It’s Time To Rethink The American City

A panel at the American Institute of Architects convention discussed some of the greatest challenges facing today’s cities and suburbs.


It’s day two of the American Institute of Architects convention in Chicago, where more than 20,000 attendees have gathered to talk about architecture and design. Friday morning’s keynote emphasized issues of resilience and sustainability, with speakers tackling everything from greenhouse gas emissions in cities to obesity and suicide rates in suburbs. The throughline: Design is key to building a healthier, happier America.


Architecture 2030‘s Ed Mazria spoke, and a panel moderated by KCRW producer Frances Anderton included Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist; Ellen Dunham-Jones, chair of the Congress for New Urbanism; Robin Guenther, principal at Perkins+Will; and Rachel Minnery, a disaster resiliency activist.

Mazria, whom AIA director Helene Combs Dreiling called “a hero,” established Architecture 2030 in 2002 with the goal of drastically reducing the global emissions associated with the building industry. The nonprofit’s mission is to make all newly constructed buildings carbon neutral by 2030–a challenge that has since been adopted by the AIA, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Governors Association, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and a plethora of other organizations.

“This is a huge opportunity for the global architecture and planning community,” Mazria said. “The urban built environment’s responsible for 75% of all global greenhouse gas emissions…that’s where the work has to be done.”

Of adapting to climate change, he said, “Life depends on it.”

Ed Mazria

Frances Anderton, host of LA-based NPR affiliate KCRW’s architecture and design show, DnA, opened up the panel by asking a fairly simple question: “What do we mean by resilience, and how do we actually explain this notion to the public?”

Rachel Minnery, an architect who focuses on disaster resilience, said “it’s the ability to adapt to change. There isn’t more imminent of a time when you have numerous changes to adapt to than a disaster.”

Majora Carter, who founded an organization called Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, had a simpler definition. “This is about how do you create happy, healthy communities that are able to take care of themselves and each other,” she said, adding that forging social ties is a key aspect of that. “The issue of survivability in any case is social cohesion,” she said.

The AIA panel on resilience

Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, echoed observations made by others at the convention on the link between the suburbs and poor health: “On the health side, the suburbs are not as resilient, not as healthy,” she said, observing that beyond issues of car-centric planning and obesity rates, “suicide rates go up as density goes down.”

She warned against the emphasis on privacy often valued in suburbs, as this isolation can make communities less resilient. “Since 2005 more Americans in poverty live in suburbs than in cities and they have less access to social networks and cushions.”


Other panelists echoed the concept. “What we need to do is really elevate or change the movement of our culture,” Minnery* said. “Inherently in the U.S., we have our boxes–We have our property lines, we’re individual property owners. We need to shift that from a culture of ‘I’ to a culture of ‘we.'”

Carter explained that as a non-architect, she felt architects could do a better job of communicating their value in designing communities, not just buildings. “You architects don’t understand how scary you all are. You come in with these cool ironic glasses and these big brains,” she said. “It’s not just about the building. It is about the context that building is in… How is this going to fit in the larger picture of how a city lives and breathes and loves and works? Those are the things we need you to be saying.”

*Due to a typo, the original version of this post indicated that Rachel Minnery shared a name with a small fish. Her last name is Minnery, not Minnow.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut