Peter Schubert
Photo courtesy Peter Schubert
Peter Schubert

Congress and President Obama successfully negotiated a stimulus package that should bring economic relief, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors has listed 15,221 infrastructure projects in 641 cities that are “ready to go.” But while speed in getting work started and jobs created is key, the importance of good design, which will last for generations, should not be lost in the haste.

We need to ensure that the money spent goes to creative, sustainable buildings that will stand the test of time and will still be used by our children and our grandchildren. After all, they are the ones who are going to be paying for these debt-financed projects.

Government sponsorship of great architecture has a proud tradition in the United States, starting with Thomas Jefferson, himself an architect and the designer of Monticello, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Capitol.

However, government-funded projects also have been prime examples of poor design: picture the soulless public housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s that became synonymous with urban blight. In some cases, like Cabrini-Green in Chicago, they have even been torn down.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal gives us an instructive model for our challenge today. President Obama’s proposed stimulus package has already been compared to the New Deal as a jobs creation program. As part of FDR’s response to the Great Depression, numerous public-works projects were funded by the federal government. Those projects put people back to work, but they also created civic masterworks that still stand, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Camp David, and Rockefeller Center in New York City and Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

Perhaps the greatest design opportunity the economic stimulus can give us is for green and sustainable design to become an automatic and essential part of the architecture of new buildings, not just an added extra. In the same way that a bailout for the auto industry presents the prospect of reorienting the design of automobiles in a sustainable direction, so the economic stimulus package offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reorient our architectural focus toward sustainable design. There are few better ways to do that than to put federal contracting dollars behind sustainable design.

The proposed stimulus bill contains around $54 billion in incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency including dollars for retrofitting of federal buildings, weatherization of homes, loan guarantees and grants to automobile battery-makers. All these are important investments, but we also need to be sure the infrastructure dollars in the stimulus package are focused on sustainable design.

There is no shortage of talent to get this done. Architects are not immune to the recession The Architecture Billings Index is at its lowest level since the American Institute of Architects survey began in 1995. So there are plenty of architects and designers willing and available to use the best of their skills to create new buildings that will stand the test of time.

As the new administration gets to work, there are some hopeful signs. Shaun Donovan, Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, is trained as an architect. Obama has said that as a child he wanted to be an architect and Vice President Joe Biden has suggested that if he weren’t a politician, architecture would be his chosen profession.

Another hopeful sign is Obama’s creation of the new Office of Urban Policy in the White House, to be headed by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion. The office is intended to develop a sustainable strategy for metropolitan America and bring together Cabinet agencies, such as housing and urban development, transportation and commerce, which need to cooperate more closely. Greater coordination among those departments is vital for a truly effective sustainability agenda.

Let’s hope that high-powered design interest is made real in the bricks and mortar. The stimulus package is a chance to be bold and build civic structures that will mark this period as a time when long-lasting public architecture and design reclaimed their place at the cutting edge of innovation and sustainable design became truly mainstream.

Read more economic news in our Recession and Recovery special section.