What Is the Most Critical Issue Designers Don’t Even Know Exists?

According to the heads of the major built-environment design organizations, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the American Planning Association (APA), it’s water. Water is going to become increasingly scarce. It’s particularly a problem in the United States as many of the highest growth areas are in parts of the country that are already stressed with water shortages. Worldwide, countries are struggling with diminishing ground water resources and some are even worried about water wars. Mitchell Silver, the outstanding (and unfortunately outgoing) president of APA, said “water is going to make oil look minor league.” This insight and a slew of others were offered up in a session among the three presidents at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago. Each talked about the big issues for designers.


Up first to speak was Mark Focht, FASLA, upcoming president, who was filling in for Tom Tavella, FASLA, the current president. Focht said ASLA, which was founded in 1899 and now has more than 15,000 members, has always made advocacy on Capitol Hill a priority. The focus of the next few years will be pushing for land and water conservation, community parks, a national complete streets program, more federal support for green infrastructure, and benefits for small businesses. He noted that most landscape architecture firms are small businesses.

ASLA is active in all of these areas, but been especially focused on green infrastructure. Banking on Green, a report ASLA recently co-authored with a set of environment and water organizations, seeks to boost the case for using green infrastructure approaches — green roofs and streets, bioswales, tree pits, and parks — to manage stormwater. Focht said this was near and dear to his heart, too. He is first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation, and worked on the “first E.P.A.-approved plan for managing stormwater with green infrastructure.” Philadelphia is a true innovator in this approach.

Focht said landscape architects are also focused on protecting licensure. Currently, all 50 states require landscape architects to be licensed to practice but there are some states that are threatening to roll back these licensure requirements with “sunset reviews.” ASLA in D.C. and local chapters are doing state-level advocacy to prevent this.

For many years in a row, the ASLA Board of Trustees has also made public awareness a priority, given that there is still a lack of understanding out there about what landscape architects actually do. So, a public awareness campaign was launched, resulting in more than 600 local events organized by landscape architects. During these events, landscape architects reached out to the public, explaining their value. Focht laughed, adding that this proves that “landscape architects aren’t the shade loving species” many think they are. Additional events will be held this year, along with projects conducted as part of the Year of Public Service. “Right now, 49 chapters have committed to leading and documenting events.”

Lastly, launching the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) rating system, the first rating system for landscapes, is a major focus. ASLA, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin are the three key partners behind SITES. In total, some 1,500 comments have been received about the rating system during its public comment phase, with only 50 percent of those coming from landscape architects. Focht said ideas came in from all types of designers, planners, and policymakers, which ultimately makes SITES more usable for more of the world. Now that the pilot testing phase is complete and the first projects are becoming certified, discussions are underway with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) to handle certification of SITES projects from here on.


Jeffrey Potter, former AIA president, said AIA, which was founded in 1857, has largely bounced back from the recession and now has 80,000 members. Some 55 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are members. The average age of members is 52, which may increasingly be a problem, he noted. AIA is trying to become the “global institute of architects,” with a growing focus on the big issues facing the world. But there are some who dispute the move in this direction. Potter said a big chunk of the membership is “issues-based and progressive like ASLA and APA members, but another set says ‘your job is to advocate for my business and make me successful.'” Potter said the challenge was to be both “a big tent across the world for all the issues we need to focus on” and an organization that can “maintain a narrow focus” on job growth.

Potter said the architecture practice was in a state of transformation. He said the world is struggling with how to create “place-based knowledge in a digital era.” In the past, “knowledge was linear. You read a book from start to finish. Now, we are in the networked age, with bits of knowledge here and there across the Web.” Potter believes this networked age will be a “great advantage for designers” because they already think and work in a networked manner. In this new world, architects are increasingly focused on “high performance places, public health, and disaster mitigation.”

To spur the growth of high-performance places, AIA has supported the launch of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). The goal there is to create a “regulatory framework for new and existing buildings, establishing minimum green requirements for buildings and complementing voluntary rating systems.” The idea is to offer up a model code that localities can plug in encourage more rapid growth in green buildings. Beyond IGCC, AIA has also officially signed on to Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030 initiative, with its AIA 2030. To better use the built environment to improve public health, AIA has started the American Design for Public Health Initiative with Dr. Richard Jackson, the pioneer in this field. Working with M.I.T. and other universities, AIA will ramp up efforts on how to design more healthy communities. To strengthen communities’ capacity to handle disasters, which seem to be happening more frequently, local AIA chapters and regional groups are forging new partnerships with local governments.


With 40,000 members in 90 countries, APA is concerned about global issues like climate change, population growth, urbanization, and suburbanization but also focusing on U.S. communities. In the 21st century, Mitchell Silver, APA president, said, America is “greying and browning and single-family households are rising.” In the U.S., “people are getting older, living longer, increasingly diverse and multicultural, and one in five are disabled.” By 2050, a majority of households will be single people. By 2043, there will be no majority race. All of these demographic changes mean huge changes for the built environment. As such, the market will change and so will demand.

APA, following its code of ethics, is interested in making sure the next wave of communities that spring up to meet this new demand will be “sustaining places,” that “protect public health, safety, and welfare” of the people living there. APA was formed in 1909 to combat the negative public health impacts that came with living in cities. “People were dying because they lived in cities.” New York City was filled with slums not much different from the ones in New Delhi today. “More than 100,000 people lived in one square mile in lower Manhattan.” Back then, water-borne illnesses were the preventable diseases that had to be tackled. But today, Silver said, it’s cancer and heart disease, the diseases that come from eating too much and not getting enough exercise, the diseases of suburbia. Silver said at our current rates, “half of the country will be obese in 20 years.” So APA is increasingly focused on healthy planning.

To improve safety of the built environment, APA wants to ensure “people don’t die from unsafe buildings.” So planners are focused on ensuring building codes protect people. Silver said buildings built before World War II (pre-war) were “basically sound,” but post-war buildings are “lower quality.” In 50 years, then, what will happen to these less-safe buildings, particularly with the rise of extreme weather? This challenge is only compounded by the twin growing threats of climate change and more natural disasters.

The future then is about “comprehensive planning” to ensure communities are more “adaptable and resilient” to changes, whether they are due to population growth, water shortages, economic change, climate shifts, or natural disasters. Unfortunately, not every community agrees this is needed. APA is increasingly fighting “Agenda 21 myths,” and those who believe that planning is a form of UN-driven top-down control. A movement that seems like an off-shoot of the rabid Tea Partiers, the anti-Agenda 21 crowd has actually succeeded in rolling-back planning efforts in some states. One community actually just recently threw out all its building codes. “There are now no architectural standards there.” Silver said “80 percent of the public actually supports planning. The subset of people who oppose it are driven by ideology.”

To combat this “anti-planning backlash,” Silver said APA has to get out front and convince the public about “the value of planning and how its in the public interest.” Silver and APA CEO Paul Farmer both complimented ASLA on its public awareness campaign (Farmer called it “brilliant”), arguing that planners also need to take to the streets to boost awareness of the value of planners.

One audience member asked all three heads of the organizations what they would tell President Obama if they had the chance to sit down and meet with him. Focht said he would “make the case for green infrastructure and clean water. I would tell President Obama that the E.P.A. is doing great work on this but to become even more flexible, broad-minded, and push their boundaries. I would tell him to continue to make those investments.” Potter said unlike designers, realtors and home builders have real “brute force” on Capitol Hill so they can “really push an issue through.” So, “I would focus on the issues, not turf. I think there should be a greater focus on our national infrastructure. Working with engineers, this should be our priority.” For Silver, a meeting with Obama would give him the opportunity to say “the U.S. needs to pay for the true cost of a gallon of gas.” Obama also needs to find a way to “get dollars straight to mayors and bypass the state-level wrangling over dollars.” Mayors “have shovel-ready projects and know how to get things done.”

There was some discussion about how ASLA, AIA, and APA could formalize their alliance and possibly add in engineers to their group, to strengthen their voice on Capitol Hill.

Another audience member said if Obama was smart he’d create a national design review panel with the heads of the design organizations, so that every federal policy and major built-environment project went thorough design review before it went forward. This is actually not a crazy idea: Denmark has just such a system. Focht said, in fact, Philadelphia just set up such a review panel after the city rewrote its comprehensive and zoning plan. Let’s hope this idea gains steam.

Image credit: Water shortages in Western U.S. / University of Texas

One thought on “What Is the Most Critical Issue Designers Don’t Even Know Exists?

  1. Christopher Langham, ASLA 04/25/2013 / 1:07 pm

    According to the article, the answer to the question “What Is the Most Critical Issue Designers Don’t Even Know Exists?” is water. While I would not argue water as a critical issue, I would strongly disagree with the generalization regarding designers lack of knowledge of this critical issue. Perhaps designers in the southwest have a leg up on this information as it continues to be the prevalent issue in our region. We are sensitive to the use of water every day and on every design project.

    I’m not sure of the context for the title of this article as after the first paragraph, the article actually says very little about water at all, especially about it’s being “the most critical issue” of which designers are unaware. The article contains informative information from the ASLA, AIA, and APA, but little about water as a critical, but unknown, issue. I would suggest the use of caution to anyone making such broad generalizations, whether they be the author or a quoted source. Perhaps additional contextual support would be in order.

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