Autumn is talk time. In the space of 36 hours last week, I attended two unrelated conferences, one in Washington and the other in Charlottesville, where discussions differed but policy issues overlapped.
"Trends and Prospects for Housing and Community Development at State and Local Levels" -- quite a mouthful -- was the subject of a colloquy sponsored by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). Not surprisingly, most of the attendees were state and local housing and redevelopment officials.
Invited to open the session with a brief keynote speech, I was, I think, the only architect there.
The other conference was titled "How We Build: The Relationships That Shape Our Environment" and was presented by students of the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Participants included architecture students and faculty, urban planners and historians, developers, contractors, financiers and government officials. Here, too, I was asked to provide some introductory overview remarks.
Both conferences implicitly addressed similar questions. Who really controls the physical environment and the resources needed to develop it? What are and should be the respective roles of participants in the development process -- governments, developers, planners, architects, financial institutions, the public -- when it comes to making and carrying out development plans? Who should pay for it all, and how?
However, the two conference agendas suggested even more basic social, political and economic questions about private versus public interests, about the individual versus the collective, about centralization versus decentralization.
The NAHRO colloquy focused on reviewing and assessing initiatives taken by municipal, county and state governments and nonprofit community organizations to finance, build or manage housing. Case studies demonstrated current trends, as well as future ones.
In particular, conferees were asked to recount specific new tactics -- related to zoning, land writedowns, housing linkage, trust funds for housing and other public facilities, mortgage financing, private -- public partnerships -- that generate more revenue for housing and other public programs in an era when the federal government is providing diminishing economic support.
Indeed, one positive result of recent federal policy has been to elevate the level of ingenuity exhibited by many, though not all, local public agencies.
The perception of NAHRO conferees was that the capabilities of local agencies and the people staffing them have risen in the face of reduced federal intervention. Necessity has been the mother of invention, motivating officials to devise innovative programs for dealing with communitywide problems, instead of just expediting projects piecemeal whenever funds arrive from Uncle Sam.
Nevertheless, local initiatives were judged insufficient. The NAHRO colloquy attendees still see the federal government as a primary provider of subsidies. Housing must become a national, not just a local, priority.
Coupled with newly developed local mechanisms for leveraging resources and influencing growth and redevelopment, flexible federal assistance will be indispensable in alleviating long-term problems, especially the shrinking supply of low-income housing.
In an effort to expand the NAHRO agenda slightly beyond managerial process and policy questions, I took the liberty of suggesting that housing officials should become more design conscious, if not design advocates.
Creating an orderly environment should accompany creation of an orderly process, no matter how limited resources are.
Meanwhile, not far from Thomas Jefferson's rotunda and lawn, conferees at the University of Virginia Architecture School were examining case studies illuminating interactions among those who finance, design, construct and regulate development.
In fact, the university conference and its title reflect clearly the need for greater communication and understanding between people and institutions who, while ultimately contributing to the same results, often operate with conflicting values and objectives, contrasting methods and adversarial attitudes.
Attendees looked at Grand Avenue in Milwaukee, a commercial project involving the Rouse Co.; Xerox's 2,000-plus acre Lansdowne project in Loudoun County; and Queen Charlotte Square, a condominium and office project in Charlottesville.
Developers, architects, public planning officials, contractors and investors associated with the projects were invited to explain how each project was conceived.
Presentations and discussion clearly emphasized the importance of teamwork, of communication and of understanding the points of view of others participating in the process.
The conference suggested that, as relationships become more complex and resources more constrained in the future, more partnerships and closer collaboration will be required, not only between traditionally adversarial private entities, but also between private enterprise and public institutions at all levels.
Yet permeating much of the dialogue was the recognition that the conference's how-we-build theme also posed questions of why we build and for whom we build.
Thus, some of the speakers and many of the students and faculty probed deeper, going beyond exploration of connections and communication between development team players.
They wondered about public and private priorities, about haves and have-nots.
Why, for example, did all the case studies consist of upscale projects for the upper-middle class? Can developers, designers, investors and government agencies collaborate to produce low-income housing or reduce traffic congestion?
Partnerships seem well disposed to build single, attractive, one-of-a-kind projects, but where's the team -- and who's in charge of it -- shaping cities and suburbs?
Predictably, Northern Virginia often was mentioned as the best example of a clear and present failure to shape properly the built environment, notwithstanding its collection of amenities.
Is Tysons Corner the future, many wondered, the concrete manifestation of the ability to collaborate effectively in making the trees while forgetting the forest?
Attention was directed at the relative missions of local, state and federal governments, just as it was at the NAHRO colloquy.
Government too often seems to be following -- Loudoun County and Lansdowne being the case in point -- rather than leading development.
Political institutions seem to lack the skills, resources and commitment needed to guide and regulate growth before it's already occurred.
And there was much talk at the end about the need for hammering out a collective vision, some formal framework that could shape the landscape just as Jefferson shaped his university and Pierre L'Enfant shaped Washington.
Accompanying such a physical vision might be an updated social, economic and political charter reinforcing the idea of building through private-public partnerships while serving all segments of the population.
Both the NAHRO and University of Virginia conferences suggested substantially changing current public policies -- at both local and national levels -- to cope with the future that we're designing today.
But it will only happen if the public cares. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.