keys to effective change


Well now…couldn’t we all carry on about events in our country and world with this topic? As you know, I keep my thoughts and writings to architecture and directly related topics.

So let’s talk about architecture, community development, policy change, economic development, and neighborhoods. What do I mean when I say talk? I don’t mean what people are too apt to do these days – focus all of their energy towards everyone except those who can make things better. Get off your phone or iPad, put on your big people pants and make effective change. Face it, we’ve all been guilty of whining too often.

How does this happen? I’m not an expert, but I have a few past experiences to draw from where I discovered what to do (and not do). If we don’t like something about our local communities, then we need to be willing to contribute to making change or…wait for it…stop complaining about it on Facebook.

I am not going to share anything that we all haven’t heard before, but I’m going to say it again.

Silence – The sound of this was only admirable in Simon and Garfunkel’s 1960’s song. Keeping silent helps no one. Make waves, make trouble, make a difference. I just have a few rules.

Realistic Expectations – First things first – we need to start with areas that have a chance to change. For instance, many complain about the building codes and zoning ordinances in our area. “If they would just” or “why do I have to…” are simply naïve (at best) ways of looking at things. Instead of asking “why” one needs to comply with a code or ordinance, start asking how might we comply or what are options for compliance or how can I find funds to renovate this building and run my business. Asking the why is about as effective as asking why we must obey the speed limit, pay taxes or eat our vegetables.

Don’t ask a fish to climb a tree – The well-known quoteeveryone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” sums this up perfectly. (By the way, I don’t agree that everyone is a genius). I live and practice in a city, a very small one, but a city all the same. We’re surrounded by endless suburban areas that connect to the next urban area. The popular mindset is expecting an urban area to behave like a suburban area and then criticize it when it can’t do it. Therefore, we have unmet expectations when it comes to parking, rehabilitating older buildings, zoning restrictions, and economic development. Does my area need policy change? Yes, yes, oh my yes. However, expecting it to have the benefits of a suburban (or rural) area is a senseless as the converse. People like cities for reasons. They should be MORE city-like. If one doesn’t care for cities, that’s fine, but it’s mind-numbing to expect it to be anything else. If one enjoys being in the suburbs or being out in the wild, then go there or live there and be happy. If you are guilty of this mindset, stop it. Stop it right now.

Clear Message – What specifically would you like to change? I admire Rosa Sheng [Equity by Design EQxD] who, with many others, has developed a clear message about inequality between genders in the profession of architecture. There’s no doubt what her message is. (BTW, I could use her as a good example for most of my points in this post). The Equity by Design voice is a carefully crafted, effective, and clear message. They have and will effect positive change.

Organized – This means preparation, gathering information, getting help and a bit of sweat. Many of the latter points probably fall under this category as a sub-heading. It’s not enough to “work hard”, it’s not enough to be passionate. Sit down and get organized. I’ve shared before that in 1996, a few young architects (including myself) were dissatisfied by the lack of representation in our local AIA chapter for emerging professionals (we called them interns and young architects back then). We were part of another committee at the time, yet we organized ourselves and in 1997 we slowly launched what is now AIA Pittsburgh’s YAF. We knew that we’d never be heard if we didn’t follow the items on this list. I was Co-Chair until 2003 and we were known for having the coolest activities in our chapter. It is a currently thriving committee that continues to improve and is probably still the coolest committee.

Facts – Here is where many people get off track before they start. Five years ago I wrote a post that challenged people to stop listening to the wrong people for information. In our culture of media bombardment, we tend to quickly judge and react merely from a rash Tweet or teaser from a news channel. Ask the right questions from the right people to find the right reasons for your issue. No one looks more foolish than someone who rushes in with guns-a-blazing, only to find that they lack critical information. Your message loses reliability in an instant. Use your ears before your mouth.


Harness Emotion – Emotions are the fuel and visible evidence to our passions. However, they are not our passion. Passion is evidenced in virtues like tenacity, consistency, and humility. Emotional rants, infantile complaints, and unbridled anger is another killer of credibility – and NOTHING changes. With our cultural ability to exercise what we think is freedom of speech in an instant, we’ve often done more harm to our message than good. Respect is earned not demanded.

Patience – Results don’t come quickly and our emotional fuel can easily wane. If we believe in our message, we’ll think more marathon and less sprint. Might I also add a trite “don’t quit” to this message? If you’re taking on municipal officials, politicians, banking executives or those fighting against your cause, quitting early shows a lack of the qualities outlined above in this post.

Stop Complaining – Everyone has the temptation to rant, and I can rant like the best. However, it’s ineffective. See my past post on rants where I shared my thoughts of the lazy, late-night Facebook trolls who love to hear their own voice and be validated by similar, small-minded people. Complaining never changed anything and we hate hearing everybody else’s complaints but our own. Move on.


Check the calendar – We all have a sense of nostalgia in us. ‘I remember when’ is a fun place to visit, but it’s unrealistic. We may miss our past and cherish our childhood memories, but it’s childish to think that our environment should never change. We either need to invent a time machine or face the reality that cities age and mature the same way we do. Our cities can no longer stay in the past any more than we can and I’m an ardent preservationist. Aren’t you glad you still don’t have the hairstyle you had in high school? We are.

Social Media – This is where we frequently go wrong. If you’re reading this, then you are part of social media. Use this for good and not evil. I see too much of this and not enough of real policy changes. Those who are successful business owners in your community are likely agents of change who did it with professionalism and patience. Two thumbs and an iPhone rarely change anything alone.

Make things happen, by all means, make them happen. I’m here to help, but my plan is listed above.

top photo credit: Farming butterflies via photopin (license)
bottom photo credit: where’s my food? – dscf6145 via photopin (license)

keys to effective change

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