Sprawl in America “is not good for our climate” says Barack Obama

Barack Obama at AIA

Former US president Barack Obama has called on architects and policymakers to tackle urban sprawl and to “create livable density” in American cities.

Speaking at the 2022 conference organised by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in Chicago last week, the former US president linked car-dependent development to the climate crisis.

“Sprawl in America is not good for our climate,” he said. “And so we have to think about creating livable density that allows us to take mass transit and take bicycles.”

“How do we create affordable housing and mixed-use housing?”

Obama, who has close ties to Chicago, where his presidential library is set to be built, said architects need to consider how cities can be created to be both sustainable and affordable.

“How do we think about the climate and environment in which people actually live?” he asked.

“How do we create affordable housing and mixed-use housing and how do we apply the principles that Jane Jacobs wrote about in opposition to Bob Moses, so that you’re creating organic neighbourhoods?” he added, referring to the famous battle that ensued when activist Jacobs opposed proposals by city planner Moses to build a highway through Greenwich village in 1955.

“Architecture reinforced inequity” in Chicago

According to Obama, the architecture of Chicago, the city he lived in while acting as an Illinois state senator and then a US senator, had contributed to inequality in the city.

“Chicago, as beautiful as it is, also was a case study in ways in which, at times, architecture reinforced inequity,” he said, referencing the legacy of racist housing policies and projects such as Cabrini Green, which he said isolated people and reinforced racial segregation.

Obama Presidential Center
The Obama Presidential Center is set to be built in Chicago’s SoutSide

The former president believes that some of the problems found in Chicago and other major cities in the US are the result of government policy and zoning decisions.

“This is an example of where it’s not just a lack of funding for affordable housing,” he said.

“Frankly, some very well-intentioned laws and regulations at the local level, often generated from the left and from my own party, sometimes are inhibiting the creation of affordable housing and powering NIMBY attitudes and make it very difficult to integrate communities and allow people to live close to where they work.”

“The most liberal communities in the country aren’t that liberal when it comes to affordable housing”

He added that to solve the issues, local and federal laws needed to be geared toward financing affordable, energy-sustainable mixed-use and mixed-income communities.

“There’s bipartisan resistance to that,” he said. “Some of the most liberal communities in the country aren’t that liberal when it comes to situating affordable housing.”

Obama hopes that the decision to place the Obama Presidential Center, which is being designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, in the less-affluent south side of the city will help bridge some of Chicago’s divisions.

“If we can now have a major tourist attraction and hub of activity, that creates the opportunity to stitch together the city,” he said.

“Designing what we hope will be a transformative piece of architecture and a hub for the community here in Chicago.”

Designed to celebrate his legacy as president, the library will be situated in Jackson Park. He said that the building will not be a mausoleum – “because I am not dead yet”.

“I don’t know if they [the architects] have always appreciated my opinions,” Obama joked. “But what can they say? My name will be on the building.”

“[It will be a] living, breathing, dynamic institution that can not only speak about the presidency and the time we went through and issues we addressed but also become a laboratory and university for social change,” he said.

“I tend towards modern architecture”

The presidential cultural complex will have a contemporary form, with the president stating that he prefers modern to classical architecture.

“If you think about iconic buildings, I tend towards modern architecture,” he said, mentioning the Sydney Opera House as one of his favourites.

Obama’s taste is at odds with his successor as president, Donald Trump, who introduced an order that all federal buildings should be built in the “classical architectural style”. The decree was opposed by the AIA and overturned by current US president Joe Biden in 2021.

Obama also said that being from Hawaii had immured him to works of tropical modernism such as Liljestrand by Russian architect Vladimir Oskikoff, who also designed the chapel at Obama’s high school.

“I started getting interested in social justice issues and that led me into a bunch of movement work and organizing, but my love for architecture never went away,” he said when asked about his early ambitions to become an architect.

“We associate quality with how expensive it is”

Although he favours modern architecture, he was also critical of excesses in building culture, telling architects and designers present to “think creatively about the use of affordable materials and designs that are lower maintenance.”

“We associate quality with how expensive it is,” he said, noting that this trend was not just a problem in architecture but in capitalist society.

These principles should be carried forward into other areas of the built environment, he said, again referencing the need for more robust affordable housing initiatives.

While he understands that affordable housing has to be scalable, he said there’s no reason why the design of them can’t reflect thoughtfulness about ways of life and aesthetics.

“[There are] cities that charm us and make us feel good, but oftentimes become exclusive provinces of the well-to-do,” he said, mentioning people’s need to see other people and to enjoy parks and “corner stores that take on the character of a community”.

“And so often when we think of affordable housing, there’s a notion that that stuff is a luxury that working-class folks and poor folks can’t afford,” he said.

“But they need it more!” he continued to robust applause from the audience. “It’s more important for them to have public spaces, to have the space to help them stitch together community and places for kids to go because they may not have as many resources inside the house.”

Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States and the only African-American president in the country’s history. His presidential library is set to be built in Chicago, though some complained that the construction will disrupt the green landscape around the proposed site.

The top photograph shows Obama speaking at the AIA conference and is courtesy of AIA.

The annual AIA conference took place from 22 to 25 June at the McCormick Center in Chicago. For more up-to-date information on architecture events in the US and around the world, visit Dezeen’s event guide.

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