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    Credit: William Stewart

This past summer I received an email from Mindy Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University and a research psychiatrist at New York State Polytechnic Institute. She wrote to me about a conference organized by AIA New York, AIA New Jersey, and AIA Connecticut:

“I think this conference was an example of a new position for AIA: It took place in Newark. It brought together people who hadn’t met before. It built on early successes in [Superstorm] Sandy volunteering, and it opened the deeper conversation of what architects might bring to the regional project of managing rising tides. There was lots of diversity in the room. The meeting provided a strong platform from which to build a relevant place in the future.”

As one of the AIA Board’s two public directors, Fullilove shines a light on the value that this position on resilient design brings to the deliberations which ultimately lead to the policies and positions that guide the AIA.

The position of public director, which was created 36 years ago, possesses all the rights and privileges of a board member, including debating and voting at board meetings. Coming from widely different backgrounds, the AIA’s public directors represent a way to reach out to their constituencies in government, science, business, media, and the arts. Even more important is the perspective that they bring to board discussions. They open up new avenues of exploration as we discuss how to elevate and enrich the public’s understanding of the many ways architecture improves the quality of life.

When I was a director representing the Florida/Caribbean Region, I had the privilege of getting to know Richard Jackson, Hon. AIA, who at the time served as the board’s public director. The former head of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, Jackson opened my mind to an understanding of the profound interaction between health and the environment. His insights enriched the board’s thinking, as can be seen by the 2011 launch of the AIA’s Health and Design Initiative.

Through the influence of Jackson’s research, knowledge, and leadership, the Health and Design Initiative points out that inactivity, the onset of disease, and obesity are matters that can be addressed by promoting the benefits of design on health as a major factor in creating sustainable buildings and communities.

To make an empirical case that good design makes a difference in healthy living, the AIA has partnered with several powerful allies. These include a 10-year pledge with the Clinton Global Initiative to study the relationship between design, public health, and sustainable communities; a grant program for universities to complete evidence-based research on design and health; and collaboration with MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism to study patterns of designed public space and health, and to develop prescriptions for redefining the effect that health has on sustainable communities.

This is a bold way of thinking. It reflects a new direction and purpose for the AIA. Tapping into the resources of those outside our profession is an essential element for this kind of innovative thinking. Ours is, after all, a collaborative profession enriched to the degree that we listen carefully to other voices.

Whatever the issue—health or resilient communities—the insights of thoughtful collaborators such as Jackson are vital incentives for new thinking. Field reports from keen observers such as Fullilove benchmark our progress in repositioning the AIA to build leaders who think far beyond our status quo. These collaborations, and this new thinking, reinforce the importance these partnerships play in elevating public awareness that the critical issues of the 21st century are design issues.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President