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Photo: Dean Kaufman.

Autumn marks a season of transition and anticipation. The change in weather, foliage, and harvests is combined with other cultural shifts, like the beginning of the school year and election season. In 2020, because of COVID-19, the fall brings anxiety, uncertainty, and a degree of concern. New York City is open for business, but business owners and customers are still figuring out what exactly that means. Families are returning from summer sojourns, wondering how long schools will remain open and whether it is worth the risk to send children to school in person. Architects and clients are navigating a complex realm of back-to-facility scenarios. Construction sites are active, but we as a profession are still largely working from home.

I outlined the presidential theme for this year, Charting NYC 2020, in late 2019. At that point we were already in crisis—ecological, social, economic, and political—a situation that has worsened with the pandemic and the inequality and injustice it has exposed. As architects, we must address our contribution to the challenging and overarching issues of climate change and social justice. We have a responsibility to help lead this conversation, beyond base project requirements, to influence our clients and buildings and to engage the communities they serve.

Charting NYC 2020 launched a research and data visualization initiative in collaboration with Sarah Williams and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Civic Data Design Lab. This research is culminating in the fall launch of Visualize NYC 2021, a virtual exhibition that analyzes and reveals the realities of daily life in New York City. We gathered information, guidance, and ideas from members regarding the issues they feel are most pressing for the built environment in New York City. These priorities fall into four main categories: evolving public realm, climate change and resilience, right to housing, and public health. And, in turn, these categories are scalable, from the street to the city. COVID-19 was not on our radar when the planning for this work began in late 2019, but it is one lens through which we are now viewing and assessing the city.

Visualize NYC 2021 also offers a platform for ongoing crowdsourcing of ideas and priorities from visitors. We intend to use these ideas to continue to refine AIANY’s advocacy platform as we prepare for historic elections in 2021. The exhibition  focuses on the intersection of public policy and physical space, and its influence on our daily lives. It also encourages everyday New Yorkers to share an opinion, join the discussion, and ultimately cast a vote next year.

Architects are experts at turning challenges into opportunities—applying creative problem-solving skills to elevate the spaces we design. Let us also take this opportunity to elevate the way we practice. Beyond new tools and processes, we can enact meaningful change in how we work. We can push ourselves to a higher standard of environmental steward-ship. We can commit to mentor young, aspiring architects, and to diversify our practices. We can engage communities and critically assess the context of our projects. We can aspire to bridge the extremes that define this year. We can chart the future of our city.

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