1. Join your colleagues, and push them further. Ask your local chapter of the AIA, APA, ASLA or other professional organizations what they’re doing to further sustainability in your region and beyond. You can also network with local visionaries through professional outreach organizations like Architecture for Humanity, or Architects Without Borders.
2. Join a cross-disciplinary conversation. Alicia Daniels Uhlig, an associate and co-chair of the Sustainable Design Group at GGLO in Seattle, is active with the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (a local branch of the USGBC), which spans building-related professions from construction and engineering to architecture and development and beyond. “That’s really where it’s strength is, because you’re broadening your horizons, you’re talking to people with different opinions,” says Uhlig. “You have the ability to ask, for example, what are the hot-button issues from the commercial developers? How can we address that? And you learn how to improve your storytelling [to a client or colleague].” (The CRGBC in particular has been aggressive about finding out where barriers to living buildings still remain, and making that information available to its network.) At the very local level, Portland’s Coalition for a Livable Future and the Seattle Great City Initiative come to mind.
3. Support good candidates, or run for office. Taking up the mantle of politics can seem like an intimidating proposition to someone outside City Hall. But, as Steinbrueck says, if architects and designers don’t lend their expertise to legislative bodies, it’s hard to expect much to change. Steinbrueck and colleagues are working with AIA to build resources for its Citizen Architects, including a forthcoming directory that will allow members to network and support one another in the political arena.
4. Become a politically engaged citizen. If you want to remain firmly in the design profession, take a seat on a planning commission or design review board. These institutions have been in place a long time, and can get mired in conventional or even outdated ways of thinking and doing things. Bring your knowledge of sustainable building practices to the table and refresh the process for your neighborhood, city or region. Even if you can’t commit to serving, you can still make a valuable contribution by attending meetings and speaking from a citizen’s perspective.
5. Write about it. Writing and publishing in industry journals is important, but getting the designer’s perspective into the mainstream can open up a whole different conversation. Though we’re biased, we believe in the power of blogging, which has the advantage of real-time flexibility and audience interactivity. Dan Bertolet has successfully built HugeAssCity into a widely read public debate on the best and worst in planning and architecture in Seattle. Another Seattle-based site, the Columbia Citizens neighborhood wiki, attracts regular input from planners and designers that helps raise public awareness of neighborhood projects.
6. Talk about it … unconventionally. Unconferences, unconventions, webinars and similarly informal forums are increasingly the go-to events for those seeking cutting-edge innovations and ideas. Some of the leaders in this arena include Pop!Tech, Design Indaba, PICNIC, Foo Camp and BarCamp. (The CRGBC’s Living Future forum in Portland, Ore. is coming up next week, and Worldchanging’s Sarah Kuck will be there reporting.)
7. Get behind an issue. In 2004, a multidisciplinary team of designers led by landscape architect Cary Moon won second prize in Metropolis magazine’s national Next Generation: Big Idea competition with their highway-less vision for Seattle’s downtown waterfront, which is currently blocked off by the elevated strip of I-99. Moon went on to found the People’s Waterfront Coalition to mobilize local groups around the issue of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and used national data on highway deconstruction and to back up her compelling argument for not rebuilding the highway. Her efforts gained attention in local politics and national debate. Though Washington state ultimately did not choose the surface/transit alternative that the PWC supported (they are instead planning an underground tunnel, though costs are drawing controversy), many are happy that the Viaduct will not be replaced by another elevated highway. The lesson: if you’re passionate about it, go after it.
8. Get engaged in open-source government. Citizens often understand the needs of their communities more deeply than policy makers. Working collaboratively, it’s likely they could develop policies that enable holistic solutions at the local level. On Tuesday, Open Government NYC, hosted a Collaborative Policy Building Workshop to figure out how just such a process might work. The NYC group’s slogan is “people helping government help people,” and it’s possibly the most proactive form of protest we’ve ever heard of.