America is such a diverse country. It encompasses geographic locations as diverse as the Mississippi delta, Bethel in Alaska, New York City, San Antonio in Texas, Hawaii and the Great Lakes. And it encompasses even more diversity in its community types — from rural to tribal to suburban and urban.
But despite this diversity there are many common themes that unite us. One of those themes is the current housing crisis and the question of how we will solve it.
It’s important to understand that diversity is a result of the people and an expression of their environment and community values. This is what creates something that is unique and individual to a place. In the same way, buildings and communities also have an opportunity to be designed in concert with the values, ambitions, aesthetics and goals of the people that occupy them, both those responsible for creating them and those who will live and grow in those communities.
So, what role should an architect play in building local communities? In recent years the architect’s role has grown and changed and it is still evolving. An architect’s role should not only be to build distinct projects and beautiful buildings, but it should also help knit together the blocks of housing, libraries and parks into a community where residents feel supported and are able to live well and grow their families. For community-based development groups, a dedicated architect can be an important resource to help with the ins and outs of affordable housing development, community engagement and regulatory processes.
Katie Swenson is such a community architect. Over the many years she has spent working on affordable housing, she has always been a powerful advocate for equitable cities and communities. Her work with the Enterprise Rose Fellowship Program taught her a lot about the role of architects in local communities — architects who approach their work with a desire to help communities achieve their goals and who bring the best resources from the architectural and design communities to bear in this local work.
In 2020 Katie became a senior principal at MASS Design, a design practice that embraces issues of economic and social equity. Katie believes that the importance of home, especially as revealed by the Covid19 Pandemic, has never been so important. “Buildings shape us, they shape our experience. They shape our health outcomes.” says Katie. “We need to ask more of our buildings and participate in a greater spatial awareness and spatial literacy to understand the profound effects that the built environment in general, and the buildings that we occupy in specific, have on our health outcomes and our quality of life and productivity outcomes and that we gain a sort of awareness and capabilities around our ambitions for the built environment.”
Listen to my interview with Katie Swenson.
Image by Jonathan Greene