Reclaiming Human Habitat in the Gila River Reservation, Arizona (Part 2 of 3)

In my last article, I spoke with Phil Allsopp of Transpolis Global, Inc. about their efforts to bring sustainable design and economic opportunity to the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. This is a continuance of that interview. Please note that some of this material outlines very tough and somewhat graphic issues the communities of the Gila River Reservation face. Our collaborative purpose for bringing these issues to light is to educate the general public on the importance of design, human habitat, and how technology is a critical tool in the implementation thereof.

Tice: Systemic issues. What do you see arising from your relationships with this community after gleaning a better understanding of how they function day-to-day; how this organism of their culture is manifesting? What do you see as their housing and infrastructure grows – what is their mood, their culture, their education, and how is ‘habitat’ affecting them in real time?

Allsopp: If you think about looking vertically down on a flower with several petals, you could say that one petal could be health and well-being. Another could be economy. Another community, education, energy, water, habitat, housing… If you focus only on ‘habitat’, you are going to influence many of those other areas. If you look at health; if you don’t take into account at least 4-5 other things, you’re not really going to solve the problem. Habitat its design, location efficiency and so on, can positively impact a large number of problems we and communities around the world are trying to tackle.

Over the course of the last 2 1/2 years, we have been viewing the situation within the Gila River as a system made up of these larger components. What we’ve seen is that things like diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse, child and family strife even, is significant and is a cause of great concern and worry by many members of the Community, especially the Elders. So Community members desire to have open discussions about these problems is understandably pretty limited. I [once] showed up to a behavioral health meeting and saw a flyer on the table for an alcoholic’s anonymous program. I picked it up to look at it and realized that it included children. This was very upsetting as you can imagine and even more so to the Community care givers.

I think what captured much of the concerns was when in 2010 we were presenting to the tribal counsel with colleagues, friends, and some members of the Gila River Business Association. One Community member who happened to be at the lectern [that day] and was speaking about the project we were trying to get underway to help reshape housing. The general advice being given was that more casinos should be built and that pop stands along route 10 would be the way to go to get people employed. It was a dreadful response, quite frankly. The Community member was very polite and said, "Thank you, I really appreciate your counsel, but perhaps you could tell everybody in this room (which was possibly 100 persons), how spending another $165 million on yet another casino is going to stop 5 year old children from committing suicide? Because that’s a problem we’ve got" She was able to speak a little more about the importance of thinking differently about housing and habitat. She was great.

The systemic problems are significant and in many ways can be found in many other communities (native AND non-native) as well. Elders say that so much of the community has been lost and needs to be recovered in some way. The Gila River Indian Community is the descendant of people who built townships and pueblo-like settlements from which they farmed the great river valleys. There are even ball parks that go back hundreds of years spread around the desert southwest and northern Mexico. Those societies were sophisticated, agricultural civilizations. It was the gradual settlement of the region by the Spanish and later on Americans, that the indigenous native communities began to lose their hold on their heritage and, of course, their land

The Gila River Indian community gave great assistance to pioneers coming through this region on their way west. They fed the US Army as it came through. They helped enormously in the days of Kit Carson in the Mexican War. And it was in fact Gila River Indian Community scouts that helped the US Army track down Geronimo and Cochise. Service to the nation in this case the United States runs deeply through the Gila River Indian Community. The last man on the famous Iwo Jima Flag raising statue is Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Ira Hayes who was born in Sacaton and has a memorial park dedicated to him.

Listening to the Elders, the community used to pursue a very active way of life especially their young runners who were like a latter day mail service taking messages all across this valley. They had the youth – the young boys from 13-22 or so would be running all day. They were the postal service. They were a very fit, tall, healthy, athletic community. But things have changed a great deal since then and sadly the combination of diet and activity levels means than many people find themselves suffering from the effects of diabetes early on in life.

Tice: Why is that?

Allsopp: I think its probably because their way of life went from an active outdoor life: farming, hunting…has disappeared. Their diet has changed tremendously as a result of the commissary type of food they are able to purchase such as corn, flour, sugars or what have you…And these are the industrially-produced commodities, not the naturally grown and ground varieties that are beginning to come on line. Their diet has changed. There are many more people who are much more accomplished in public health and epidemiology than me refer to this region as the epicenter of "diabetes"..

So the need to do something to get the community reengaged with itself to reshape itself to the 21st century and beyond, is real. We have been very fortunate to be included in those kinds of deliberations by friends and colleagues who are Community members. Our commitment is and has been to help in whatever way we can, or by introducing other people that can do things we can’t. That’s really what we’re doing.

Tice: So you’re building teams?

Allsopp: Were trying but yes we are working closely with colleagues and friends in the Gila River Indian Community to teams. If you think and act about habitat differently, you can impact education and training as well as new enterprise opportunities for Community members. You can impact health by encouraging a more outdoor, active way of life as opposed to 100% indoors [activity] watching TV something that is a pervasive problems across the US native and non-native communities. You can do things to configure houses so that the young men and women who may have had it with living in the bedroom down the hall from mom and dad, could have a place of their own nearby or adjacent but separate. A similar arrangement could apply to elders living with their families. I heard that young people especially if they are employed and earning too much are often relocated to multi-unit housing where they don’t know anyone and thus social problems can erupt.

Tice: Where is the money – What if we followed that trail, where would it lead? Looking at these impoverished people with these regulations… who are the decision makers in this environment – the engine driving these issues?

Allsopp: My sense is that one of the problems – again not limited to Native American communities – is ‘government bureaucracy’ (which is easy to say); the scaffolding of regulations, policies and procedures that have become the "way things are done." And yet, little does seem to get done. Fortunately new tribal leaders and a growing number of Community members are taking action to cut through the red tape and encourage those in positions to say yes or no to see that projects that have been held up sometimes for months and years in some cases, are hurting the Community. The level of employment seems pretty minimal and places like Casinos dont really offer long-term career opportunities for Community members, from what little I know. Its vitally important for people everywhere to feel as if they are making a tangible difference in their lives as well as for the Community of which they are a part. Most of the jobs in Casinos seem to be fairly menial. So, what we have been trying to do with our colleagues in the Gila River Indian Community and the Business Owners Association for example, is to shift the conversation from jobs to careers. ‘What kind of career/pathway toward an abundant, contributing life, can be crafted for the youth of the community, as well as for adults that are already in play. Gila River Employment and Training are doing a fantastic job with their Career Pathways program. That program is closely aligned with the approach weve been taking all along. The answer to the problem of creating career opportunities is in some ways removing the stifling bureaucratic barriers without creating a regulatory free-for-all. But holding up needed projects be they buildings or new programs just because of the "process we use," is leading to situations that dont help the community. Sometimes buildings are not able to be occupied because one government department decided to change a code requirement thus rendering a new building out of compliance and thus a certificate of occupancy cannot be given. Its insane of course and the Community members on the receiving end know this very well. But, as I said, the community is acting to make changes to this and similar situations.

And again, it’s not a question of pointing fingers at all, in some ways, far from it. We in many ways have a privileged viewpoint because of the experience we bring to the table, as would a lot of other firms that have a lot of experience like us. You begin to see where there are some choke points where there are some of the same problems coming up all the time.

Tice: Tell me about the technology you’re using to work with this new ‘designing of habitat.’

Allsopp: The traditional way in which the provision of habitat occurs is to split it into 3 phases design it, send the drawings out to bid and then build it using the lowest bidding contractor. The results speak for themselves. In this traditional way of building there is no relationship at all between design intent and what ends up being built. So its the same old thing that happens. When buildings dont address the needs of those occupying, but instead meet bureaucratic, financial and sales needs first, the results are not good. The buildings themselves don’t tend to be looked after, they perform very poorly for the most part and in the end contribute to a kind of insidious blight that impoverishes the soul and creates a level of ugliness we could do without.

What we are doing is changing this process by bringing technology to bear; to integrate the process so that we spend as much time as possible designing and going through iterations of the design with actual or potential occupants. The productions of things such as plans, elevations, site plans, schedules, and other factors that go with a typical submission for building approval – all that should be automated. So we’ve been using ArchiCAD 16, a state of the art BIM system that pioneered this approach over 30 years ago. We chose ArchiCAD because it operates on both Windows and Apples OS X (Unix) platforms as well as it enables one to build a real model of a functioning building in virtual space. It also enables us to conduct a very detailed energy analysis. And these all meet ASHRAE as well as other standards for reliability and robustness of the calculations. Given the fact that we have seen over the last 2 1/2 years how dreadful many buildings are regarding their building envelope; the walls, the doors, the windows…are at combating this extreme climate that we have here in the desert, we have the ability with this technology to select methods of construction and test them in electronic space before actually committing to build them. We are doing for buildings what aircraft designers and manufacturers have been doing for decades. One doesn’t have a person responsible for putting hydraulic lines in a plane, crawl through the rib structure of the wing, sawing holes in the main ribs. Yet, we have that in building construction all the time.

The process of integrating design and construction and evaluation/performance is a way of eliminating those kinds of problems. But it also enables us to engage directly with the client. We can actually sit at the desk or table with a client, bring in our 27" iMac and with the client, perform a BIM version of a Roger’s and Hammerstein duet – we’re playing the piano while the client is giving us the lyrics telling us about the things in their head about what they would like to see. We can make these changes on the fly in multiple dimensions and instantaneously give them a picture of how their place is going to perform as a result of the little duet that we just played.

The other important thing is the integration of high-resolution scanned information about sites. Sites and landscapes are incredibly important to everybody. They have particular significance for a lot of Native American communities. It is only in recent years that they have come to grips with the idea of owning land. It would be like us for example, being asked if we would like to sell our oxygen. It’s there. Its just part of who we are. And so landscapes, even though a lot of dynamics have changed for Native American communities, the importance of buttes, mesas, and mountain ranges in relation to the land they occupy, is very important. And therefore the ability to capture natural landscapes in which human habitats are being designed or placed is amazingly important. The ability to manipulate and do those piano duets, so to speak, with those building designs (old or new) in that landscape, is incredibly important to them.

Tice: How long have you been with Transpolis?

Allsopp: Since late 2009. We formed Transpolis; myself, Brent Richards in London, Robert Voticky in Prague…they were kind of picking at me for a number of years saying, "We should do this." After spending 4 years as CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, I thought this would be a good thing. I felt it was important to try to do something, even if it was a tiny thing, to help move things toward creating a better, more abundant world. Even though resources were constrained, we’ve got energy and water problems…if we can innovate and invent our way, thinking it through enough, my thought was that it is possible to actually have a more abundant way of life than we have. We felt there was literally an ocean of opportunity before us all if only we would go after some of these endeavors. Our particular focus was on human habitats and how they relate to environment, health, enterprise, a diverse economy, employment and careers…

Tice: So here you are now, working with the Gila River Reservation, bringing this gift from your organization to them. How does that make you feel?

Allsopp: It makes me feel as if we are making a positive difference. I want to do more in some of our other non-tribal areas. We are very good friends with people who live in some of Phoenixs inner city Latino and Hispanic areas – which are in great need of similar kinds of initiatives where the people themselves perhaps may be given the opportunity to see a pathway of hope and where they can take far more control over their environment and living conditions without having to leave their friend and neighbors. They can perhaps be [afforded the opportunity] to envision better places in which to live, build a family, go to school, obtain new work, and what have you. So we feel pretty good about what we’re doing. We haven’t made ourselves rich, yet we don’t measure this work solely upon our material success in terms of gross profits – that is one measure. Certainly ‘no margin equals no mission.’ Our view is that if we stay focused on the things we think are important, the signs are beginning to tell me that I think our hunches will be proven right. And, The money side of things – we do have to keep the lights on, after all, like everyone else – will happen in some way.

To be continued…