While the country staggers towards economic stability, the design professions are feeling their worst economic times since the Great Depression. Depending on the region of the country, the unemployment and underemployment rate for design professionals is anywhere from 20% to 50%. I feel this daily as President of the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and as an owner of a small architecture / planning firm. What I hope to convey to you in this note is not just the seriousness of our situation, but how you can help at the Federal level while achieving your stated goals of preparing the country for long-term economic and environmental prosperity.
As someone who is generally an optimist, it pains me to write something that is so overly negative. However, the economic situation today is dire for architects, engineers, planners and anyone involved in design. Simply put, all of us have friends and colleagues who are highly qualified, talented individuals that have no work. All of us in ownership situations have had to lay off trusted employees, who have little hope of finding full-time employment. College graduates are facing a job market that is essentially non-existent.
It’s also safe to say that the majority of these folks are people who support the Administration’s agenda of progressive energy policy, transportation reform, environmental advocacy and health care reform. In other words, these are some of your core constituents, who have much talent to offer the country.
And with all due respect, tax credits for new employees, or tax credits of most any kind are worthless to those of us in the design industries. We cannot hire because there is no work, not because we need a tax incentive to do so. Our clients are not proceeding with projects, even in markets where the economy is stable, because lenders will essentially not do any new lending for development projects. The credit markets on Main Street are tighter than they have ever been in many of our lifetimes.
What can be done, then? Plenty. The Recovery Act had many of the right ideals, but lacked proper implementation of those ideals to help maximize the dollars spent. For example, focusing solely on “shovel-ready” projects only benefits a few contractors and subcontractors on the construction side. And, this is not to mention that many of those projects were “on the shelf” because they were poorly conceived, and didn’t meet the needs of the 21st century.
Instead, any additional stimulus or Federal money spent going forward should focus on how to a) create as many jobs in the supply chain as possible, and b) match up with the Administration’s goals on Sustainability and Livability.
The best way to do this is to fund new efforts now that require the work of architects, engineers, planners and more. By doing so, not only do you help to create jobs in this important sector, but you also get the additional benefit of construction jobs on the back-end of the projects. Funding projects that require thoughtful design solves a) and b) above, and additionally benefits all taxpayers as we move towards more efficiency in the use of resources.
What are some examples of how to do this? The list is much longer than what I have noted below, but some examples include:
- Grants supporting new plans for municipalities and local governments, emphasizing Livable Communities goals.
- Grants supporting new form-based zoning and zoning reform for local governments
- Grants supporting Complete Streets approaches to transportation, as well as planning for integrated land use and transportation plans.
- Grants for design of civic structures and public parks and plazas
- Bond issues for design and construction of new educational facilities
- Seed money for micro-loan programs that implement the planning efforts above
Any of these efforts would be, like many New Deal programs, a long-term investment in the future health of our country. In fact, we can still point today with pride at many of the structures and public spaces that were built in the 1930’s as some of our most-loved places.
In addition, all of these prepare us for a more economically and environmentally sustainable future. Mr. President, you recognized early in your term that we cannot keep building sprawl forever and ever – that we realize now it’s too inefficient and doesn’t meet the needs of our citizens. This is never more evident than in an economic downturn, and it will be even more apparent as worldwide oil supplies put pressure on our lifestyle in the near future.
So in summary, what you have before you now is an opportunity to have a true win-win situation. Put people to work now. Create thoughtful long-term solutions. Help the country make the transition to a more prosperous and livable future.
Please do the right thing – we stand ready to help.
Kevin Klinkenberg, AIA
Principal – 180 Urban Design & Architecture
AIAKC 2010 President