Building Better Cities: Transforming Urbanism through Community-Driven Design
By 2050, 68% of the world will live in urban areas. What’s key to the success of this continued urbanization is thoughtful, community-driven urban development. Able City, an integrated architecture, planning, and economic development firm working throughout south Texas, is dedicated to building communities that provide long-term value to all people. The Council for Inclusive Capitalism caught up with co-founder and partner Viviana Frank, FAIA, CecD, to learn more about how her business is addressing this need and helping cities in South Texas thrive more sustainably. The following conversation summary has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the audio modules to hear additional thoughts from Ms. Frank.
Tell us a little bit about Able city and your background.
Frank Rotnofsky and I, and Mario and Diana Pena, our other co-founders, were our friendly competitors in Laredo, Texas. Our two firms collaborated together on a few different projects, namely the city plan for Laredo, which was rare for competitors in our industry to collaborate like that. We found that we worked well together and held a similar vision for the potential for positive impact in the architectural profession.
When we decided to merge, we knew we wanted to do things differently. Even in the name, we didn’t want the combination of our last names like many traditional architecture firms. We started talking about how “able” has so many connotations we wanted to infuse into our work – sustainable, walkable, bikeable, remarkable – which is how we came up with Able City. If anything should be “able” in this world, it should be cities. Cities, fueled by the democratic process, should be serving the whole citizen and the environment that they’re in, and that’s what we’ve designed our services to do for our clients do.
How do you ensure in those community-driven designs that you are keeping community voices central throughout the process?
Community-driven design is one of our pillars in our purpose as a firm. Civic engagement is about listening to people and empowering them to make change. Whether it’s about quality of life in their city or a service that they’re not getting, they can become their own best advocates for what they want to see changed. It’s important to help citizens learn how to engage with the democratic process and use that civic muscle, beyond just listening to their feedback on a project or current grievances. We really want people who engage to come away with understanding how they can affect the process in their cities.
How Able City pinpoints opportunities to develop citizens’ “civic muscle”:
What role does policy play in your work with cities?
Cities are made through policy. Often, the specific design choices in cities, like the number of trees on a sidewalk, are dictated by legal requirements outlined in land development codes. These policies can have significant consequences for people’s lives. If a neighborhood lacks a grocery store, for example, it could be because the existing code prohibits its establishment.
So, really, our services include the study and the understanding of the certain quality of life or place issues in a city and getting diverse stakeholders to understand that at a very fundamental level. We show them maps and what’s written, then try to visually connect those two together to help them understand what’s possible under existing law, and what needs to change. We want them to become champions of the wellbeing they seek for themselves and the world around them. Together we draw the path of engagement between them and the touchstones of self-government.
When Able City gets hired by a city, the city is relying on our expertise in drawing in community people who care and bridging the gap between stakeholders and the city code they want to influence or work within to create change. By listening to people with different lived experiences and a shared desire for change in their community, it generates a much more powerful and effective collective vision.
The way you listen matters:
Could you give an example of Able City’s community-centric approach to urbanism?
One example that stuck with me was a group of young skateboarders we met toward the end of the Laredo comprehensive city planning who wanted to build a concrete skate park. They came from all different parts of the city, but nobody would listen to them because they were young. Their parents had organized what they called a “little” petition, but it was 3,000 signatures! We invited them back to our headquarters to discuss their demands. One of the more precocious skaters turned around and said, ‘What you’re telling us is that you’re gonna be able to get us a skate park?’ I said ‘No, we’re telling you we’re going to show you how to get a skate park; what you need to do to engage within the democratic process. You’ll have a much better chance of getting what you want.’
Able City helped them put a brochure together, [showed them] how to collect data, how to put the data in ways that would be of interest to the city. We shared how to connect with council people or the district to show them their survey and their data. And they did it! They made them their champions.
It turned out the skate park they wanted was going to be four times larger than what was allowed in the city budget, but the kids didn’t budge. They knew it wasn’t worth downgrading to a smaller park. So, in the end, we helped a group of 15 young people learn how to get engaged, stick to what they knew what was best for their sport and for their city and convert their community to collaborators to make it happen.
We heard that you were named “Firm of the Year” for 2023 by your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Congratulations! In addition to being recognized by your professional peers, how does your community-centric approach lead to business success for Able City?
We have grown a lot over the last several years and our community-centric design and multi-pillar approach have set us apart. Cities that have bigger metropolitan areas have been looking for businesses like ours that understand that you’re not just building or designing a street. People live there and healthy communities are born out of collaboration.
When starting a project, we look at it through the lens of all our pillars: architecture, urbanism, citymaking, and economic development. All these elements need to work together to create a thriving city. If you don’t have that economic development lens, your architectural planning may not make as much impact.
Considering the long-lasting legacy of a building leads to a better outcome:
Where do you see your business continuing to grow moving forward?
We are growing a lot in terms of our employee base, and something we want to get better at is our own governance. We’re working on measuring our own internal impact, employee satisfaction (professional growth), and ensuring we provide an open work environment.
We also want to measure our project impacts too – tracking the moments when we’re able to make more sustainable improvements on our projects. As a smaller-sized company, that tracking and measurement piece can be really challenging for us. But, tracking and measuring helps with our sustainability goals as well as we’re always looking for opportunities to make small adjustments for more sustainable design choices within the client’s budget. If two materials cost the same, but one is more environmentally friendly, we make sure that is already part of what we do without even asking.
While working on these important pieces, we see our company also beginning to help others in the architectural profession. There are a lot of moving parts to what our company has transformed into. We plan to eventually provide coaching services.
What do you think other businesses, including in other industries not even tied to architecture or the built environment, could learn and adopt from the model that enables cities to develop?
They need to understand that they are serving a community, serving people and the environment in everything that they’re doing. If you’re selling a product, that is something that needs to solve challenges for both . And in creating a quality service, you must be solving or addressing some of their challenges within their social sphere or from an environmental perspective. That’s just part of good business now — whatever industry you’re in.
Holistic value creation is good for everyone:
Business at its best is….
Business is at its best when you are able to provide services and products that solve challenges for people and environment in the community. And so, knowing means you’re measuring, not just saying.
View more of Able City’s work on their website, https://www.able.city/.