Influencing Communities Through Architecture: A Reflection on AIA Grassroots 2018

SGA Design Group recently attended the AIA’s Grassroots 2018 Conference in San Diego, California. Eric Miller, Senior Associate with SGA, was there to capture thoughts on architecture from a wide range of speakers at the conference.  Eric is the current President-Elect for AIA Eastern Oklahoma.


Eric Miller

12 Angry Men is a movie from 1957 about an architect, played by Henry Fonda, who used his career skills to unite the jurors in a murder trial. 2018 AIA Grassroots was about our influence, as architects, in our community. This year’s theme was “Leading Through Influence.” What can architects do to move social and economic change? For one, get involved locally. Anaheim, CA Mayor Tom Trait, part of the mayors panel discussion at the conference, said “by nature, architects are problem solvers.” Mayor Chuck Travis of Cornelius, NC pled “our local communities need people that will listen to different viewpoints, gather information and help make the right decisions.” Liz Gibbons, formerly the mayor of Campbell, CA reminded us that solutions can be found right outside our door. This was the resounding theme of the conference and many of the speakers highlighted the “Blueprint for Better Communities” program. This program is designed to identify relevant social issues, initiate participatory community events, programs or projects, use creative storytelling skills to communicate the effort and serve as a conduit between local and national organizations. This is highlighted in AIA’s #LookUp media campaign. This campaign is designed to elevate public awareness of the impact and importance of the architectural profession by asking everyone to “look up” and engage in a conversation on the value of architects and architecture.

The first morning of the conference I was on my way down in the elevator when, to my surprise, Bill Bates introduced himself to me. Bill Bates will serve as AIA’s President in 2019. I was really taken by not only how approachable he was, but how eager he was to engage with all of us. Mr. Bates exemplifies the importance of rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. During one of his speaking opportunities, Bill presented a challenge for us to use our influence to claim a seat at the table and make change happen. He said, “architects need to step in to the decision making process in our local communities.” Bill quoted a Harris Poll that stated architects are the 7th most prestigious profession but so much of the community doesn’t understand their involvement in the built environment. He talked about the movement of urban revitalization that is sweeping across the country. People are moving back to the cities. With that comes the opportunity to re-energize not only the architecture but the social and economic core of the urban community.

There were several panel discussions. One of those was composed of urban planners from around the country. Daniel Hart, FAIA from Midland TX, was the moderator of the panel that included Sam Assefa, director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development; David Dixon, FAIA, Vice President of Stantec’s Urban Places team; and Toni Griffin, Assoc. AIA, professor in practice of urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. David talked about the hesitation of architects to get involved, fearing clients would not engage with politically active architects. Toni talked about her transition from architect to planner. She said that she started to see the city beyond the simple placement of buildings and began to understand who got what in the community. She talked about how, in her community of Chicago, the urban environment would be better served by interaction.

As retail architects, we can have a dramatic impact on our community. A well planned development will not only provide access to goods and services but also employment and security. This will not only improve the built environment but also the lives of those who live here.  The AIA Grassroots Conference reminded me of the importance and duty we have as architects to make a difference in our local communities.