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Why Local Governments Need an Architect at the Table

Practitioners can bring a much-needed technical, apolitical perspective to the organizations that lead their communities.

By Brian Libby

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Feeling isolated as a sole practitioner, San Antonio architect Roberto Treviño, AIA, reached out to city council member (now mayor) Ivy Taylor in 2010 to ask how he might leverage his design expertise on local issues. She invited Treviño to join city committees on building and fire codes. When a council member resigned in 2014, Treviño was appointed to fill the spot. He was re-elected in 2015 and continues to serve on the council.

“Architecture is one of the most important things that we have to help communities shape themselves, both literally and figuratively,” Treviño says. “However, when we start talking about the leaders of the community, most often you have people without an architectural background.”

As local leaders, architects can bring an objective, analytical perspective to the organizations that run their communities. And there’s already widespread interest among practitioners in making a difference. In a 2013 survey of 383 AIA-member architects by the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University’s (PSU) School of Architecture, 8 in 10 respondents said that their desire to improve the quality of life in their communities has increased since they entered architecture school, while three-quarters think that architects should advocate for underrepresented groups, engage local stakeholders in decision-making, and conserve resources.

Getting Technical

Government Photo

It’s possible to get involved in politics without being partisan, as architects’ skill sets typically favor technical details and processes over fiery rhetoric, says J. Christopher Ball, AIA, of Jack Ball Architects, in Springfield, Mo., who has served as president for his city and state AIA chapters as well as on state boards and committees, including the AIA Missouri State Government Network and the Missouri Architects Political Action Committee. “It’s what we do every day: Resolve what this group wants, what that group can afford, and how we can make it work for everyone,” Ball says. “I can talk one side of sustainability, for example, to a client who’s extremely green-minded, and I can talk energy savings and cost savings on the other side. These do not have to be polarizing issues.”

The hard part is perseverance amid the sometimes-glacial pace of change, says Thomas Vonier, FAIA, the incoming AIA president for 2017. “You learn how frustratingly slow progress can be, how much determination and stamina is needed to make even modest advances,” he says. “Politics is a long game.”

Looking Local

The key to effecting change is starting local, where politics can be less doctrinaire and more personal, says Sergio Palleroni, a PSU architecture professor who co-authored the 2013 study. “People feel more connected to their own issues, like where their kids go to school,” he says. “They’re trying to be engaged and see what change they can make happen. That desire has grown in our profession.”

Layering design and planning expertise with local knowledge can help architects offer insight on the effects of proposed legislation. “We can be the ones to say, ‘This highway will do great things, but it will separate this whole neighborhood from the services they need. You’re going to put more people in cars,’ ” Ball says.

Treviño thinks that’s why his role on City Council has been so well-received. “If I make a comment, the media describes me as ‘City Councilman Treviño, who is also an architect,’ ” he says. The ability to explain how and why something goes from point A to point B, he adds, jibes with the needs of local government. An architect’s advocacy isn’t just another opinion—it rests on a foundation of professional expertise. “When design issues come up, my fellow council members actually defer to me,” Treviño says. “They want to hear my expert opinion.”

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in May 2016.

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