We can only speak for ourselves - and the crowd of peers with whom we associate - but here are some of the issues architects are following these days.
The Changing Retail World
E-commerce continues to take over the market. Brick and mortar stores are struggling to survive. Adapt or perish. And then there's Amazon's $13.7B purchase of Whole Foods. What's going on? How will this affect our built environment? One trend that appears to be emerging is medium scale retailers are having a very difficult time with the changing paradigm. Shopping malls as a whole are starting to fail or need to evolve into mixed-use retail like The Domain and The Hill Country Galleria in Austin. In order to survive malls have had to broaden their roles to include housing and entertainment (in the case of The Domain) and civic uses like a library and City Hall (in the case of The Galleria).
Many malls have closed their doors. Those malls located in suburban areas with a singular use are suffering the most. But there's opportunity where there's failure. For example, a mixed-use town center development called Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado was once known as Villa Italia Mall, a very typical suburban mall with one huge building surrounded by acres of parking. In 2002 the mall was redeveloped into a more urban town center for this city of 150,000 inhabitants. To read more about this story visit this site. Closer to home, Austin Community College has converted Highland Mall in north Austin into it's flagship campus. It's close to a light rail stop and development is underway for housing and retail.
How to Create Affordable Housing in Austin
Austin continues to grow at a rapid pace and property values continue to climb out of reach of many middle- and upper middle-class residents. City leaders have several proposals in the works which include subsidies to developers for "affordable" housing, adding density to inner city neighborhoods (with the hope that density brings smaller, cheaper houses...we'll see) and developing city-owned land into affordable rental and ownership units. Click here to view the city's Strategic Housing Blueprint.
What's Next for Mass Transit
The subject of mass transit in Austin is worthy of a dedicated blog post. In the early nineties the principals of Element 5 Architecture were engaged in a study of routes and transit stations for Austin's proposed light rail - that's how long we as a city have been thinking about this subject. In the meantime, very little has been accomplished on a macro scale. Sure, we now have a limited light rail system, bus routes continue to be modified to fit changing demographics and grassroots solutions such as ride-sharing, Car 2 Go, Zip Car and B-Cycle have given people other options. However, there hasn't been a plan to affordably move large portions of the population other than by automobile.
One thing is certain to us architects: transportation affects the built environment. Light rail stations are a magnet for further development. The popularity of cycling - even in a city where the summer heat is so intense - leads to dedicated bike paths and bike storage at buildings. Even options such as ride-sharing and car-sharing lead to reduced parking requirements and every architect will tell you the most influential part of every urban design is providing for the automobile.