has doubled in the past 40 years. In 2019, income inequality reached a 50-year high in the US. Over half a million people in America are homeless. Over 4 million homes in the US are overcrowded. Almost half a million homes in the US do not have adequate plumbing. With the renewed importance of public space, 100 million people in the US do not have a park within a 10-minute walk from home. In perhaps the most dramatic development, an individual’s address is now the most significant determinant of their life expectancy and economic future, with starkly different outcomes depending upon geography. The proverbial ‘Tale of Two Cities’ has become an ingrained narrative in America. The familiar dividing lines — railroad tracks, urban highways, waterways and related barriers — now often signify wholly different life realities that underscore race and class divides. For instance, residents of Baltimore’s wealthy neighborhoods have a life expectancy that correlates with Japanese citizens, while the residents of its distressed communities have life expectancies closer to North Korea and Pakistan. In Louisville, residents on the western side of the infamous “Ninth Street Divide” have life expectancies 12 years lower than their neighbors on the wealthier eastern side. In Washington, DC, residents born on the eastern side of the Anacostia river can expect to live 10 years less than those on the western side of the river. These are unacceptable norms that make our cities more vulnerable and our society more fragile. This is not only an American issue, but a global issue. Consider that 40% of the world’s population does not have access to handwashing facilities at home, or that over 1 billion people globally live in slums. By 2050, the UN believes over 3 billion people will require access to housing. These facts underscore our growing vulnerabilities without significant interventions in how we design and build our cities. Addressing inequality must be a central tenet that carries across all of our urban work moving forward, rather than a narrow, isolated pursuit. Climate change and inequality have important overlaps and it is important to note that inequality defines who is most vulnerable in our society whether the threat is a pandemic or climate change. Prioritizing strategies to create more integrated and equitable cities will address our vulnerabilities directly and help cities become resilient more quickly.

We Need A Flexible and Adaptive Urbanism Beyond the 6-Foot-City
We need to reconsider the implications for how we approach our built environment in the context of unprecedented change. Few would argue that the pace of change today is dramatically different from past eras and presents unique challenges to our society. We need a more flexible and adaptive urbanism that can accommodate quickly changing dynamics while becoming more responsive to citizen aspirations and needs. We should resist the reactive tendency to begin re-designing our cities in 6-ft-increments in favor of a sustained approach that views every component of the built environment with a new flexibility and adjusts for multiple realities to support our citizens’ pursuit of healthy, vital lives. This will require a new, more experimental view of our urban assets as we begin to value the public realm and buildings by their ability to serve evolving needs and purposes that are sustainable. It mandates as a prerequisite a knowledge of what our citizens’ want for the future of their cities.

Listen to Our Cities to Understand Them
If we want to mobilize a national movement to adapt, we need to understand community. Our national thinking must demonstrate greater understanding of the mosaic of local experiences that make up this great country and the role that citizenship plays in bringing them to life. We need professionals to sharpen their listening skills to understand their communities and heal public trust. In doing so, there expertise will gain a new relevance and help create a more informed citizenry. Every community has its own unique identity shaped by its geography and history and rooted in the traditions of people and place. As years pass, community life produces a profoundly complex and deeply meaningful representation of place. Tapping into these values and traditions is critical to understanding place and designing the authentic foundations from which enduring civic change can occur. Similarly, our nation is characterized by a democratic vernacular exhibited across tens of thousands of local jurisdictions. Understanding the combination of governing structures and traditions, as well as the civic culture of participation, is key to breathing new life into our common purpose. Community design cannot take place outside a deep understanding of the rich contextual realities of place, which means that robust public participation is a prerequisite to our future success. We have an historic opportunity to heal our divides and address our key vulnerabilities as we build a modern urban society that adapts to the new challenges of this century — but it requires community.

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