The Community as Co-Creator

Why Community Engagement is Crucial to an Inclusive Design Process

January 10, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

The built environment has a profound role in shaping our community—reflecting values, enabling social connections and supporting well-being. Research also shows a connection between the design of a community and its effect on social engagement, physical and mental health. In Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, the author examines the effect of the Chicago heat wave of the late 1990s on two different communities: one with high levels of social engagement and the other with poor social structure. Death rates in the more connected community were much lower because residents were less isolated physically and socially than in the less engaged community.

To create cities that reflect the needs and values of their inhabitants and enable them to thrive, it is necessary to design both with and for the community. Planning, design, development and regulations all impact how people experience their urban environment, but ultimately the community members themselves are the experts in their unique place. Therefore, they should serve as co-creators in the design process, helping to navigate the social and cultural intricacies and shape the near- and longer-term vision for where they live, work and play.

When designing new urban environments, look for a process that incorporates the framework established below to ensure inclusive and community-focused outcomes.

Establish Motivations

Meaningful engagement requires an empathetic mindset and an authentic desire to be inclusive. But it also requires honest conversations that establish motivations, embrace challenges and acknowledge limitations. At the onset of the design process, start by asking a series of questions. For example: What is our community context? Why do we want to engage the community? Who are we designing for? Who will be impacted by the project? How engaged, excited or anxious is the community about this project? What resources do we have to work with? And how will we measure success?

Craft an Engagement Strategy

The engagement strategy clearly outlines the following: the diverse community groups and individuals to include; the purpose of each engagement session; the preferred method, format and location for each session; milestones within the planning process where engagement will be most meaningful; and a feedback loop to build consensus through the design process.

Students at local schools were invited to share their thoughts and ideas for the Nickel Plate Trail using the prompt, “I want 4.5 miles of…”

Be Creative. Be Flexible

For the Nickel Plate Trail, a rails-to-trails adaptive reuse of a 4.5 mile stretch of an abandoned railway corridor in Fishers, Indiana, a robust six-month community engagement and planning program was instrumental in shaping the direction of the project. Rather than limiting community meetings to a typical town hall or community meeting forum, the design team set up booths at farmer’s markets, arranged happy hours at local bars, organized movies in the park and even visited local schools to engage students. These efforts resulted in a trusting relationship in which community members felt comfortable sharing their feedback, insights and ideas—and made the process enjoyable for everyone.

In addition, the pandemic has widened the toolkit of methods and approaches to seamlessly expand engagement into the digital realm and increase flexibility. Tools such as Zoom and other video platforms, online surveys, live interactive polls like Mentimeter and digital whiteboard tools like Mural are democratizing the process of providing and capturing community input. And like so many areas of post-pandemic life, hybrid models of both in-person and digital engagement have become second nature, enabling design teams to connect with more members of the community. This is true of the planning study underway for Livingston Avenue, a major roadway corridor that straddles the cities of Bexley and Columbus, Ohio. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, the project has been able to successfully engage both the community and stakeholders by employing a range of digital and hybrid engagement tools.

Facilitate Dialogue

In a community engagement framework, the community should act as the experts while the designer plays the role of facilitator. This means listening, engaging and empathizing, and—most importantly—letting the community guide the process. Depending on the context and complexity involved, it may be beneficial to consider bringing on a trained community outreach expert as the facilitator.

The goal of the facilitator is to host community conversations in a respectful and inclusive manner. Set ground rules for the engagement, map out the expected outcomes, be curious (ask questions), manage crowd dynamics to ensure all voices are heard, acknowledge emotions, keep it simple and draw out ideas. Validate the community’s contribution by translating their insights into design and planning considerations, and continue to solicit their input throughout the design process.

For example, for a new healthcare clinic designed to serve BIPOC youth in Seattle, the design team quickly recognized that a conventional design process would not lead to the outcomes the community needed most. Instead, they embedded themselves with doctors, patients, families and neighbors. The result is a clinic that addresses the systemic inequities that lead to negative health outcomes for underrepresented people by allowing the community to define what health, design and success means for them.

Translate Community Input into Design Outcomes

Translating and giving form to the insights and ideas from the community dictates how they will manifest in physical space. This can be done by creating as many avenues as possible for community input and feedback, from low-tech tools like LEGO blocks, building models and open house charrettes to communicating design options using immersive VR experiences. On the Nickel Plate Trail project, the 1,000+ ideas and pieces of community input directly informed the design of the trail. The design charrettes also inspired the team to draw upon the cultural value of the railway to the region, more explicitly integrating the history of the site into design and programming elements that use materials from the original railway.

The community engagement process for the West Bridge Street Framework Plan in Dublin, OH included a LEGO charrette.

Ultimately, the community engagement process is designed to align with clients and stakeholders on a shared vision and design direction and then to protect and promote the best interest of the community. Ideally, the community input gathered, paired with embedded consensus-building throughout the project, will result in a built environment that the community will support and love because they had a hand in shaping it.

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Humanizing Skyscrapers

Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction

January 6, 2022

Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in NAIOP’s Winter 2021/2022 Issue under the title, “Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction.”

This post was co-authored by Ryan Mullenix, Dr. John Medina and Greg Smith


Tall-building innovation has been driving architectural conversations for centuries. Society has long marveled at structures that brought humanity closer to the heavens. From the time of the construction of the 138-foot-tall Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885 (widely considered the first modern high-rise) to the 2010 opening of Dubai’s 2,723-foot-tall Burj Khalifa, the tallest buildings grew approximately 20 times in just 125 years.

This ambition is both understandable and applaudable. Tall buildings create more value for less land, not only in increased square footage but ideally through less lifecycle resource expenditure. Tall buildings also help address population challenges. According to research from the University of Texas, earth provides around 24.5 million square miles of habitable land, but as the number of people has increased almost five times in the past 100 years, the amount of habitable land has stayed relatively the same. The acreage per person has been reduced by about 80%, from almost 10 acres in 1900 to just over two in 2020.

For those looking to build higher, where has the conversation been focused? Most discussions on high-rise innovation tend to address three areas: conveyance (how one moves up and down), structural design and materials (how a building resists wind and earthquakes), and exterior walls (how energy performance can be improved). Recently, mechanical system efficiency and speed of construction have entered the dialogue. Given the significant impact of each of these factors, it’s no surprise that the design of the building core, a concrete block filled with elevators and shafts, usually demands the most attention.

What is surprising, however, is that these topics remain similar to those that surfaced over a century ago, when technological advancements first enabled society to build higher. The conversation is still rarely around how people — or organizations — stay healthy.

Humanizing Skyscrapers
A substantial number of developers and corporations see the future of the built environment as one centered on community. In recent years, buildings such as the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Leadenhall Tower in London and Tencent’s HQ in Shenzen (which includes elevated gardens, porous ground floors and amenity-based sky bridges) emphasized the importance of interaction. Their investigations prompt a powerful question: if high-rises were designed around people — not systems — how would that process begin?

To answer this, it’s important to explore the intersection between the science of buildings and the science of the brain.

What Makes us Human?
Designing high-rises in a people-centric manner requires an active knowledge of how the human brain responds to built environments. The first insight from the cognitive neurosciences is frustrating, however. The human brain reacts to the modern world as if it were still living in the Rift Valley of East Africa, many thousands of years ago.

How is that gap bridged? Humans evolved to be social animals. Relational interactions soon became a crucial part of human survival, a fact that was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. Any building that supports such interactions is likely to be successful.

A second insight occurs in humans’ ability to adapt. Though we appear to be creatures of habit, we actually don’t like being in places that are static. We appreciate experiences that are repetitive enough for simpler navigation, but those spaces must be unique enough to ensure our environment isn’t boring. Though we often hate change, the brain is surprisingly good at it.

Integrating Tall Buildings and Humans
In contrast to what benefits the human physiology, tall buildings are comprised of a substantial number of floors that are isolated; massive structures and greater distances from the ground or roof reduce interactions with colleagues, urban experiences and the outdoors. Although the exterior may be dynamic, the tenant experience is often anything but.

Given this context, the following ideas provide insights on how to broaden the dialogue to include innovative thinking for both buildings and human performance.

Spaces to think. Ceiling height influences different types of cognition. According to neuroscience research, a tall ceiling supports divergent thinking, while a compressed ceiling helps us focus on detailed resolution. Skyscraper floors are typically undifferentiated — the repetitive floorplate dictates a repetitive layout under a non-varying ceiling.

At The Net in Seattle — a new 36-story high-rise that recently broke ground — high-volume spaces throughout the building will create unique environments for various modes of creativity. The ground floor offers a 24-foot-high daylit solarium and a range of conditions throughout. The uppermost floor provides 30-foot ceilings for ideation sessions and events that are immediately adjacent to a three-story landscaped park.

Spaces to move. Our ancestors used to walk up to 12 miles a day. In a high-rise, going for a stroll likely requires an inconvenient elevator ride to a small ground-floor lobby that squeezes out onto the sidewalk. Placing egress stairs — usually an artificially lit element buried in the center — next to the exterior wall implores occupants to think twice about how to get from A to B. At The Net, a 36-story stair is adjacent to the elevator bank and occupies part of the façade. A code-required element, the stair now provides benefits to tenants without reducing rentable square footage.

Spaces to learn. Winding paths, plenty of nature and varying types of unpredictable movement are ideal for how we focus and retain information.

Outdoor spaces in tall buildings — if provided at all — tend to be relegated to any roof area that remains after cores and mechanical penthouses are placed. Direct floor access to the outdoors is rare in office projects over 10 stories tall. Stacked atriums that combine natural worlds to discover with verticality are a powerful mixture that can improve cognition. Even simple balconies can provide benefits.

Spaces to comfort. Pandemic-enforced isolation has taken its toll on the mental health of the worldwide workforce. Most tall buildings are limited in their ability to support multiple configurations for diverse work needs, including emotional and mental health. Elevator arrivals tend to occur in the center of the floor, and high-traffic areas like restrooms and service elevators have a large impact on acoustics and privacy. Spaces for refuge are rare.

Can a high-rise building environment aid in addressing mental health? Possibly. To take one short-term example, tall buildings might embed places where tenants could find temporary relief from psychological stress at work (WIRED calls them weeping paths).

At The Net, moving the core from the center of the building creates an open floorplate that is readily reconfigurable based on needs. Instead of being constrained to a single lease depth between the core and the exterior wall, spaces can be more graciously created for arrival and collaboration, and, just as importantly, respite. This footprint allows for different tenants to craft an experience that reflects how they work now and to adjust an experience based on how they need to evolve.

Initiating the Next Discourse
The past 125 years of high-rise dialogue has yielded some remarkable outcomes. Developers, designers, architects, engineers and contractors have collaborated to achieve unbelievable heights on properties that are often smaller than a football field.

High-rises can add value to their inhabitants. They can ignite greater creativity and cognition. Tall buildings can encourage healthier bodies and teams. They can enable individual choice and control for those moments when life and work intersect. Adding an unexpected but unsurprisingly relevant mindset like neuroscience can ensure that, as we build taller in the years to come, the distance between us and the ground does not increase the distance we feel between each other.

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Supporting Hope and Healing

Five Research-Driven Design Strategies for Pediatric Behavioral Health Environments

January 4, 2022

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Richard Dallam 


An increasing number of people report suffering from behavioral health issues, a challenge that predates the pandemic but has significantly deepened in its wake. The issue is particularly acute for adolescents and young adults, who experience behavioral illness at rates of nearly 50% and 30%, respectively.

Neuroscience research is shedding new light on how the built environment impacts our health and well-being, providing key insights for creating environments that are healing and therapeutic by design. Integrating these scientific insights into designs for behavioral health settings for children and young adults provides increased hope for these populations and their families—as well as for staff. Care givers in these environments also experience increased stress resulting in annual turnover rates of up to 40%, making their wellbeing an equally critical area for research-driven approaches.

Montage Health’s ‘Ohana’ project focuses on early behavioral health intervention and prevention for children and teens in conjunction with their families. It serves as a prototype for more effective health environments that reflect our deepening understanding of the human brain. Below are five design strategies—guided by neuroscience insights from developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, a project consultant and NBBJ design Research Fellow—which are employed on Ohana to boost the wellbeing of both patients and caregivers.


Encourage Movement
Neuroscience Insight: Movement and exercise are a key element in improving executive function, a skillset that helps people control behaviors and other cognitive abilities. More critically, strategies that boost executive function have been shown to be effective at preventing behavioral health issues.

Design Response: To improve executive function and well-being, Ohana’s design is centered around a gymnasium. The gym’s central placement emphasizes the importance of movement to overall well-being, an idea that is further supported by the inclusion of large outdoor garden cloisters, patios and terraced space surrounded by gardens and greenspace which encourage people to walk and move outside. The building’s soft, embracing shape also creates a more welcoming, protective setting that encourages people to move and explore.


Support Personal Agency
Neuroscience Insight: Stress is often related to a perceived lack of control over a situation or environment—a feeling which can be amplified among children and young adults and in healthcare settings. Conversely, increasing choice and a sense of personal agency reduces stress, which play an important role in improving behavioral health.

Design Response: Ohana provides a wide range of indoor and outdoor spaces that provide opportunities for people to engage with, change and shape their environment. An outdoor fruit and vegetable garden provides children with a productive, life-giving task that encourages them to take ownership over their day. Outdoor spaces and varied indoor spaces—which support the idea of prospect and refuge, or the ability to observe without being observed—also give people more choice in where and how they spend their time.


Connect with Nature
Neuroscience Insight: Nature has a demonstrable positive impact on well-being and behavioral health outcomes, an insight which has driven the field of biophilic design, which seeks to connect people with nature in the modern built environment. Natural materials, natural light, views of greenspace and the ability to be outdoors in natural settings can all play an important role in reducing stress and improving physical and mental health.

Design Response: Natural materials are used throughout to reinforce connection to nature. Ohana Center is one of the largest healthcare buildings to use cross-laminated timber (CLT), a sustainable, low-cost engineered wood which imbues the center’s interiors with a comforting, natural feel. With floor-to-ceiling windows framing views oriented towards Ohana Center’s extensive outdoor greenspace—which includes flowing water that winds its way through the site, an outdoor amphitheater for group courses and performances, and walking paths and gardens—the design provides ample opportunity for people to connect with nature.


Boost Immune Health
Neuroscience Insight: Patients with behavioral health issues frequently experience a higher rate of coincidental health issues, as mental and physical health are strongly linked. By boosting immune function, healthcare environments can support better outcomes.

Design Response: Research shows that breathing in the volatile organic compounds of pinene-containing plants reduces stress and activate the body’s natural killer cells, boosting immune function by 40%. As a result, therapeutic plants including those with pinenes such as rosemary, lavender, cedar and pine are located throughout Ohana Center, including plantings along garden paths and in spaces for therapy and music.



Provide Respite for Staff
Neuroscience Insight: Behavioral health caregivers have an annual turnover rate of almost 35%, a high attrition rate partly attributable to workplace stress. Workplace stress can be mitigated by incorporating nature in the form of gardens or greenspace, or by providing opportunities for staff to relax and find respite with a sense of privacy in spaces that support restoration.

Design Response: Ohana Center has dedicated spaces for staff breaks which are designed to help lower levels of arousal fatigue and staff burnout, including private outdoor patios for caregivers to recharge. The building’s garden-like, indoor-outdoor environment also provides more relaxing, natural settings for caregivers to work in.


Creating more effective behavioral health environments for children and adolescents is a considerable challenge but also a tremendous opportunity. Projects like Ohana Center demonstrate the importance of addressing this challenge from an informed, evidence-based perspective. By grounding design in neuroscience and other social science insights, we create spaces that not only look beautiful and supportive but are intentionally designed to enhance well-being and improve outcomes.

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