Last week, about 200 attendees and nearly 40 speakers from the design and construction professions, real-estate development, and government gathered in New York City for a “Build America” summit. The day-and-a-half-long conference, organized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), focused on infrastructure—not the traditional variety, such as roads, bridges, and water distributions systems, but so-called “social infrastructure,” including schools, community centers, libraries, and affordable housing.
The ambition for the event was to expand the national discussion about investment in infrastructure to the construction, repair, and restoration of public buildings. “Considering the current political climate, some will say we are overreaching,” said AIA President Russell Davidson in his opening remarks. “I don’t think we are.”
To make the case for this broader definition, Robert Ivy, the organization’s CEO, cited the results of a Harris Poll survey conducted in October and commissioned by the AIA. It indicated that most of the general public (83 percent) considers public buildings part of their community’s infrastructure. Nearly 80 percent of the 2,100 adults surveyed called for new investment in such facilities. “Public buildings matter,” said Ivy. “They affect our lives in ways both seen and unseen.”
Though organized months in advance, the event came on the heels of the divisive national election and a highly criticized post-election statement issued by Ivy, in support of President-elect Donald Trump’s infrastructure investment plan, and his subsequent apology.
A few of the speakers referred to the AIA statement and the resulting firestorm, including developer Jonathan Rose, author of a new book, The Well-Tempered City, who gave a free-wheeling keynote presentation that touched on topics as diverse as the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and the reuse of a city’s waste stream. “The AIA is saying we need to figure out how to build a better world and having architects be part of that discussion is the right idea.”
Many of the participants talked about ways to finance social infrastructure projects—if federal subsidies, tax credits, and other incentives dry up—predicting an increasing reliance on public-private partnerships. Architect David Dixon, a principal at Stantec, offered the firm’s One Charlestown project in Boston’s Bunker Hill neighborhood as an example of “harnessing urban wealth to pay for the things we need.” The mixed-income development includes the reconstruction of 1,100 units of public housing which will be paid for by building 2,100 market-rate units. He acknowledged, however, that the project would not be a suitable model for less affluent cities. “In places where we don’t have a vigorous real-estate economy, we need to find ways to pick up the slack,” he said.
Mitchell Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, made the case for continued public investment. He cited the post-Katrina resurgence of his city explaining how federal funds spurred private development and growth.
He also reminded the architects in the audience of their role in creating vibrant communities: “You guys turn words into physical things that reflect what people say they want,” he said. “You design places, not just buildings.”