Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the American Institute of Architects National Convention

Washington Convention Center
Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thank you, Jeff -- for that kind introduction and for your leadership of the AIA.

As a lapsed architect myself, this is particularly special. I've always considered the AIA a partner -- not only in my current job at HUD but also when I was Housing Commissioner in New York City.

From ingenious semi-detached homes in a forlorn corner of Brooklyn, to bold designs for Habitat for Humanity in the Bronx--from your partnership with the New Housing New York Legacy Project to our work together through the Mayor's Institute on City Design--AIA has shown time and again how architects can engage on affordable housing and community development in a way that is vital.

Indeed, today, I want to discuss how we can engage the broader architectural community as we rebuild our homes and communities in the wake of an unprecedented economic crisis.

In particular, I want to discuss the role of architects during the last crisis in our cities -- and how they retreated in its wake.

I want to talk about how changes at the federal level could support solutions at the local level that unlock the potential of the architectural community.

And above all, I want to challenge all of you to transcend the role that architects and architecture played in recent times -- and consider how we might all be part of a more lasting engagement.

Of designing and creating housing and communities that are, as the President often says, built to last.

Architectural Engagement in the 20th Century

For me, this story begins not with the great crisis of this century -- but the defining crisis of the last.

Indeed, it was at the height of the Great Depression, when Mayor LaGuardia signed into law a bill creating the New York City Housing Authority -- which purchased a row of Old Law slum tenements located at Avenue A and Third Street from philanthropist Vincent Astor.

Little more than six months after Eleanor Roosevelt presided over the dedication of these homes aptly named the First Houses, construction began on Harlem River Houses -- the first of two New York City housing developments built directly by the Federal government under the Public Works Administration as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.

And architects and AIA alumni Frederick Ackerman and Richmond Shreve were engaged in the pioneering development of this new type of housing -- the latter of whom would go on to serve as president of this institute, known for his work on the Empire State Building and many buildings at Cornell University.

At the dawn of modernism, the architects of the Manhattan skyline and Ivy League institutions were designing affordable housing on the Lower East Side.

They knew that New York's identity--and its place in the American consciousness--were inseparable from its attraction to working class families.

Indeed, nearly eight decades later, developments like First Houses and Williamsburg Houses not only continue to provide affordable housing for New York's working families -- they are cultural landmarks embedded in the fabric of America's most populous and iconic city.

This civic engagement of architects continued in communities across America -- through the urban crisis and riots of the 1960s and 70s.

This was the era that HUD as an agency was founded -- when our cities were quite literally burning.

It was the era of Urban Renewal -- in fact, HUD's own building--the landmark brutalist structure completed by Marcel Breuer in 1968--sat at the center of a completely rebuilt southwest quadrant of Washington DC.

An era in which urban design was imagined by the Federal government, local planners and architects as a set of masterplans that aimed not to engage a neighborhood's residents, its assets, or the existing fabric of those communities.

Instead, they saw a tabula rasa -- a place to begin anew.

In the pursuit of building high-rise housing and highway infrastructure that met the needs of the post-war economy, Urban Renewal wiped neighborhoods from Chicago to Detroit to Los Angeles from the map.

These neighborhoods were seen as problems to be solved--as diseases to be cured. And so often, the residents of these neighborhoods that became victims of displacement rather than beneficiaries of rebirth, were African Americans -- leading many to rename Urban Renewal "Negro Removal."

And in their place, they left neighborhoods that would often prove to be more segregated and facing more concentrated poverty than those that had come before.

Ironically, it wasn't that the housing units were substandard -- but the communities themselves. Islands of housing were separated from shops and the other locations of daily life with no semblance of walkability or human scale, the built environment and location conspired to disconnect residents from schools, jobs, transportation, and, above all, opportunity.

In effect, what they were filtering out of these neighborhoods was the very diversity of uses and people that we have come to understand is the very essence of urban life.

For me, Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead has come to symbolize this affliction -- an architect so disturbed by what he has wrought, he returns to dynamite the public housing he designed.

Indeed, the bitter debates around urban design that ensued disillusioned architects and made many timid.

Many would disengage entirely -- while others found work designing what was decidedly un-affordable housing.

But following the failure of Urban Renewal, architects weren't the only ones to disengage -- so, too, did the Federal government, whose role withered.

Out of the ashes of Urban Renewal, however, would emerge a more hopeful direction.

I saw it for myself at the epicenter of this crisis: the South Bronx.

As a child I remember sitting in Yankee Stadium during Game Two of the 1977 World Series when Howard Cosell broadcast his famous words to millions of viewers across the nation:

"Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is burning."

It's difficult to convey the sense of chaos that bubbled close to the surface across New York City as near-bankruptcy slashed police and other services.

The civic bonds that hold communities together frayed to the point of breaking.

Arson consumed thousands of buildings.

And the neighborhoods surrounding Yankee Stadium lost 75 percent of their populations in just 10 years.

Within weeks of the World Series, President Carter visited nearby Charlotte Street and compared the wreckage to Dresden after World War II. Across the country, people speculated that we were witnessing the death throes of American cities.

Yet the efforts to begin rebuilding the South Bronx ultimately came down not to the engagement of the Federal government or architects -- but rather to a set of locally based community nonprofits that had emerged over the previous decade, inspired by the efforts of Bobby Kennedy and others to rebuild Bedford Stuyvesant.

Then-Senator Kennedy recognized the power of these organizations to, quote, "combine the best of community action with the best of the private enterprise system. Neither by itself is enough, but in their combination lies our hope for the future."

Among those who would emerge included the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, which began to rebuild the very street that Jimmy Carter had visited.

But absent the robust engagement of architects, these organizations rebuilt the densest New York City neighborhood outside of Manhattan by adopting a nostalgic model of "Levittown in the South Bronx": single-family houses on quarter-acre lots.

In time, this new generation of institutional actors in America's poorest communities would grow to become one of the most powerful forces in remaking our communities. Around it has now grown up a whole "Third Sector" of institutions that include not just community development corporations but foundations, non-profits and intermediaries that support them.

But without the partnership of the architectural community, efforts like the rebuilding of the South Bronx represent not only a rebirth -- but also a lost opportunity.

Now, however, with efforts like the New Housing New York Legacy Project, we have shown that a reengaged public sector can bring architects and Third Sector partners to the table -- to recapture the early spirit I spoke of but also transfer it to a contemporary context.

Indeed, this collaboration between New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and AIA's New York chapter represents a 21st century way of designing and building affordable housing.

I was proud to partner with Rick Bell as we organized a competition that attracted 32 architect development teams from around the world -- challenging them with a jury made up not only of architects like Enrique Norton and Lawrence Scarpa, but also a landscape architect, psychologist, community residents and others to ensure a broad spectrum of perspectives, experiences and disciplines were considered.

The winner, Dattner Architects and Grimshaw--working with Jonathan Rose Companies, a for-profit developer with a reputation for social engagement, and the Phipps Houses, a CDC with a long history in affordable housing--didn't see the existing neighborhood as a disease to be cured or a problem to be solved.

Rather, they saw local assets as something to build on.

And they didn't tell residents what they needed.

Rather, they began by listening -- as Michael Kimmelman wrote in his very first piece as the New York Times' architectural critic, "by asking people in the neighborhood what kind of building they wanted."

What these partners heard was that residents wanted a healthy building and community.

The result has been not simply green roofs and compact fluorescents, but, as Kimmelman wrote, "footprints of the buildings made narrower than usual to allow apartments to wrap around the central courtyard and give them two outside exposures for cross ventilation…

"…Staircases were placed before the elevators in the hallways and the stairwells were given windows, to nudge people to walk…"

"…A fitness center [devised] not for the basement but for the…40,000-square-feet of terraced roof atop the town houses planted with garden plots and fruit trees."

Indeed, not only does this building--aptly named Via Verde--include a green market that provides the kind of access to fresh fruits and vegetables that is too often missing from our poorest neighborhoods -- but by selling food grown on the stepped roof of the building, it gives the children who grow up there a connection to the place food comes from.

Time will tell. But in stark contrast to Howard Roark and the earlier generation of affordable housing architecture that is literally being dynamited as we speak, as Kimmelman put it, "the greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it is cherished."

As I look forward to attending its ribbon cutting next month, Via Verde reminds us that as architects, for us to be productive contributors to this discussion, we must engage with those communities again -- not as a tabula rasa but in a way that is about people, places, and the assets and institutions embedded there.

So, too, does it make clear our charge in the public sector -- not to turn the clock back to the days of Urban Renewal but to find a new way of engaging based on local leadership and local assets.

A way of engaging that is strong--that makes big plans and captures the diversity of urban life--but is also, for a change, humble.

A New Federalist Approach

And let there be no doubt: there is a need for big plans -- for boldness and vision.

Just as Urban Renewal grew out of a crisis, we are in a moment of crisis yet again -- one that in some ways has been as devastating to neighborhoods as the one a half century ago.

We can't afford to be timid -- as architects, as policymakers, as we rebuild neighborhoods and rethink our metropolitan geography.

Or, as Rahm Emanuel put it, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

And so I wanted to talk about three distinct frames the Obama Administration has devised to make this new model I've described real in a time of great urgency -- to provide the kind of federal partnership that engages architects and the architectural community and establishes those ever-important connections with Third Sector actors.

The first is at the neighborhood level.

Indeed, with the Recovery Act, and efforts like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, we began to engage in a different way.

We've just gone through a crisis that has created a terrible spiral of decline in some neighborhoods -- one that if we hadn't stepped in could well have produced another South Bronx.

Neighborhood Stabilization is about reversing that cycle by investing in these neighborhoods in a way that puts the fire out before it spreads.

Indeed, in a place like Cleveland where there are 18,000 vacant properties and houses often sell for less than a new car, focused neighborhood stabilization efforts have reduced vacancy rates by as much as 40 percent.

And as I saw at the workshop for the "Foreclosed: Re-Housing the American Dream" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art last year, architects can be leaders in reimagining neighborhoods.

Building on this momentum, President Obama has proposed a new $15 billion Project Rebuild.

A dramatic expansion of our neighborhood stabilization efforts, Project Rebuild would include a $5 billion competition that would make non profits and other local actors directly eligible for the funds.

Project Rebuild will provide an opportunity to begin re-visioning places such as Cleveland, New Orleans and Detroit.

And it would do so in a different way than we saw during Urban Renewal, by bringing together a series of community groups with state universities and a range of other partners to re-imagine inner-city neighborhoods and suburban communities at a very large scale, not simply house-by-house or block-by-block.

Given the enormous opportunity for architect engagement under Project Rebuild--and the fact that it would create 200,000 jobs in the communities that need them most--my hope is that the AIA will make their voices heard in support Senator Reed's Project Rebuild bill.

Designing Sustainable Communities

Of course, efforts at a neighborhood scale are only effective to the extent that they connect neighborhoods to the regional landscape and the broader economy.

Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in this crisis were often the least sustainable in the broadest sense -- disconnected from good schools and transportation to jobs, where alternatives like walking or biking are virtually unavailable.

In many ways, this was a symptom of the culture in our financial system that inflated and burst the housing bubble -- that said, if you can't afford a home near a job or transportation, just keep driving.

Drive until you find a home that you can afford -- and that you can qualify for.

As a result, we have entire suburban subdivisions where 10 percent of the homes constructed have occupants today.

The average American family today spends 52 cents of every dollar they earn on just housing and transportation -- and five times as much time stuck in traffic commuting as they did a quarter century ago.

Little wonder then that people are voting with their feet more and more -- moving back into central cities and inner ring suburbs. And to be sure, President Obama's focus on passing the transportation bill that dramatically increases our investment in infrastructure and creates an infrastructure bank represents an enormous opportunity to leverage the increased value surrounding transit stops into the greater density and real mixed-income housing we need in these communities.

But better integrating our neighborhoods requires us to better integrate our thinking as well -- in particular, neighborhood level planning with planning at the metropolitan scale.

That's why the second frame we are using to engage the design community is by reversing the legacy of the Federal government which encouraged the hollowing out of our cities.

Remember that the demise of the South Bronx was accelerated by the building of federal interstates that cut through its core and facilitated white flight.

This Administration is supplying planning resources communities can use to begin re-thinking about how infrastructure investment connects to zoning, land use and housing.

Toward that end, we forged what's known as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities that brings together HUD with the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency.

This partnership represents the single largest federal investment in planning in a generation.

But in stark contrast to the one-size-fits all approach of Urban Renewal that would tell communities what to do and how, in this Administration we are providing the tools for them to collaborate and plan based on their economic and architectural assets and their competitive advantages.

Providing $270 million to date, these grants allow communities to forge a new wave of transportation zoning, building code, and land use reform.

And in an economy where America's metros are hotbeds of innovation--today generating 90 percent of our economic output--these tools allow communities that share problems to start sharing solutions.

Unfortunately, Congress eliminated these funds from this year's budget. That is why I am asking the AIA today to express support for restoring this funding in the coming year -- to help us make the case that smart planning and design is essential to strong, resilient and successful communities.

The third frame this Administration has used to engage the architectural and design communities is to see the arts in an integrated way with these strategies.

To recognize that the quality of design--and the incorporation of the arts into design--is essential to economic development.

To this end, the efforts I've described make a broader point about quality of place.

In our old economy, people moved to where the jobs were. And back then, whole cities were one-company towns.

Well, in today's information economy, it's the other way around. Capital and jobs follow people, and talent is mobile. And what that talent is looking for is quality of place -- dynamic, diverse neighborhoods, whether in cities or suburbs.

That means nurturing a vibrant arts community isn't just about amenities or entertainment -- it's about economic development.

It's about designing communities that are diverse, resilient and economically vibrant.

That's why, with the leadership of Rocco Landesman and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Obama Administration is working to support the arts as an economic development tool.

And indeed, in many hard-hit places, the arts and design are proving central to the turnaround.

In Minnesota, where construction of a major light rail along University Avenue connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul has the potential to open up access to jobs and opportunity for the neighborhoods it serves, 100 artists trained in community engagement are working with local businesses and residents.

Reversing the damage of Urban Renewal, which built an interstate to run directly through the Central Corridor--tearing apart neighborhoods and cutting them off from opportunity--artists and the community are working together in the Twin Cities to create a lasting cultural identity for the corridor.

AIA understands this as well. As some of you may have heard during the Architecture and the City Festival in San Francisco last year, the GOOD Ideas for Cities collaborative is engaging architects and other design professionals in tackling urban challenges in 6 cities across the country.

This project was awarded one of NEA's first ArtPlace grants -- and represents exactly the kind of engagement this Administration believes our communities need not simply to recover but to reimagine themselves for the 21st century.

A New Era of Civic Engagement

At the outset of my remarks, I mentioned the cycle of engagement and disengagement of our nation's architects in the last century -- and my own experience, disillusionment and frustration with the ways that design too rarely engaged with--or listened to--the needs of our poorest communities.

As an architecture student at Harvard's School of Design, it's what drove me across town to work in a homeless shelter and study housing policy at the Kennedy School of Government.

The lesson of Urban Renewal wasn't not to try.

It wasn't not to fail.

It was to listen.

It was to engage.

Whether at HUD or the NEA--through ArtPlace or the Mayors Institute on City Design--we are doing our part to engage at the federal level.

Now, we need all of you to as well.

To reject what your chief executive, Robert Ivy, has described as the "binge culture" of the last decade and realize the promise of these hopeful new directions in the public sphere.

To pull architecture out of a period of materialism and timidity and into a new era of boldness, vision and ambition, and, yes, humility.

President Obama has often said that in an economy built to last, everyone gets a fair shot -- and everyone does their fair share.

At this moment, with our challenges so great, as so many of your members have before you, we need you to do your part -- your fair share.

That is the challenge I pose to you this morning. And if past is prologue, it is one I know you can meet.

Thank you.


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