by Christina Noble, AIA, LEED AP
Originally published in Forward Architecture and Design Journal, a national design journal for the American Institute of Architects, Fall 2011

“Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change – this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.”

— Bruce Barton

As Stanford economist Paul Romer pronounced, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”  The Great Recession has pummeled our 401(k)s, short circuited recent graduates’ careers and left many jobless and pondering their economic uncertainty.  However, rather than accepting fate, many are finding strength in adaptability. Through a process of trial and error, vanguards are overcoming their fears to achieve “clearer vision, fresh hope.  And out of hope, progress.”  This is not a new process  - throughout our history adaptability has been a quintessential American attribute.  Pushing through the Long Depression[i], the US transitioned from agriculture to industry.   Following the Great Depression[ii] we became a quickly expanding economy intent on production, consumption, and suburban sprawl.

Being 77 million strong, the Boomers are the demographic reason for the shape of our cities today.  Born between 1946 and 1964 their desire for the American Dream, inspired by images of Leave It to Beaver and the Chevy ad campaign, “See the USA in your Chevrolet,” expanded our cities into suburbs shaped by the automobile, sanitized by disposable towels and extricated from unsavory neighbors too poor to afford the mobility offered by the American Dream.  As white Americans fled to the suburbs, black Americans marched for equal rights to achieve the same access to prosperity.  Boomers experienced first-hand, and some were active participants in, the social changes initiated in the 1960s.  The legacies left by the Boomer generation can be directly attributed to their youthful exuberance aided by the vast numbers of optimistic teens emerging into young adulthood throughout the 60s and 70s.

Millennials, with 76 million born between 1977 and 1994, are not too dissimilar from their parents in terms of numbers.  The largest group of Millennials graduated from college in 2009[iii] just as the economy was taking a nosedive.  Faced with few traditional job prospects, especially in the architecture field decimated by the housing bust, many of these graduates have been forced to seek alternate means to create a career.  While the choices made are interesting and discussed within this issue of Forward – humanitarian pursuits, community activism, the food movement, and filmmaking – I’m also curious to understand what I believe has led to an increasing inclination on the part of Millenials toward social entrepreneurship and creativity.

“Millennials are not allowing those who have preceded them to define their personal or professional identities.”

— .

First of all, I think numbers have a lot to do with it.  With numerous youth emerging on a market that cannot support them, Millennials cannot help but seek alternate means of keeping themselves busy.  They are not allowing those who have preceded them to define their personal or professional identities.  In addition, inherited optimism from their parents (epitomized by the Nike ad campaign “Just Do It”), increased globalization, and growing awareness of climate change combined to create a perfect storm of 76 million potential entrepreneurs who will not allow adversity to trump opportunity.

Also, Millennials have reason to be optimistic.  They have seen the positive results of much of their parents’ hard work.  In only a few decades we have progressed from civil rights and women’s lib activists marching for equality (granted, we still have further to go) to seeing a woman and a black man battling for the White House.  We’ve watched the Berlin Wall fall, the launch of countless missions into outer space, and the first black president sworn into office on our television screens.  More recently our Twitter feeds have broken the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden and the rise of the Arab Spring.  Why not be optimistic?

In addition, technology has created a much more interconnected world where news from across the globe can be read in 140 characters or less, in seconds.  As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, contrary to popular belief, the world is not round – it is flat.  In contrast with the origins of globalization in 1492, when Columbus returned to recount that the world was round and countries expanded their territorial power across the Atlantic Ocean, today’s flattening is empowering individuals.  Individuals are able to use global communication technology to collaborate with anyone, anywhere.  Peter Taylor and Robert Lang illustrate the power of global connectedness in their research paper, ‘US Cities in the World City Network.’ Taylor and Lang believe the economic connectedness between cities is more correlated with shared financial and business interests than with geography. For example, New York is the American city most connected to Pacific Asia rather than Los Angeles.  Seattle has very little connection to Asia at all while Amsterdam and London have the strongest connections.[iv] Technology has made this possible.

However, while technology eases collaboration with anyone, anywhere (in fact, our Forward editors and authors stretch across the globe,) cities are not losing their relevance.  Instead, they are growing.  Over half the world’s population lives in an urban setting.  This number will grow to 75 percent by 2050.  In addition, as Richard Florida has researched, creatives and technologists tend to cluster with each other and are especially drawn to only a few world cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York and San Francisco,[v] three of which are in the top 20 of Taylor and Lang’s globally connected cities.  These global cities allow for even greater creativity and ingenuity as creative centers that “through their economic heft and trend-setting nature” will “act as portals in determining much of our collective civilization.”[vi]


“We have a great deal of work to do”

— .

As a result, our cities better get it right.  Cities create more than 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  According to the American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air report, 154.4 million Americans, over half of the population, live with polluted air often too dangerous to breathe.[vii]  With a swiftly urbanizing population, the need to clean our cities becomes that much more important.[viii] Unfortunately, technology alone will not save us.  As Andrew Ross describes in his recently published book, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the Word’s Least Sustainable City:

“Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.”10

Solving this problem has become the mission of several organizations and young designers today.  For example, the Rose Fellowship, a program enlisting the design talent of thirty-five young architects, each dedicated to community development for three years, integrates ‘Green Communities’ criteria into every project.  These criteria ensure that all affordable housing developments incorporate water conservation, energy efficiency, and environmentally friendly materials.  In addition, sustainability is not just viewed as increased energy efficiency – it is about social and economic sustainability as well.  Projects must also be safe, ensure healthy environments and be easily accessible to jobs, schools and public transportation.  In addition, programs such as Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture’s 1% Program also enlist the design talents of the profession at-large by organizing “pro bono,” design services, or services “for good,” from over 900 firms and 50,000 professionals.  Through these programs, architects are called upon to implement projects true to a higher sense of sustainability:  “thoughtful, inclusive design [that] creates lasting change in communities”11 for those most in need of basic services (or as Ross would put it, the “other 80%.”)   These programs focus on socially sustainable projects that provide access to what we all deserve: clean water and power, a safe home, and uplifting buildings of quality construction that also addresses climate change.

So, I ask the question again – why be optimistic?  We have a great deal of work to do and countless problems to solve.  The Great Recession need not be a time to sit back and wait for the economy to return to a state of “irrational exuberance” but instead an opportunity to consider Barton’s statement, “Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.”  Now is the time to pursue the multiplicity of opportunities we have to impact the world and design a better place – for everyone.

[i] From 1873–79 and lasting 65 months the Long Depression is the longest-lasting contraction.  “Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions,” National Bureau of Economic Research. (accessed October 4, 2011)

[ii] From 1929 – 1933, lasting 43 months.  Ibid.

[iii] Leinberger, Christopher B., “The Next Real Estate Boom,” The Brookings Institution,  November 2010. (accessed October 2011).

[iv] Taylor, Peter J. and Robert E. Lang.  “US Cities in the World City Network,” The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, Survey Series.  February 2005. (accessed October 2011).

[v] Florida, Richard and Tim Gulden.  “The World is Spiky,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 2005, pp. 48-51.

[vi] Hoornweg et al., “Cities and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Moving Forward.”  Environment and Urbanization 2011 23 (1).

[vii] “State of the Air 2011,” American Lung Association. (accessed November 2011)

[viii] This isn’t to say, however, that we should continue the trend of moving to the suburbs.  When taken on a per capita basis, those who live in denser locations emit half the greenhouse gases of their suburban neighbors.  In Toronto, a city-dweller on the edge of suburban sprawl emits 11.5 times as much CO2 emissions than their friend living in a downtown apartment with access to public transportation.9 While some of these statistics vary based on a city’s characteristics that are beyond the control of its individual inhabitants – elements such as having an international airport, a seaport, a hot climate or being located in a valley – others are within our power to change via lifestyle choices.  Fortunately, many are making just such choices.

9 “Cities and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Moving Forward.”  Hoornweg et al. Environment and Urbanization 2011 23 (1).

10 Ross, Andrew.  Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, November 3, 2011).


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