Sustainability emerged as a common focus in this, the second report from the Bruner Foundation’s two-part survey of leaders of key organizations engaged in urban design, planning, and development in American cities. Our first post relayed outlooks from the leaders of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC); the Urban Land Institute (ULI); and the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which included:
  • The impact of changing demographics and urbanizing populations
  • The need to address climate change and create more sustainable and resilient communities
  • The critical role of new, innovative public/private partnerships to take the lead and address them

For this post, we polled William Anderson, FAICP, president of the American Planning Association(APA); Robert Ivy, FAIA, CEO of the American Institute of Architects (AIA); and Richard Zweifel, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Left to Right: William Anderson, Robert Ivy, Richard Zweifel Courtesy American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects, American Society of Landscape Architects

Their comments reinforced many of the themes previously expressed, and they also drew attention to:

  • Concerns about aging infrastructure and social equity
  • The connection between the built environment and public health
  • The potential for cities to serve as “laboratories” for innovation

We asked.

What are the major opportunities and challenges facing American cities today, and what are the key implications for civic leaders and design, planning and development professionals?

Sustainability is vital, with a focus on creating more equitable, healthy, and resilient communities.

  • Anderson highlighted changes such as the increasing diversity of the American population, aging infrastructure, and the role of information technology as opportunities to “rethink the ways we use and design our infrastructure” and “plan communities, cities and places that bring people together rather than keep them apart.”
  • Ivy suggested that “as the epidemic of non-communicable diseases such as obesity spreads, urban America not only faces the imperative of providing affordable housing but also access to healthier neighborhoods.”
  • “With 80% of us living in cities,” Zweifel noted, “there is a critical need to adopt more coordinated and inclusive approaches in planning” and “innovative approaches that consider the long view in creating resilient and sustainable solutions.”
Arcadia’s Mobile Market contributes to healthy, sustainable communities by distributing affordable, locally produced food to underserved neighborhoods in Washington DC. Courtesy American Planning Association

How can urban design and development professionals and allied organizations respond?

More collaborative, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary approaches are needed to tackle the increasing complex challenges facing cities.

  • Anderson referred to the APA’s Planning and Community Health Research Center, a 10-year collaboration with the Center for Disease Control that conducts research and works on policies and design solutions to create more healthy living environments.
  • Ivy advocated that “we can position ourselves in a much more aggressive way as the answer for struggling urban neighborhoods” and pointed to 5716 Wellness, a project of theDetroit Collaborative Design Center (2009 RBA silver medalist), as “proof that neighborhoods that facilitate wellness and preventative care share value with doctors who make house calls.”
  • Zweifel observed that many of the challenges facing cities today are part of the “core focus of landscape architecture.” ASLA’s advocacy and education initiatives include a green roofand Chinatown Green Street Demonstration Project at its own headquarters in Washington DC.
5716 Wellness is an integrated healthcare facility in a renovated cigar factory designed by Albert Kahn that provides services to support the psychological and physical wellbeing of Detroit residents. Courtesy American Institute of Architects

The green roof demonstration project on the American Society of Landscape Architects’ headquarters in Washington DC illustrates the aesthetic and environmental benefits of sustainability. Courtesy American Society of Landscape Architects

What are examples of responses that we might learn from?

There are many projects and programs that are tackling today’s urban challenges on local and national scales.

  • Anderson acknowledged the value of efforts to educate and engage the public on design and development issues by organizations like AIA, ASLA, ULI, and the Congress for New Urbanism, as well as local initiatives such as San Francisco Planning and Urban Researchand Move LA, and Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation.
  • Ivy cited Via Verde (RBA 2013 Silver Medalist) in the Bronx as an example of “creative planning that literally builds healthy living options into the fabric of contemporary urban life,” and, in Europe, the ability of the Dutch to “re-envision urban life” and illustrate “how relatively simple solutions can yield strong results.”
  • Zweifel was “impressed with the Philadelphia Water Department’s innovative Green City, Clean Waters 25-year plan to manage storm water with green infrastructure,” noting “the critical importance of having an integrated vision and firmly committed political leadership to fully realize the collateral benefits possible.”

In closing, Anderson suggested that “cities and communities throughout America are laboratories for innovation,” and that “places where a culture of good planning is maintained, despite the variability of political leadership over time, are where there are strong and engaged local citizen organizations advocating and demanding better planning.”

SPUR’s Urban Center in downtown San Francisco promotes good planning by bringing people together to address city challenges with research, education, and advocacy. Courtesy Anne-Marie Lubenau

All of these responses will be interesting food for thought as we convene our 2015 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence selection committee for its first meeting, January 30-31. We’ll announce the five finalists for the award in our February post.

Noteworthy News:

  • Bloomberg Philanthropies awards “Innovation Team” grants go to 12 American cities, including Albuquerque, NM; Boston, MA; Centennial, CO; Jersey City, NJ; Long Beach, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Mobile, AL; Minneapolis, MN; Peoria, IL; Rochester, NY; Seattle WA; and Syracuse, NY.

Anne-Marie Lubenau, AIA, is director of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) for theBruner Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An architect and advocate for educating and engaging people in design of the built environment, she is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and was a 2012 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

This post is part of a series written and curated by RBA that focuses on advancing the conversation about placemaking in American cities. The blog offers a detailed look at the 2015 award selection process and site visits, winners’ case studies, highlights from events such as theBruner-Loeb Forum, and broader observations.