A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on leadership for the AIA 2013 Convention “blog off”. Seventeen architects contributed, many of the posts were rather good. In ways that I don’t quite understand, our collective musings will contribute to the Convention theme.

In one post, Doug Wignall, an architect from Nebraska, trotted out Whitney Young, Jr.’s famous quote chastising the attendees of the 1968 AIA Convention. I was in 6th grade at the time and couldn’t attend. I suspect Doug wasn’t there either, but Mr. Young was reported to have addressed the opening plenary by saying:

“. . . you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights . . . you are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

I have no reason to doubt Mr. Young’s assessment, but this quote has stuck in my craw since I first read it. And later, at the 2000 AIA Convention in Philadelphia, (I was in attendance that year) Andrew Young took up the charge again, challenging architects to do something – anything – to help fight poverty: in his view, the root cause of crime and racism. I left Philadelphia scratching my head. What can architects do about things like civil rights and poverty?

At the time, I figured that “green building” was the greatest good architects could do. Environmentally responsible design? Sounded pretty noble to me. And as I came to understand green building as part of sustainability – the whole three-legged-stool thing – I could appreciate architecture’s role in environmental stewardship and economic viability. But again that third leg – social equity – seemed out of reach. Those admonitions from famous American civil rights leaders would just have to go unanswered.

Hence the concern: my architecture firm has signed the AIA 2030 Commitment. We’re working hard to drive down our buildings’ energy use and reduce the production of atmospheric greenhouse gasses that are destabilizing the world’s climate. This work benefits everyone, right? So what’s the big deal if we can’t address social equity directly?

But we can. And should.

A community is not sustainable when prosperity is not equally shared. The fundamental purpose of buildings (and interior spaces) is to facilitate human prosperity. A lot of people benefit from what we do; those people are usually our clients. But we can use our design talents so that members of our community who don’t or can’t normally benefit from our projects can prosper as well.

Call it social sustainability. Here are a few examples:

Active Design: Active design means thinking about how the buildings and spaces we create can encourage physical activity. Last week, I spoke at “Fit City Boston”, a one-day summit hosted by theBSA with the Boston Public Health Commission. We learned that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma are at epidemic levels in the USA. The sedentary lifestyle of urban dwellers is partly to blame, and neighborhoods with limited access to useable public open spaces are particularly vulnerable.

These diseases are ravaging our at-risk neighborhoods. Active design is part of the social sustainability solution.

Universal Design: The things we design must be useable to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, ability or status in life. It’s a fact. The attractive, prominent stairs and cycle tracks and jogging paths that active design promotes are great, but not all of our fellow citizens can use them. And since 11.5% of Massachusetts residents are disabled in some way and 19.2% of Bostonians are over age 55 (this blogger included!), this is not a small segment of our community.

Design that excludes people based on their physical capabilities is inequitable and therefore not sustainable. Universal design is also part of the social sustainability solution.

Public Interest Design: Many of the people who could benefit the most from the prosperity-boosting effects of design either don’t have access to architects or can’t afford to hire them. When architects donate their time and energy to serve under-resourced communities and engage a project’s users in the design process, it’s called public interest design. Sam Mockbee – perhaps the godfather of this movement – put public interest design on the map in the 1993 with the Rural Studio at Auburn University. This big umbrella concept now includes the work of many organizations we already know such as Architecture for Humanity, MASS Design Group, Design Corps, and the BSA’s ownCommunity Design Resource Center.

Promoting social sustainability. It’s what public interest design is all about.

There you have it. None of these ideas will help you meet your AIA 2030 Commitment energy use reduction goals. But they will help you make the world a better place.

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA.

Published May 14, 2013