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Designing Policy: Architect and Senator Tim Kearney shares how design and policy go together like brick-and-mortar

March 22, 2024
Senator Tim Kearney, AIA, at the 2024 Black and Diverse Business Forum

By Senator Tim Kearney, AIA. Kearney serves the 26th District, largely representing Delaware County, is a former mayor of the Borough of Swarthmore, and is also a registered architect.

Originally published in the Winter 2024 edition of Context, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, Philadelphia Chapter

As one of approximately five architects in state legislatures across the US, I can tell you that design and policy go together like brick and mortar. Politics and policies—from construction codes to zoning and labor rules to transportation funding—significantly influence the built environment and the built environment sets the conditions for our politics. Navigating the interplay of design and state government is complex and more important than ever. 

I came to my current line of work following 35 years as a licensed architect. After completing my architecture undergraduate studies at Catholic University, I came to Philadelphia for grad school at Penn, after which I joined Venturi Scott Brown & Associates along with my wife Claudia. My 16 years at VSBA allowed me to work on major projects around the world. I managed the Disney portfolio at VSBA, did some wonderful projects, but spent way too much time on airplanes, missing many middle school track meets in the process. Claudia and I decided to open CuetoKearney Architects in our hometown of Swarthmore in 2004. 

CuetoKearney Architects brought me further closer to state and local government. Our experience at VSBA led us to specialize in college and university work and we completed private and public work including PASSHE projects such as the Cheyney university Science Center. Locally, I joined Swarthmore borough’s planning commission after several residential projects in the borough, and helped update our plan and zoning code for the borough’s historic town center. In 2014, the outgoing mayor encouraged me to run to for mayor, and I thankfully was elected by my community after putting myself out there on the ballot. 

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 drastically changed the way I viewed my public service as the stakes facing the country and the states increased in the face of the controversial commander-in-chief and the intensified political climate that followed his election. As a leader in one of Delaware county’s bluest towns, I stepped up to run for state Senate in a district that had been Republican for nearly 150 years. Between the efforts of energized Delco democrats and my campaign, voter registration shifts in the county that had been underway for years, and national backlash against the Trump agenda, I won my race and joined the Senate in January 2019. 

Coming to Harrisburg was eye-opening to say the least. While I thought that as a legislator I would spend my time drilling deep into a handful of key issues, the reality was I that I quickly needed to become acquainted with hundreds of topics, systems, agencies, and challenges facing the state. Forget the fire hose—my first year in office felt more like drinking out of a water main. But my career as an architect actually prepared me well to face the plethora of issues I would need to vote on and be involved in.  

My role as an architect was to bring together the parties responsible for each project—contractors, clients, planners, and to move projects forward, sweating the details while never losing sight of the big picture. Similarly, legislating and dealing with diverse issues requires a lot of stakeholder engagement and workshopping of policy questions and ideas. It’s information gathering, it’s sales, it’s constituent feedback and revisions, it’s long term thinking.  

I think about moving legislation and solving large problems in a fundamentally different way than the lawyers who make up much of the legislature. They come from careers of seeking immediate justice for harms caused to victims or violations of rights. I find myself thinking about the total design of our public systems—from how we organize networks of emergency responders to the education laws that shape and finance our public schools—that will last and serve effectively for the diverse groups of people that use them. 

Since I’ve been in office, public education has been at the front of my agenda. As the state Commonwealth Court recently ruled in William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., Pennsylvania is failing its constitutional duty to provide equal opportunity to all students—mainly by failing to fund schools. With the William Penn School District in my senate district, and as a member of the education committee, I have heard too many horror stories about the lack of proper staffing, the lack of trauma-informed resources for students in poverty and in difficult family situations, the lack of safety in school communities plagued by gun violence, and the lack of safe and adequate school buildings in which to learn.  

As an architect, the stories of crumbling schools, exposure to toxic substances, windowless classrooms, overcrowded multi-purpose spaces, and broken mechanical systems is especially infuriating. Every student should be able to learn in a safe, dry, temperate, and comfortable environment, but the way Pennsylvania inequitably funds school districts makes this right, enshrined in our state constitution, out of reach for too many predominantly Black and brown children in poverty. In the past two sessions, I’ve been leading calls in the senate to focus on building repair and maintenance and restart PlanCon—the reimbursement program for school facility planning and construction—which has been under moratorium for 7 years. My conservative colleagues may be reluctant to spend state dollars on building costs, but my training and career has proven useful in understanding that putting off maintenance and building problems today only creates worse, more expensive problems down the line. 

Given the country’s infrastructure challenges, it is imperative that we have more public officials with backgrounds in architecture and planning. Especially at the local level, where the housing affordability crisis meets local zoning and building codes, we need professionals in public roles who understand the intricacies of the built environment and the law, and who are willing to take action to solve our challenges. Pennsylvania has 2,500 municipalities. We need more architects to join a planning board, a historic preservation task force, a zoning hearing board, or a local governing body. If we come off the sidelines, we can make beautiful public spaces, safe and abundant housing for all, and communities with character. 

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Written by Olivia Perry