(Re)setting your Intentions

New Year's resolutions are something I have always viewed as pointless.  You either want to make a change or you don't. If you do, you begin that process at the point you set the intention, not some arbitrary time on the calendar.  However, there's no shortage of self-improvement advice this time of year, which inspired to write this New Year's Eve post because I felt that all of that wasn't enough- you need a lot more than retrospect on the passing year or self-improvement tips to help you have a successful year.  You need clear intent.

There's all kinds of superstitions and advice about what (or what not) to eat or wear or do to usher in good luck for the new year.   Some friends and I had a lot of fun exchanging our family good luck traditions on facebook, which led me to think about my favorite quote, "Luck favors the prepared."  You bring opportunity to yourself by being ready for it.  When you have a clear sense of who you are and what you want from your life, you become open to the things to which you can say yes, or no, on a daily basis that will usher in transformation.  No resolution will do that for you.

This chart perfectly sums up the open attitude
and clarity of purpose needed for success
Change, and the willingness to embrace it brings opportunity.  As a feng shui expert, I've been preparing for a new year by cleaning and clearing clutter from my life and will spend tomorrow re-setting intentions for the year ahead with my family.   I find this a good way to mentally let go of that which no longer serves me and make room for new opportunities. So don't drive yourself crazy trying to set all kinds of new goals.  Look within and take stock of how you have evolved.  Have you gotten sidetracked from your existing goals?  Do your goals from five years ago no longer serve you?  Are you complacent in your goals, or do you need to step outside your comfort zone to really achieve something big?

I invite you to do your own space clearing.  In the process of weeding out that which you don't need, use, or love, think about what the stuff you surround yourself says about who you are.  Place objects that affirm who you are or want to become in a prominent place.  Success is about your willingness to change.  You don't need more resolutions, just goals attuned to the person you wish to become.  Wishing you a happy and abundant 2013!  

See a countdown of the most popular Patron posts of 2012. 

Phoenix Rising

In week nine of our novena, we explore Phoenix, AZ, which is in the process of transforming itself from suburbia on steroids to a more urban model, without losing its historyor quirky character in the process.

Our last stop on this year’s novena is my former home town of Phoenix, AZ.  As a city that experienced its boom after the widespread availability of the automobile, Phoenix is synonymous with sprawl.  Inner city neighborhoods arrange themselves in a ring of concentric circles, representing the insatiable desire to annex land.  In some ways this paid off for the city- they didn’t lose their tax base to “urban flight” as older cities in the east, but all this growth of questionable sustainability was built upon a central city that was slowly rotting from within.  During my time in Phoenix, I saw serious efforts to de-suburbanize the thinking of citizens and promote density;  a successful campaign for a light rail transit system, more progressive measures for mixed used and transit-oriented development and for creating neighborhood overlay districts to promote the character of existing neighborhoods looking to revitalize. 
Distinctive sun shades and public art mark each Metro stop

Transit in a large sprawling city is challenging at best, so instead of supporting density, this project had to be used to drive density.  While I was involved with the new General Plan  which included transit oriented development, I relocated to Cleveland before getting to see its implementation.  Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot and architect Luis Peris catch us up on Phoenix’s quest to combat sprawl with density and strategically revitalize core neighborhoods. They represent two distinctively different points of view- Tom comes from a real estate background and is a long-time active resident (we served together on the Housing and Neighborhoods Commission with back in the late ’90’s), while Luis is an architect, artist and engineer who relocated to Phoenix in recent years, and proceeded to become a highly engaged community member.

Both feel that  the opening of METRO light rail has been the single biggest physical change in Phoenix in the last five years. “First and foremost, it has changed the overall look of central Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa,” says the Councilman.  “The signature shade sails and public art at each station bring a unique identity to the line. The light rail provides reliable and accessible transportation for commuters and leisure riders alike, and ridership has surpassed all projections. It has also spurred economic development in the central core, leading to more jobs, accessible housing and a wider tax base that sustains essential city services. Light rail will continue to positively impact Phoenix and the Valley as extensions are built and the system connects even more communities. We can lessen any negative impacts by involving the community in the planning process, and by keeping light rail trains clean, safe and secure.”  Luis concurs, adding that “The full impact to the community is yet to be realized as unfortunately it began service right at the onset of the recession.  Many of the businesses displaced or even stressed by the construction did not survive and it is only recently that enough new development along the light rail corridor is starting to take place; to great success and eagerness from the neighborhoods.  Continued expansion of the light rail system would be needed in order to have true city-wide impact from a public transportation and neighborhood redevelopment point of view.”

Of course, transit has come with its challenges. “[Phoenix’s] ridiculously large geographical expanse renders any significant urban density difficult to attain, observes Luis. “I wouldn't call it the ‘worst quality,’ but a real opportunity for growth in Phoenix is [to move away from] the overall reliance on vehicles, adds the Councilman. “In the central core, the light rail and increased bike lanes have helped to lessen the car-centric culture, but there is still more to be done. The community has demonstrated a strong desire for pedestrian improvements and bike lanes. As a matter of fact, on any given Saturday, you will see couples and families riding bicycles around their central Phoenix neighborhoods, grabbing a cup of coffee or just enjoying the scenery. I am working with my colleagues to incorporate more bike lanes in the central core to increase our pedestrian friendliness and lessen our dependence on cars.”

So what can other cities learn from the Phoenix experience with cultivating urbanism via transit?
Engaging the community is critical
“Truly, the best quality of Phoenix is community,” says the Councilman. “Phoenicians are very engaged, not just in City dealings but in their neighborhoods, schools and individual interests, as well. Phoenicians are receptive to positive change, and just as importantly, they want to be involved in the process of making that change. The City of Phoenix has numerous boards and commissions - they are all filled with residents and business-owners who believe in, and care about, our community. It is very uplifting to see this dedication, which is a real driver for the improvements made in our City. We are lucky to have a very active and engaged public. Having said that, I believe there are always ways to reach out to more residents. As an elected official, part of my responsibility is to continuously invite community members to participate in the government that represents them. Social media has been a huge driver in engaging new folks because it provides a direct, personal connection in a format that people are comfortable with.” 

Luis adds, “Grassroots developments always carry more staying power.  No artificially regulated rezoning/redevelopment can ever take place with the inhabitants of that area becoming fully involved and vested.”

Keep it real by leveraging existing neighborhoods and districts
Both Luis and the Councilman cited revitalization of Phoenix's inner city neighborhoods (and the corresponding increase in density) as examples of recent urban victories.  “The most successful neighborhood transformation in District 4 over the last 9 years has been the revitalization of the Melrose District,” notes the Councilman. The area on 7th Avenue, from Indian School to Camelback Rd, was marred by vacant buildings, crime and transients. With the tremendous work of SAMA (Seventh Avenue Merchant's Association), City support and overall collaboration among all interested parties, we can clearly see a vibrant stretch of thriving independent businesses, a flourishing LGBT community and unique, urban character....not to mention an annual street fair that brings out 20,000+ people!”

Luis mentions the Roosevelt Row Arts District neighborhood redevelopment program as one of the neighborhood redevelopment success stories.  “Although it is still young and it’s growth has been slow, again partly due to the current economic conditions in the city.  Interestingly enough, the ASU Downtown Campus is also growing, in a less organic, more structured/institutional way, to the point that both districts are closing the gap between them slowly.  That is truly exciting, as neither could encompass enough momentum by itself, so it is one of those 'unite and conquer' moments in the city with quite strange bedfellows.”

“Not only has ASU brought thousands of students downtown,” observes the Councilman, “New City projects like Civic Space Park and the CityScape development are encouraging these students to stay downtown after classes. New dorms are bringing hundreds of residents to the central city to live, study and play. On any given day, you can see young people walking from the Taylor Place dorms to study at the restored A.E. England building or play sports in the grass under the 'Her Secret is Patience' sculpture. The most exciting part about this plan is that it only has begun. Soon we will see the post office across from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism building transformed into a student union and new construction all around Downtown Phoenix to build up ASU's campus. This collaboration has taken dedication, teamwork and shared vision between ASU and the City of Phoenix, and the results have been amazing.”

Forge community partnerships to get things done
“Strong partnerships between the community and the government are essential to achieving win-win outcomes,” the Councilman stressed. “The City of Phoenix has a number of boards and commissions that advise the City Council on issues like parks, land use and public safety. Even the city budget is heavily influenced by public input. Residents and business owners intimately know the issues that affect them on a day to day basis, and policymakers can undoubtedly benefit from their input. I strongly believe it is important to include community members in decision making, and I will continue to work with grass roots groups to reach consensus.”  Luis mentions another, less “official” undertaking that demonstrates the willingness of average citizens to make a difference in their community, “One of the best examples in Phoenix is the Valley of the Sunflowers project, that has proven successful at utilizing empty lots downtown for crops despite of city and private developer delays.  It is very much a community driven effort that relies on the resilient quality of grassroots leaders to navigate the bureaucratic quagmire.”  He goes on to add, “[the residents of Phoenix] not only have a voice but a presence; physical as it needs to be.  Great beliefs are much more compelling and their energy more contagious than any regulatory measures.  We need the regulatory support to ensure proper legal execution, but the compelling concepts are the driving force.”  The Councilman agrees. “Absolutely, I know for a fact they do. Along with Mayor Greg Stanton and my colleagues on the City Council, I value the insight and suggestions of the residents of Phoenix.”
To continue the trajectory of transformational change, both men point again to the light rail system.  “A crazy increase in the reach of the light rail,” Luis states. “Even to the cities that snubbed it like Scottsdale, so that Greater Phoenix can be a city for all its citizens, not just the privileged few.”  The Councilman has a similar, if not more pragmatic approach. “The next transformational change in Phoenix will stem from economic development along the Camelback corridor. METRO light rail has positively impacted downtown Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, but the Camelback corridor been slow to follow the trend. I fully believe this area is ripe for growth, and I am confident that this growth will compliment the unique neighborhoods in the area. I am currently collaborating with community members, business owners and city officials to focus attention and resources in this area. The goal is to revitalize an important stretch of Camelback road and to continue the spectacular transformation that has positively impacted the rest of the light rail line.”

Like its namesake, Phoenix is rebirthing itself as it has many times in its history.  Still, as it goes for a more urban feel, it holds on to many of the qualities that have made it a place that people go to to escape big cities. “When friends and family visit from other cities, they are always impressed the cleanliness of our city,” says the councilman. “Both the government and the residents of Phoenix are dedicated to having a clean, livable city. The city of Phoenix has a zero tolerance policy on graffiti, and we even have a staff team known as "Graffiti Busters" who paint it out on streets, freeways and buildings. This level of commitment by an active and engaged population makes Phoenix an ideal--and clean--place to live!”  Yet, as I found in my years spent living there, the real Phoenix lies beneath the surface, in the wonderful collection of places you discover over time. 

Luis muses, “I have yet to find out what is memorable about Phoenix from a wordly point of view.  It cannot be the crazy out-of-control urban sprawl.  Nor its (lack of) unified cultural life.  Actually, what makes Phoenix unique is the widespread downtown, or distributed downtown, concept. So it is very much a city a la carte, a dim sum of city life spread through many miles of desert.  It is my understanding that twenty years ago Phoenix was quite a different city.  The last financial boom, which preceded this most recent recession, brought significant wealth that combined with cheap abundant real estate created a proliferation of development expanding outward.”  This time that expansion is centered right on the heart of the city, a concept that leads Luis to conclude, “On a good day I feel Phoenix, the fifth largest in the nation, is a city of unified fragments.  However, on a bad day I feel like it is more of a fragmented unity…”

Tom Simplot was first elected to the Phoenix City Council in 2003 In January 2009, he was unanimously voted by his fellow council members to serve as Vice Mayor.  Simplot’s primary goals for representing District 4 are fighting crime, protecting small businesses and preserving the character of neighborhoods.  He also believes residents can reclaim their neighborhoods with the help of city services, and encourages the development of the arts and culture community within the city’s central core. He has worked with community groups to bring more attention to the city’s west side and to capitalize on the arts and business potential of downtown. As a longtime resident of Phoenix, Councilman Simplot has been active in the community for years. He served as the president of the Maricopa County Board of Health and the Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority. He also served as chair of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, vice-chair of the Phoenix Encanto Village Planning Committee and a member of the Phoenix Housing Commission, among other boards and commissions. Currently, Simplot serves as chairman of the METRO Board of Directors and on the board of a community-based social service agency, Valle del Sol.  He also serves as a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Intergovernmental Advisory Committee.  Simplot currently serves on the following three City Council subcommittees:  Transportation & Infrastructure; Housing & Neighborhoods; and Seniors, Families & Youth. He also hosts Metro Matters, on Phoenix 11 TV. In addition to his post on the Phoenix City Council, Simplot is the president of the Arizona Multi-housing Association and is an attorney and licensed realtor.

Luis Peris, AIA, PE, LEED AP is an advocate for making neighborhoods more livable one building at a time, one park at a time, his work focusses on establishing new models of performance and critically reprogramming spaces to enhance the human experience. He is the owner of LuPe Design, where he promotes architecture and design with an urban flair. As an architect, engineer and artist, he pursues seamless multidisciplinary integration of projects. This has allowed him to serve a variety of roles throughout his career, from wind-tunnel controls design engineer for NASA Glenn Research Center, to project architect for a downtown San Francisco large mixed-use development, to preservation architect for the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Luis is an instructor in Daylighting Strategies for the Sonoran Sustainable Building Advisor Program, past Board Member of AIA Central Phoenix, and Chairman of the Committee on the Environment (COTE) for AIA Central Arizona.  He is also a member of the Education Committee for the Central Arizona Society for Healthcare Engineers (CASHE).  His art spans from photography to metalworking, sometimes involving the creation of custom sculptures and architectural pieces for clients.

Like They Used To: Craftsmanship, Sustainability and Design

In week eight of the Change the World novena, the spotlight shines on the art of making, asking what appreciation of craft and quality can do for creating unique memorable, and lasting neighborhoods.

When you analyze what’s great about the great cities of the world, it often comes down to a collection of neighborhoods or districts that provide a set of experiences that we want to seek out again and again.  That’s what the average person knows.  What they can never quite put their finger on is what specific ingredients went into the strange brew that is their favorite place.  Architects, designers, planners and developers have a little more insight.  We know that it’s all about placemaking, from the scale of the buildings, to the style of architecture, to the quality and texture of the public space, often “branded” by public art or unique street furniture.  But in the end, aren’t we just creating an elaborate stage set?  Sometimes with backgrounds and props so contrived and phony, so generically designed to appeal (think you average lifestyle center or planned community) that we end up with the opposite of someplace- we get anyplace.

It’s once thing to rail against self-contained development bubbles, quite another when
Details from the building to be
adaptively reused for industrial arts
that approach is applied to a historic neighborhood.  "It's important to engage the historic context," observes Brad Cooper, one of my colleagues at GBBN Architecture. A lifelong resident of Cincinnati, OH, it took his two years spent away at graduate school for him to realize how much his hometown was evolving.  "Architecture school pushes you to think about the built environment in a different way," he observed.  The most positive change he found was that more people were moving back to the inner city.  This larger population made once dangerous neighborhoods safer, which further encouraged the development of live, work and play opportunities.  "People's comfort with being in these neighborhoods made the city itself sustainable, however, getting investment is still a challenge.  The investment that does occur can be of poor quality, with a focus on new being better.  There is still a perception of Cincinnati's core as being an old city.  Getting more people interested [in historic neighborhoods] will provide more stakeholders and more 'peer pressure' for greater revitalization."   But it has to be the right kind.  Brad's urban design philosophy has been inspired by Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft book, in which the author makes the point that over the years, people value craft less because they don't know how things are made.  Especially when dealing with historic districts, "You realize that the infill projects can't begin to match the quality or integrity of the historic buildings," he says.  In order to heighten architectural appreciation, Brad feels that it is critical to build awareness of the value of the old buildings contained in Cincinnati's historic downtown neighborhoods such as Over the Rhine, which is one of the largest intact urban historic districts in the United States.   What has earned Brad a place in this Change the World series is the steps he took next.

Fresh out of graduate school, he started work on a business plan. Brad realized that, while in school, students have access to wood and metal fabrication shops, but that that resource is cut off upon graduation.  There is also a dearth of skilled craftspeople.  He decided that providing the resource of rentable shop space could be combined with urban revitalization of abandoned industrial space. He focused on Over the Rhine (OTR) for it's historic character as well as the art of its craft of is celebrated industries.  "One of Cincinnati's strong suits is its diversity of neighborhoods, in part due to the hilly topography.  I thought that engaging OTR could be fantastic and help make this neighborhood part of the city's modern identity." What emerged was the LIVE•MAKE project, an industrial arts center and business incubator that will provide housing and workshops, maker-in-resident studios (aka master craftspeople), light manufacturing studios and retail storefronts.  When you  are an intern architect without millions in the bank account, this might seem like a dream destined for the back burner.  But Brad tapped into the resources available to him in the community.  He contacted the Hamilton County Development Company and talked with them about their business incubator model.  He researched other apprenticeship, leasable workshop and redevelopment through the arts programs like TechShop, Maker Works, and Ponyride.  He met with the OTR Community Council to pitch the project and learn about site availability.  Then, he partnered with AIA Cincinnati and the Over the Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation to launch a design competition for the project that will include adaptive reuse of a historic industrial building.  Currently in the jury phase, the entries are being reviewed by international design leaders as well as leaders in Cincinnati politics.  In January of 2013, a series of community choice events will allow neighborhood residents, developers and other interested parties to vote on their favorite project.
If you live in the Cincinnati area, put January 11th, 2013 6-9 pm @ A359 Partners in Architecture16 East 12th St.  Cincinnati, OH 45202 or January 25th, 2013 6-9pm @ Losantiville Design Collective1311 Main Street  Cincinnati, OH 45202 on your calendar.  
Finally, winners will be exhibited in a gallery show that will coincide with the Cincinnati Maker Faire in the spring of 2013.  Brad hopes that by generating awareness and excitement for this type of project that he can then work to assemble funding.

"The idea of leaving the world a better place than I found it has always been a guiding principle for me," he says.  "Architects need to be more involved in civic projects.  OTR has a lot of residential buildings and promoting homeownership is important to its revitalization.  The LIVE•MAKE space will become a resource for home improvement projects as well as a source for some of the artisans that people will need to hire to restore their spaces."  He's hoping that the party-like atmosphere that will exist at the community choice events will draw crowds and encourage everyone to voice an opinion.  "If you want to engage people in architecture, you have to make it fun." The first step of community engagement took place during archiNATI, Cincinnati's annual architecture week celebration.  Brad worked to get a grant from the  The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation to tour the empty old brewery buildings.  "There is so much abandoned manufacturing space.  I'm interested in finding adaptive re-use for these high quality structures," Brad notes.  "There is such a difference in the attention to detail in the way things were built and manufactured then vs. now."  Looking ahead five years or so, where does he hope to see his LIVE•MAKE dream?  "I want people to say that there has been a building constructed that matches or exceeds the quality of design and construction of its historic context."

Bradley Cooper is currently a junior designer at GBBN Architects in Cincinnati. He attained his undergraduate degree from the the University of Cincinnati (B.S. in Architecture) and his Masters of Architecture from Taubman College at the University of Michigan. His thesis work, Accuulate, Curate, is featured in Dimensions 25. Bradley is on the Steering Committee for ArchiNATI and is an avid homebrewer.

North American Sampler

For week seven of our Change the World novena, we hear from a planner who reflects on the impact of transportation on the development and well-being of several cities.

As architects, we like to imagine ourselves as closet urban planners, perhaps even dabblers in landscape design.  We think that because we design the buildings in a city that that somehow qualifies us as experts in the “negative spaces” (note the condescending way we refer to it) around them as well.  To turn that whole notion on its ear, I asked transit planner Andre Darmanin to weigh in on the way that our roadways, in particular transit systems, define development.  It’s a real reversal in thinking as Andre loves architecture and most likely imagines that he could take on a bit of facade design now and again to enhance his planning work.  Andre has lived and worked in several North American cities, notably Los Angeles, CA and Toronto, Canada, and shares his thoughts on transit impacts on community development in those locations.

Cities each have their own characters, what they have been, what they are and what they wish to become.  Toronto, Andre’s hometown is a major global metropolis and seat of cosmopolitan culture.  However, the limitations of the city’s heavy rail system and inattention to how transit impacts the urban experience has led to problems in recent years. “The biggest physical change to the city has been on the negative side,” Andre states.  “There have been many years of neglect for its public transportation system.  Major subway delays and breakdowns combined with not responding to the growth of the suburbs.  Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area’s Regional Transportation Agency has responded.  With Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan – The Big Move – and their upcoming Investment Strategy due in 2013,  there are discussions of adding light rail lines throughout the region along sustainable funding measures to build and improve transit.   Quality of life rankings still put Toronto in the top 10 in many categories.   The Toronto Board of Trade had released several reports over the last 2 years regarding the state of Toronto’s economy with regards to transit, infrastructure, IT and manufacturing. Its prominence is slipping to places like Calgary and Vancouver.   Just like New York and London, Toronto continuously has to reinvent itself.”  Andre sees an event-driven impetus to some of that change just around the corner, “Given the Pan Am Games will be there in 2015, it will give the city a chance to reenergize and focus on building the region for years to come.”

Andre lived and worked in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2006 as a Regional Transit
Planner for the Southern California Association of Governments. His work there included championing the 2008 Regional Transit Summit. His insights into LA address how transit is being used to create more local destinations and foster a sense of place.  “[LA] is a city known for its urban sprawl, expansive highway network, congestion and pollution,” he
The Regional Transit Summit sponsored by the Southern
California Association of Governments provided a forum
for the community to interact with its elected officials

begins, then takes his response in a surprising direction, observing how interventions at a variety of scales are working to change that perception. “I lived in Downtown LA.  For the first time in 50 years, a Ralph’s opened a downtown grocery store recognizing the residents’ needs for local shopping.  The revitalization of downtown, increased residential development and has included LA Live.  In 2011, I recently visited LA.  LA Live has become a major entertainment center, which is true to form for its name.  Measure R, which allowed an increase of the sales tax to fund transportation projects as well as the 30/10 initiative, are ways in which the county is looking to improve transportation for the future while relying on a sustainable funding source.  Also from what I have been reading, there are constant improvements to the city such as the Public Plaza in Silver Lake.” 

Edmonton, Alberta, where he lives and works today as a Transit Planner for the city, is committed to family-oriented growth, which also shows in its transportation planning.  “With Edmonton the biggest change has been the constant growth within the suburbs.   There is one Light Rail Transit (LRT) line currently being built with plans to not only extend that line within 20 years, but also to build another LRT line within the same time frame.  Edmonton has developed a 30 year plan with six 10-year strategic goals called The Way Ahead.  The Ways (We Grow, Prosper, Move, Green, etc.) are all part of a long term strategy to grow the city in a sustainable fashion.  Aside from the LRT expansion, there are projects to revitalize older inner city neighborhoods and implement standards for newer suburban neighborhoods.”  

Andre doesn’t see a whole lot of difference between transportation issues in the US and Canada.  In both countries, the roads tends to be the primary means of travel, leading to issues of connectivity, safety and walkability.  “Edmonton’s worst quality would be the city’s road network.  People have equated Edmonton to Houston with its ring road and six-lane arterial roads. Although road and pedestrian safety are being addressed now, it is still a concern for neighborhoods whether it’s connectivity, safety or walkability. I could probably say the revitalization of Alberta Avenue in Edmonton is a successful project.  Alberta Avenue was known for its prostitution and public drunkeness.  It has now been revitalized with local businesses and cultural restaurants as well as a thriving arts community. With the integration of the bike lanes to the western portion of the Avenue, recognizing its connection to the local community college Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) to fa├žade improvements, the area has improved immensely.”

He does see civic engagement as a continuing challenge. Although most cities offer extensive opportunities for public input, most residents of a community fail to grasp how much transportation can positively or negatively impact their lives.  Andre gives an example, “The residents of Edmonton do have a voice.  There are plenty of opportunities to engage citizens when projects arise.  It is a pretty extensive process to say the least. When it comes to bus transit service changes – positive and negative, the citizenry isn’t engaged. LRT service receives plenty of feedback.  There isn’t much you can do for engaging people for bus service.  There is a public feedback mechanism that occurs and we take those seriously.”

Andre’s work in transit places him closer to the community than most architects get the opportunity to be.  As both a policy-maker and a planner, he has had the opportunity to see initiatives from both the perspective of the community and that of a city trying to make a change.  His blog, The Urban Strategist, blends that perspective as he gives his take on cities he has visited, critiques and assessments of policies and politics related to effective placemaking. By it’s very nature, transit shapes cities, defining corridors of pedestrian activity and fostering development or redevelopment of districts within walking distance of transit stops.  Andre’s work to advocate for better planning is based on a firm belief that we need to be visionary shapers of our cities because they in turn shape the quality of our lives.

Andre Darmanin is an "urban strategist" who thinks innovatively and has never been afraid to challenge the status quo.  He is a professional urban planner, born and raised in Toronto, where he is a strong believer of collaborative multi-disciplinary planning.  He has worked as a transit planner with Edmonton Transit for the last 2 1/2 years. Previous to that, he also worked as a transit planner with Mississauga Transit.   He also has experience with long range transit planning while working as a regional transit planner for the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) in Los Angeles.  Some of his accomplishments included championing the Regional Transit Summit in 2008 and authored the Transit Section of the 2008 Regional Transportation Plan.  He has degrees in Urban Planning and Public Administration from Ryerson University in Toronto.

Andre has a blog titled "The Urban Strategist"  where his musings range from transit, to city building to placemaking to education.  He has also authored or co-authored several published reports.  Most recently, he co-authored with several planners from Southern Ontario "Plain Transit for Planners" which was released by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute in 2011.  Other journal entries have included "Public Transit in Canada" (Mobility Matters, 2011) and "Where Do We Go from Here - Reverse Commuting and Spatial Mismatch in the Greater Toronto Area" (OPPI, 2006).  

Andre is an avid user of social media where he engages in discussions on Twitter (@urbanpolicyplnr) with fellow urbanists on various planning issues, local politics, and sometimes his support for his hometown sports teams.  He also displays his passion for urban planning and great architecture through his Pinterest account - Urban Strategist. Although secretively he does miss living in Los Angeles, he would love to return to Toronto one day soon where he can share his broad international insight on community building with better transit and urban planning in the city that he loves.

Of the People: A Culture Speaks

Lest you think you can only change the world as an architect by designing or building something, in week six of the Change the World Novena, I bring you the story of architect as ethnographer. 

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how important I think it is for buildings to support the social and cultural values and activities of their occupants. My friend and classmate at Carnegie Mellon, Will Riehm and I spoke recently about the fascinating research he has been doing on the study of design as an expression of cultural identity in the Acadian culture. His studies of the blended mix of race and language in pre-Civil War Louisiana led him to apply for and win a Delbert Highland Fellowship to study the culture at its source in western Africa. His six week visit to the Sen Gambia region between Senegal and Gambia provided some eye-opening insights into the past and future of place-making (read all about this on his blog

What Will had noticed in his previous research was that most of the architectural writing he had encountered on African Colonialism lacked an ethnic content- it was often oversimplified, factually incorrect, and insensitive to the user group due to a need to impose Western theories about building on a non-Western culture. His trip to Africa allowed him to see buildings in ethnographic context, understand how people use them, and discuss thoughts on the building trends he observed. He also took the time to seek out academics at two different schools to talk about the architecture education process in Africa. “I think we do a lot of projection onto Africa based on what we think they should do,” says Will. “We should listen, not impose.” Some things he learned:
A family outside a traditional mud hut
on their compound
Sustainable is a relative term. In the Gambia, it means permanence of structure, the ability for a building to sustain itself. Sustainable technologies refer to building systems that have a lasting aspect to them.

IPD may end up being driven from emerging economies. In African design schools, the focus in on building systems and how they are put together. Students learn from early on how to work as an integrated team with craftsmen and engineers. African design schools believe that the traditional Western model for planning, design and construction is too lengthy, inefficient, and lacking in meaningful user input. “Their need to un-silo the planning, design and construction processes is allowing them to leapfrog us with new issues related to urban development. I don’t think that they’ll end up having ‘architects’ as we understand them,” Will muses. Instead, the traditional focus on specialized craftsmen will expand.

Design should be accessible to the common person. “Everyone knows how to build and what things cost,” he says. People often build their own living structures, or play some part in their construction. There also is a very different attitude toward the realization of a project. The network is more important than the individual, and during what can be a very long process of construction (with stopages as funds run out), a property owner will allow others in his or her village to have access to the land for grazing or planting, use of the building shell during lulls in construction, and even access to land after the home is built and occupied.

Issues based urban design will eclipse traditional planning. In Janjanbureh, a city that was the old colonial capital, there is a web/node organization of streets connecting different types of commodities to markets (nodes). Streets are lined with shops and people live in organic walled compounds. There is no true urban planning, as development outpaces infrastructure. In this environment, the drivers of place are security (including food security as people need to buy non-perishable items at stable prices), access to healthcare (clinics), and roads and infrastructure. Will noted a surprising lack of of reverence for the historic colonial buildings because they were replicas of Western architecture and did not resonate with the population. This was a huge contrast from writing that had linked African colonialism to the Acadian identity.

Materiality is a hierarchy of its own. Traditional structures in this part of Africa are made of Ruhn palm, whose fibrous strands are used as structural members. Bamboo or palmetto fronds are woven and bound to create the fabric for a tensile structure. Sometimes, this is finished off with a mud plaster. However, Will observed an “upgrading” of this process to express sustainability: From the traditional roof framing with central tension ring, people would substitute walls of mud blocks, then concrete blocks, mahogany wood framing and finally, steel and corrugated metal with a concrete block interior finished with cement plaster.
Interestingly, a trip that began with a desire to understand the architecture of identity of African colonialism turned the mirror on Western design practices themselves. The architecture of West Africa is a study in diversity and integration, what best serves the population’s needs in terms of sustainability, accessibility and materiality. This has led Will to hypothesize how the architecture of this culture can lead to a new approach to design in general.

He will be further exploring the concept of “Just in Time Design” with his colleagues in Africa, deriving a rapid delivery prototype based on tradesmen and the way that their skill sets inform how things get built. He is planning to assemble a design lab here in the US that involves hands on construction to encourage students to think differently about the built environment in terms of scale, ease of construction, and purpose. He’s also interested in organizing a research outpost in the Gambia to continue to study ways that this vernacular architecture can inform the practice of architecture. As more and more countries adopt Western design methods, there is a globalization of style that occurs that stamps out local culture. Will believes that his study of ethnographic impacts as a way to gain insight into one of the last vernacular styles of architecture on the planet will eventually help to inform how and why we choose to build at all.

William Riehm joined the faculty of  the Interior Design Program of the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University in 2011 after over 15 years of practicing architecture and planning in New Orleans, Louisiana. He holds degrees in architecture, urban planning, and interior design from Carnegie Mellon, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, respectively. His research interests include historic material culture, community development, and issues of professional practice. Most recently, Mr. Riehm was awarded a Delbert C. Highlands Fellowship of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture for travel and study in The Gambia.

Neighborhood Building in the Northeast

Being an architect can be a vocation, not just a career.  Week five of the Change the World Novena looks at an architect whose career spans many cities, yet has learned how to make an impact in all of them.

Arturo Vasquez is passionate about the built environment.  The architect and social media master scans various articles daily and poses meaningful questions to tweets and posts.  We first encountered each other on twitter and later, as fellow healthcare architects, collaborated on an entry for Kaiser Permanente’s Prototype hospital.  His kind of vigilance pays off.  As someone who has integrated his volunteer efforts seamlessly with private practice, Arturo is an example of how to be involved in your profession as well as your community- a model for how to change the world one place at a time. 

Save Fenway Park meetings and model
The ability to grasp the character of places and the issues that confront them, has allowed Arturo to play a meaningful role in many major projects in two northeast cities.   He practiced for many years in Boston, MA before moving to Upstate New York and forming SAS/Design Inc. fourteen years ago.  In learning about his perspective of both big city and small city concerns, it is interesting to note that destinations and landmarks play a major role in both locations, “Boston’s unique character and charm is the seamless blend of its historic buildings, great streets, public places, neighborhoods and waterfront with its integrated public transportation system. You can get anywhere without a car. Add to that, the Charles River, which traverses through the city creating a continuous accessible green promenade. Albany’s greatest asset is the quality of its arts and cultural venues providing access to world-class classical music, theatre, opera and entertainment.”  

Cities are constantly faced with a “change or die” dynamic and need to balance maintaining their character and landmark destinations with staying relevant to the needs of citizens.  “In Boston, the City has recognized the value of the neighborhoods and their intrinsic importance in the image and definition of the city. Added to that, has been the resurgence of public realm – the 12 key streets and corridors, or “crossroads” are being transformed into Complete Streets providing a seamless pedestrian armature that links civic spaces with the historic downtown and harbor.”  Arturo notes that  Boston’s cost of living is its biggest detractor, necessitating neighborhoods to get directly involved in their own revitalization efforts, “The most successful project was the creation of a community-based education center and Community Campus of the former Our Lady of the Presentation School in the historic Oak Square, Brighton, MA.  Approximately seven years ago, the Boston Archdiocese closed this important neighborhood school and put the property up for sale. This decision destabilized the entire community and created a stir in Boston. Several community leaders, local businesses, elected officials and organization came together to form the Presentation School Foundation, which through hard work, determination, and fundraising convinced the Archdiocese to sell the property to the Foundation. I worked with the community pro-bono to create the vision for this building as a Community Campus and also used my architectural expertise to establish the economic and infrastructure feasibility for the project’s implementation. This success of this experience brought together community leaders, elected officials, the Mayor, several educational organizations, and business leaders to realize the value and power of community engagement.”

 Although not faced with cost of living challenges, Albany’s stability is threatened by its lack of street life activity in the downtown core.  “Equally considerable [to the Boston effort], in Albany, the current Capital South Campus Center is a catalyst project that is bringing together citizens, public officials, neighborhood groups, and educational organizations to create an educational hub that will revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. I worked with the various groups to establish the vision and master plan for the facility.”

I think it is interesting to note that both urban areas relied on revitalization projects that involve intense engagement with the community.  I asked Arturo if he felt these efforts have paid off in a larger scale for either city.  “The biggest physical change in Boston, from the perspective of a neighborhood resident, has been the impact of institutional development (universities and hospitals) in the neighborhood fabric. Boston’s neighborhoods exist in concert with many institutions, some within the neighborhoods, some at the edges, but all intrinsically connected, physically, socially and economically.

Managed institutional growth has been paramount to the stabilization of the neighborhoods, and the sustained relationship of the various universities and hospitals with these neighborhoods and their citizenry, has led to a better quality of life, public realm improvements, and environmental mitigation. Often, this town & gown dilemma has had a positive, or negative impact in the neighborhoods, largely depending on the level of engagement by the community, the city and the institution – and by the institution’s level of commitment towards the neighborhood with which they co-exist.

A corollary physical change has been the increase of the student population in the neighborhoods which in some cases has destabilized home ownership, spurred by speculative developments from absentee landlords who have capitalized on the opportunity, and created multi-unit housing from existing, formerly single-family homes. While this is not the fault of the institutions, the lack of student housing within institutional lands has contributed to the imbalance. The lack of available space within an institutional campus is often cited as the key factor. Institutions continue to look for opportunities to create more student housing, but often this is done by purchasing properties away from the campus core, well within the neighborhoods, thus continuing the friction created by institutional expansion – a catch 22.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s planning agency, has to their credit, solidified measures to address these issues by establishing rigorous planning processes that require community and elected official’s input and participation, and zoning mechanism that prevent the deterioration of the existing neighborhood fabric. The positive outcomes have depended entirely on the transparency of the planning process and the continued involvement by the community, the institutions, and the City to monitor the agreed upon commitments and objectives. This, in itself, is difficult, given the magnitude of development throughout the City, and multiple community engagements by those involved. Often, there are overlapping meetings and commitments to consider, and in some cases, the length of the planning process makes it difficult to sustain the level of engagement.

Comparatively, the biggest physical change in Albany has been the lack of cohesive, sustained growth particularly in the downtown core. While there is positive economic and physical growth in the region, spurred by the global high tech research and manufacturing industry developing north of the city, very little of this growth has had corollary physical and economic positive impact in the downtown. The population increase and demographic of higher wage earners lack opportunities for appropriate housing, quality schools, and access to goods and services within the city. Instead, these quality of life requirements are found in the suburban environment outside the city or in the adjacent less towns. A further physical challenge has been the lack of good regional integrated transportation infrastructure. Instead the over-reliance on the car has created a poor web of interstate roadways that are disconnected from the pattern of existing local roads and the streets and avenues in the city.”

As Arturo states time and again, the biggest factor in the success of these projects was the level of engagement of the community.  If you are interested in being part of the change you wish to see in your city, you need to understand several issues related to engaging with the community that Arturo has learned:

Give guidance to the grass roots “Based on my direct experience both working professionally and as a community activist I have seen how grass roots interventions are most successful, where there is a coordinated process of engagement between citizens, business leaders, elected officials and city agency representatives to make positive change in the urban environment – whether it be for the creation of a community park, a streetscape improvement, a community building, or an institutional development. Conversely, when the initiative is government led, this has most often been seen as conflicted or lacking the voice and support of the community’s best interest. In Boston, the Presentation School Foundation is a powerful example of this process. In Albany, with the Capital South Campus Center, the same can be said.

As a concerned resident, while living in Brighton for 22 years and after seeing the difficulty and lack of parity in the discussion between residents, developers, elected officials, city agency representatives and institutions, I decided to join a large neighborhood organization, which I later led for a number of years. I established a clear method of engagement with protocols for communication and set up well-understood criteria for evaluating projects, and this empowered the neighborhood to provide a more “professional” review and discussion on issues and development projects in the neighborhood. This led to a more positive, civilized and less fractious engagement with more desirable results.”

Provide a conduit for meaningful involvement “After many years of working through the community processes, task forces and successes with grass roots efforts, I have seen more citizens with diverse professional expertise become involved bringing their experience and knowledge into the process. Getting involved in your community, while maintaining a professional life, is no longer cautionary issue as it was years ago. The City of Boston requires community participation as part of the planning and development process that gives the citizens a voice and platform to get involved.”

Seek out the quiet community “The average citizen is not typically engaged in the community, partly due to a general lack of understanding of how one can participate most productively – often there are too many groups to join, with overlapping agendas and territoriality to be effective. In upstate New York, there are no less than eight Chambers of Commerce and a dozen associations, spread out through eight counties, four towns, and 20 plus municipalities all within a 5-10 mile radius. This is a key aspect to the problem of community participation. There are simply too many groups to join to be effective. Instead I advocate for the creation of regional councils to channel and coordinate the various overlapping efforts.”

Don’t hold out for the silver bullet “In Albany, the question of a single project that is transformational has been discussed for years with the proposed development of a convention center downtown. In Boston, for many years discussion centered on a similar single project that could transform City Hall Plaza. But, we have learned that effective change does not come from a silver bullet approach – instead, incremental projects, with thoughtful, accretive agendas have a better chance to succeed. For Boston, this is now being implemented with the reconfiguration of the plaza as a series of discrete public spaces and pedestrian promenades with civic amenities. For Albany, the emphasis is shifting towards improving the public realm along the key streets and avenues with increased transit access and related transit-oriented development incentives, bringing street life and activity to the downtown core.”
As someone who has been actively involved in urban redevelopment, Arturo has so many great stories to tell.  He understands how vitally important it is to be engaged in your community as an architect and as a citizen.  His favorite story of urban revitalization, Save Fenway Park, is the perfect example of how we can work with rather than impose our ideas on a community. “A group of concerned citizens gathered 30 design professionals, (I led the urban design group) to establish a credible alternative to demolishing Fenway Park, which was the desire of the former owners, several years ago. Instead, we created a vision to literally save Fenway Park by extracting administrative programs into ancillary structures, inserting a concourse level with modern amenities into the guts of the existing structure, conceiving the now famous “monster seats” that added brand value and capacity, and integrating the ballpark into its surrounding neighborhood context with streetscape amenities and public transportation improvements that led to the preservation and resurgence of the historic park by its new owners to what we have now.”  Anyone can be concerned.  There are lots of ways you can volunteer your time.  But when your life’s mission in the built environment, your efforts can be transformational. 

Arturo Vasquez, AIA is an accomplished architect, urban designer and educator with extensive knowledge in architecture + urban planning history and design theory. His built projects have received numerous awards and he has lectured, taught and spoken at prominent colleges and universities locally and abroad. He is a Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Chicago Integrated School of Building (InSB), and an Advanced Architectural Design Faculty, Thesis Representative/Thesis Studio Instructor at the Boston Architectural College (BAC). Arturo has over twenty eight years of experience integrating design, master planning, and urban design for healthcare, educational, and cultural mixed-use projects. His experience includes working with private and public sector clients, civic institutions, community-based organizations, non-profits and city agencies. He is the Principal/Founder of SAS/ Design, Inc. and is a Registered Architect in New York State and Massachusetts.

The Big Write Off

Cities are cauldrons of innovation and creativity, but misperceptions and bad press often relegate the most exciting movements to the shadows.  In week four of the Change the World Novena, we look at the role that architects can play in expressing the dynamic culture of a place to residents and regionalists alike.

It’s easy to be down on your rust-belt hometown.  Once-great cities of the Midwest have been brought to their knees by demographic shifts, the post-industrial economy and brain drain.  Or have they?  Jennifer Coleman, an architect, entrepreneur and lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio isn’t about to give up on her hometown just yet.  She has spent her career as a champion for revitalization, working at a grassroots and city leadership level to help Cleveland shine.

Cleveland has been working on urban redevelopment for a number of years, but many of the textbook solutions of the past decades such as sports and retail venues didn’t have a deep or lasting enough effect. Jennifer views the most positive change to happen in the last five years as the transition of the urban core.  “It went from being perceived as a business center to a place to live and a viable neighborhood,” she says.  “Twenty years ago really saw only one area, the Warehouse District as an example of a multi-use neighborhood, the rest of downtown was still business-based and experiencing tenant flight to the suburbs. The potential for a vibrant downtown was visible, but we did not really have a plan to bring it to fruition, other than continue seeking big projects like sports complexes and museums. While the Gateway project/stadiums built in the 1990’s brought more downtown, they did not produce a 24 hour city. Downtown instead became a place to visit for specific events and then go home.  We’re now focusing on livability issues in lieu of building big projects by looking at creating public spaces that enrich the life of downtown visitors, workers and residents.” 

There has also been a shift in urban design attention to the experience of place as a coherent and rich sequence of events with attention to traffic and circulation issues.  The intent is that the streets and open spaces such as Public Square and the Mall not be merely a place to pass through, but destinations that provide a focal point for surrounding development.  “When big projects that are currently being planned can plug into a larger urban infrastructure instead of relying on project based responses- this is a paradigm shift. Alternative transportation (pedestrian, bikes, public transit) and enjoying the trip is also being emphasized.”

Jennifer’s many years on City Boards and Commissions as well as her experience in private practice have given her perspective on redevelopment from both the design, development, and public policy point of view.  Some insights she shares with others who are interested in making a difference in revitalizing their cities:
Play to your strengths Every city has its unique characteristics and by expressing them, the culture of that place is also expressed, further enriching the experience of inhabiting it.  “Our physical and environmental potential and rich culture and history are unique to Cleveland.  Every city has its stories, but our stories are pretty cool. We tend to forget them.”  Jennifer’s City Prowl project is one way she is helping people to understand the history and culture that are part of the places they pass by every day.  “Our walkability and compactness and rich institutional stock are all within arm’s reach of the core.  Cleveland’s urban center includes the amenities of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Strong neighborhoods close to the urban core have been redeveloping at a faster pace than the core and their distinctive character is now trickling into the core.  In addition to its walkability, our core has good transit connections, as well as rich historical character.  The city does not need to acquire land to revitalize because we are acting on plans that are in some cases 200 years old.”  However, Jennifer also feels that redevelopment is challenged by another cultural characteristic, “The temptation to sell ourselves short- a collective inferiority complex that holds us back from making big plans- fear of failure.  It’s the entreprenurial spirit that made Cleveland great in its hey day and will make it great again.”   

Form strategic alliances One of the most most successful neighborhood/district/projects Jennifer points to took place at the Cleveland State Universty (CSU) campus on the east side of downtown. The decision of CSU to engage with the downtown fabric in lieu of remaining a self-contained campus as they underwent a major campus expansion has opened up what used to be perceived as a barrier between downtown and midtown.  “Their transformation has created a template for our other urban institutions. Case Western Reserve University, located just east of downtown at University Circle,  is now adopting this mind set for their expansion/renovation projects with other hospitals & schools looking at  updating and integrating their urban campuses.”

Seek and use the insights of the average citizen  “I’d love to see a civic urban core universal concern- a “department of visibility” to make citizens more aware.  It can be very difficult for the average citizen to be aware of what’s going on and the best way to participate in the process,” Jennifer notes.  “The county right now is doing a great job of being more transparent and encouraging interaction.”  On the subject of whether change necessarily needs to be championed from the grass roots, Jennifer felt that interventions can equally be successful from a ‘ground up’ or ‘trickle down’ start. “Cleveland’s biking community is a great example of a grass roots group that has organized and mobilized to making biking safer and accessible to all citizens, from working with City Hall on the Complete Streets ordinance as well as reaching out to the community on various projects and education initiatives. Our mayor has committed to the public square and mall projects and really made them happen.”  Jennifer also believes that cities and civic leaders need to work at channeling the input of interested citizens, “There is a large movement of young people into urban cores because living in the city is a quality of life issue that they believe in.  They bring with them a new concept of city living which includes involvement. Many of the 40+ group are passionate about creating a vibrant core, but weren’t organized and cultivated as leaders as the younger citizens are now. I think the young people's enthusiasm for the city is spreading to their more established, suburban-dwelling older peers."

Set yourself up for success When I asked Jennifer what she thought needed to happen to produce the most transformational change, she championed further development of public spaces, but with an interesting caveat, “We need to teach people how to interact with the city.  Clevelanders are not used to grand public spaces.  It’s important to make sure that we have adequate programming with them and that it is easy for people to book the space for events.  We also need to promote better wayfinding and ease of getting around the city with more easily accessible creature comforts.”
As Jennifer illustrates, architects can play a leadership role in development through their willingness to participate in civic organizations and serve as appointed members of boards and commissions.  They can also be vigilant stewards of cultural treasures and be advocates for preservation and restoration.  One of Jennifer’s favorite Cleveland stories is the saving of the grand theaters in Playhouse Square in the 1970s. “They were literally setting up the wrecking ball to raze them for a parking lot, but concerned citizens intervened. Our theater district is one of the city’s, and nation’s treasures and the saving of them and their subsequent restoration, which continues to the present, was a main catalyst to out downtown renaissance.”

Architect and entrepreneur Jennifer Coleman has over 24 years experience in the field of architecture. Her company, Jennifer Coleman Creative LLC, is dedicated to improving life in the city through smart design. She is also the founder and CEO of CityProwl, a company producing urban walking-tours that can be downloaded from the internet to digital media players for self-led tours. An avid civic volunteer, she serves on the boards of LAND Studio, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. She is Chair of both the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and Downtown/Flats District Design Review Committee and was appointed to the Mayor’s Group Plan Commission in 2010. Ms. Coleman holds a bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell University. She is a 2002 American Marshall Memorial Fellow and was featured in both the 1998 Crain’s Cleveland Business 40 under 40 class and Kaleidoscope Magazine’s 40/40 Club of 2002. She was Inside Business Magazine’s 2003 Business Volunteer of the Year. Jennifer lives with her husband, architect August Fluker and son, Cole, in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.

What scares you as a creative?

Happy Halloween everyone!  Tradition has is that Halloween is the start of a transitional time when we are more connected to the spirit world- next stop is All Saints Day, when we look to our spiritual guides followed by All Souls Day, where we honor our ancestors, friends and mentors who have gone before us.

Keeping with the spirit of these three days, I wanted to take a little time as your virtual mentor to reflect on releasing the fears that hold you back, identifying your inspirations, and finding people willing to help guide you on your path to fulfillment. I love this infographic I found at Design Taxi for its humorous (precisely because it hits on some core truths) look at creative phobias.  That's the trick part- the way that we talk ourselves out of going for the things that we really want in our careers.

Now for the treat:  I am developing a series strictly related to mentoring and am looking for your input on the issues that are most important to you.  Please take some time to post in the comments section about your pressing career dilemmas.  You don't have to get personal or overly detailed (if you want to do that, please email me at thepatronsaintofarchitecture@gmail.com for a one-on one coaching session), just list some of the basic hobgobblins blocking your path to success.  Those career cobwebs' days are numbered.

Making People Better

Being engaged as a creative person involves being willing to look outside of your own experience and give back in a way that utilizes your talents and passions.  On week three of the Change the World Novena, we look at making a difference in your community, as an individual and as a business.

Pro Bono work is not a new thing for many architecture firms.  However the desire to consistently give back to the community is something much more rare.  I recently attended a presentation called Teach a Man to Fish  at the Healthcare Facilities Symposium and Expo in Chicago because I thought it would be interesting to get the presenters’ take on how architecture could empower a community.  The session featured an intern architect named Elise Drakes, and I soon realized that she was an example of how an architect can empower people, not just through a single effort, but through the way community service is a part of the way she lives her life. 

Main Entry of the SOS Clinic
Elise, who lives in Orange County, CA, has consistently tried to find volunteering opportunities related to healthcare and architecture.  She has been a mentor for the past five years with Big Brothers Big Sisters as well as a volunteer at an art therapy program called Art and Creativity for Healing.  She realized that her efforts could have greater impact if she expanded outside of what just one person could do and so she took her interest to work.  TAYLOR, a California-based architecture firm, had done pro bono work in the past, but not to a significant extent.  Shortly after joining the firm in 2007, TAYLOR empowered Elise to take on “give back” initiatives.   At first she identified small projects, including the remodel of a child’s room for the Make a Wish Foundation.  Then came a defining moment.  Hoag Hospital, one of Taylor’s clients, contacted them and asked if they could help with a project for a non-profit organization called Share Ourselves (SOS).  Taylor agreed, and Elise coordinated the architecture effort.

Share Ourselves is a Costa Mesa based non-profit providing social safety net and healthcare services to low-income and homeless residents of Orange County.   TAYLOR joined three of the region’s construction companies and collaborated with Hoag’s Real Estate, Construction and Operations department to redesign and build a new facility for SOS.  Originally intended as a cosmetic improvement project, the team soon determined that what was needed for SOS to provide the best services to the community was a full scale renovation.  “It’s easy to drop the ball on a pro-bono project,” Elise notes.  “However, in this case it was less about what was donated than the commitment of individuals from each organization and the leadership they brought to the effort.”  Hoag provided coordination for the project as well as some of their business partner contacts so that the team could solicit donations.  They also have helped on the PR side helping to make sure that the community is aware of the resource and that they story of this effort is told. 

“This project was different from other pro bono work because it was a long term project and many of the donations were used to fund construction, not a particular item with naming rights,” says Elise.  “I was in awe of what people were willing to give both in their time and in in-kind donations.”  In addition to TAYLOR’s donation of architectural services, a local artist donated a week of his time to produce a community-based mural, and other artists loaned work to the project.  Questar stepped into the GC role while Suffolk Roel also provided contracting services and RTKL designed branding/graphics.  “I called up total strangers and asked for things the project needed and was amazed by the response,” says Elise. Their generosity was especially notable to her because, “These donations were not about recognition.  There is no donor wall.”

Elise was enthusiastic about  her efforts, but also stressed that this was something other firms can and should take on.  Her insights on how to build a successful pro bono process:

Respect the character of the organization The team looked comprehensively at SOS as an organization and provided a design response that reflects their culture and practices.  Some of the existing features that worked really well, such as the community planter garden where residents are educated in small scale gardening were prominently located at the front of the building.  It is also different in that the non-profit has collected data for exiting conditions and is using that as a benchmark for determining what design measures were successful in the new space. The team observed systems and processes in the existing facility and took steps to enhance them in the new design.  “We provided countertops in a cueing area to allow people to complete paperwork while they wait in line,” observed  Elise.

1+1 can equal 3 By looking beyond what just a bunch of architects could do in their spare time, Elise was able to successfully expand the project and involve the construction community as well as local businesses and artists.  A more comprehensive effort lent the project more credibility, which made it easier to continue to get donations. The team also told the story of the project to the construction workers to help them understand the value of their efforts.

The project doesn’t stop when construction does It’s great to help out, but to make meaningful change, you have to follow the metrics so you know what to apply to the next pro bono opportunity.  SOS tracks data on the people they serve and now can track improvements related to design elements in the new facility.  This data will continue to inform the project team on where their efforts were most successful.  Elise felt that the team was a powerful element in implementing the project and following up after construction.
Elise’s passion as an architect is operations impacts (she’s currently working on an MBA).  Forming a community partnership to benefit area hospitals was something that she was happy to take on, although she was surprised that more firms are not already doing this type of thing.  She hopes that by sharing the SOS story, more will.  “This can be done by everyone,’ she stressed “It’s all about the people and the passion they had,  That’s what let us keep going on this project.” 

Elise Drakes, Assoc. AIA is a project coordinator at TAYLOR and a passionate advocate of bridging the industries of architecture, healthcare and non-profit organizations. She is involved in all aspects of hospital projects at TAYLOR, from schematic design through construction administration. Additionally, Elise is extensively involved in the community. She has engaged with non-profit organizations such as Art and Creativity For Healing, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Project Tomorrow, Make-a-Wish Foundation, and ACE Mentoring. In 2011, she received the Tomorrow’s Leaders scholarship at Chapman University and is now pursuing her MBA with an emphasis in finance. She is a co-founder of The Benefactor Foundation, a non-profit corporation established to create college scholarships for deserving students. Elise’s role in The SOS Project as a designer and project manager was an opportunity to make a significant impact in her community. The positive life change that each team member experienced was an unforgettable gift.


Week two of the Change the World novena takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore the concept as space as a basic human resource and the leadership role architects can play in making sure everyone has access to a supportive built environment.

 L'Ecole de Centre de Emmanuel: View of Courtyard
Leslie Nepveux is a young architectural designer.  Her story begins not unlike that of most young architects.  She worked hard to earn her degree in architecture from Oklahoma State University, graduated in 2005, got a job, and got laid off five years later.  Like many of us, Leslie was also searching for deeper meaning in her career and not so much finding it in a traditional work setting. A casualty of a bad economy and the old experience conundrum (no one wants to hire you without it, but if they don’t hire you, you won’t get it), Leslie took the bold step of deciding that she wasn’t going to wait around for the career-defining experiences she wanted to come to her.  She ignored all of the conventional wisdom and wrote her own set of rules.  Then she went to Africa. 

She wanted the work she did to make a difference, and she knew something about the needs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from her parents, who had served as missionaries there.  So, she emailed a contact of her father’s who is based in DRC and asked if they’d like to have an architect on the team.  If you’re thinking, “of course, they said yes, and it was probably like volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, only in Africa,”  you would be wrong.  What Leslie brought to the table was something only an architect could: vision. 

The local community non-denominational church in Kinshasa, DRC serves the region through a series of sister churches. They had identified two pressing needs related to the built environment; an addition to the three room school in Kinshasa and a prototype clinic/school building that could be constructed in more rural areas.  Because the area is so impoverished, waiting to raise the funds to hire a local architect would only delay the much-needed work.  Leslie’s offer to volunteer her time couldn’t have been better timed.  After sending out letters to friends and family to raise funds to pay for her flight and lodging, she set off on a two-week trip to Africa to meet with the Building Committee, explore the site and collect information from members of the community and conduct traffic studies and site observations.  She also took the time to learn about local construction methods (buildings are made of bricks formed on site utilizing excavation soils). 

Leslie’s skills are in management and production, but she had to pull together a planning and design team to respond to the project.  She assembled a team that included interior designers, structural engineers, and architecture professors and conducted a twelve person brainstorming session to generate big ideas.  What emerged was a concept that emphasizes the community’s needs for flexibility and leverages the functional and physical location of the school as hub of the community.  Multi-function classrooms also serve as office or meeting space when necessary.  An open outdoor courtyard space can be used for gatherings or performances.  Throughout the design process, she kept in touch with her clients in Kinshasa electronically, making tweaks to the design (the courtyard shape went from “L” to “U”), while also making sure that her construction details were simple and allowed interchangeable local materials.  For example, while the design calls for the classroom walls to be constructed of stone with a rebar foundation, that locally made adobe can be substituted, to make use of the excess soils on site as needed.  Leslie is currently in the process of helping her clients obtain a more complete cost estimate, which will then lead to fundraising efforts in order to begin construction. 

Leslie has volunteered all of her time to the projects in Africa and supported herself over the past two years doing contract work.  Like many who have had to cope with losing a job, she has also struggled with balancing earning  a living with being able to devote herself full time to doing the work in Africa.  When I asked her what the most significant things she has taken away from her self-directed internship, she had these insights:

It’s more about the concept than the design.  Especially in a third world country, materials and methods can be very fluid and dependent on availability of resources.  It’s important to stay flexible and that means that the concept driving design has to be that much more powerful and relevant in order to survive through construction.

Engaging the community is important.  Without their buy-in, the best efforts can be derailed, or your work will not have it's intended effect of helping people.
 You can (and should) work with an architect.  Leslie hopes that her work has helped to increase awareness of the value that architects bring to a project.  “Communities need to know that they are capable of hiring architects,” she says. Outreach efforts certainly help.  In addition to her experiences in the DRC, Leslie went with an engineering team in October of 2011 to Ghanna for a two week master planning charrette.
Leslie has recently been named a Design Fellow at the Building Community Workshop, a non-profit community design center doing work she loves, partly due to her self-sought experiences, which gave her the specific skills and expertise she wanted to cultivate.  Leslie’s message to her piers is very profound, “ As bad as the economy has been for employment, it has helped us grow and realize other areas of our life where we can practice architecture.  Being diverse is important and we get one-dimensional from our training.”  Seven years out of college, she has worked internationally, made a difference in several impoverished communities, learned about vernacular building techniques, managed a schedule, budget and design team, worked with clients and user groups.  She gave herself the career path she wanted, instead of hoping that opportunities would come along if she just took a job “for the experience.”

More than once during our interview, Leslie said, “I wish I could do more.”  If you’d like to help her design vision become a reality, you can make a donation to the Congo Projects

Leslie Nepveux is a 2005 graduate of Oklahoma State University. She is currently a Design Fellow at the Building Community Workshop and only a few exams away from completing the ARE. You can see more of her recent work in Africa at cargocollective.com/congocollective

Change the World (an experiment)

Welcome to week one of the second annual novena at the Patron Saint of Architecture. Novenas are an annual chance to look in-depth at issues that affect how we operate in the world as an architect. Last year‘s focus was things that drain our creativity and how to surmount them. This year, I hope your novena journey will lead you to be inspired to make a difference through the built world.

What would happen if the sphere of influence for architecture and urban design was extended to a broader community base? If average citizens, policy leaders, politicians and other community leaders understood how the built environment affects them and the active role they could play in shaping it? I’ve pondered this since college days when I took part in an after school architecture education class for 4th and 5th graders in Pittsburgh, PA and saw how profoundly affected the kids were. I continued working on outreach during the years I worked in Phoenix, AZ through my involvement on the boards of two non-profits, Valley Forward and Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, and the Phoenix Housing and Neighborhoods Commission. Although I’ve moved since to Cleveland, OH and now to Cincinnati, OH, my passion for making a change in my new cities has remained, and I’ve kept up with events that have taken place in these cities since I’ve left.

So I was thrilled when Arturo Vasquez, a friend of the blog and architect in upstate New York approached me with this great idea: Forging a community-wide alliance for architecture. As I thought more about how to attack such an undertaking, it occurred to me that the answer lie in showcasing the good work I know is happening in communities all over the world. The kind of grass-roots efforts that focus on architecture and urban design as vehicles for social and economic change. Thus was born the theme for this year’s novena. Change the World (an experiment) is a deep dive into urban redevelopment from the point of view of architects, planners, elected officials and more who have actively worked to bring about positive change.

You might wonder- why urban design? It’s not technically architecture. However, it forms the matrix in which any project is built. That context that we all value so dearly is found through exploring the culture of a community. Success is a relative definition, and what works in one place can be an utter disaster if tried somewhere else. Therefore, I have focussed on three key issues that I hope you can take with you as you set out to make your own change:

Take time to listen
 No one knows the needs of a community better than those who live there. The worst thing you can do is to fuel mistrust and cynicism by walking into someone’s community and thinking you know how to solve their problems before you even engage with them. It takes a careful process of information gathering and worksessions involving stakeholders in the community to understand the issues and define the right problems to solve. (hint: the things people will initially list are usually symptoms, not the problem itself). One of the best examples I have personally experienced of this was the work of Dr. John McIntosh at the PURL Institute (aka JUDP) at Arizona State University. This group of planners worked aggressively with inner city neighborhoods to help them envision a future for themselves. Through my volunteer work with this amazing program, I learned about their process, which essentially involved collaboration of architects, landscape architects and planners with community stakeholders to create a blueprint for change. The community was then able to take this document, which included everything from the neighborhood’s history to economic and social data to master plans and streetscape drawings and use it as a marketing tool or negotiating tool to approach the city and work to cultivate redevelopment. Nowhere was this change more evident that in Central City South, one of the city’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods. Because of an erroneous interpretation of airport decibel level zones, the neighborhood had been written off by the city for many decades. In fact, the city was hoping to eventually repurpose the land for a different type of non-residential development. The problem was that the residents of Central City South believed in their neighborhood and wanted it to remain intact. Terry Davis, then the CEO of Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (Central City South’s community development corporation) worked tirelessly to save the neighborhood and leverage the process begun by ASU. The result: The City committed to revitalization and worked with the neighborhood to successfully obtain a HOPE VI grant as well as to create an overlay zone to maintain the character of the neighborhood. Central City South has come a long way as you can see in this recent video.

Look for Action Opportunities
While it’s great to launch a comprehensive initiative involving stakeholders, it’s also easy to have the whole process come to a screeching halt due, not so much to lack of interest, but to a lack of belief that this time anything will happen. Even if it’s something as small as organizing volunteers to paint or plant some flowers, having steps that can be immediately implemented keeps the community confident that change will happen and shows the outside world that this neighborhood believes in itself and is going places.

Leverage your efforts
You might think, “I’m just an architect. Even if I organize a group, how do we find opportunities to make a difference?” My answer is to get involved. Volunteering for the sake of volunteering won’t make a lasting change, but aligning your efforts with your city, local AIA chapter, community development corporation, university, or a charity group will. I say this not only from my own experience, but from the insights that the changemakers you will hear from over the next few weeks shared about their efforts. What’s emerged as I’ve talked to these changemakers is a diverse picture of what makes a community and how the unique culture of place informs the approach to design.

Most of all, design can, and does make a difference if only we will let it.