Cities Should Be Planned for People Before Cars. Here’s How It Can Be Done.

Five Lessons From Asia and Europe to Create More Human-Centric American Cities

January 21, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Phu Duong.

 

Throughout the world and especially in America, modern cities are operating from a mentality organized primarily around automobiles – not people. Since the introduction of Henry Ford’s automobile, the percentage of America’s population living in urban areas has jumped from 46% to upwards of 80%, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have increased tenfold and income inequality has ballooned to an all-time high.

Therefore, it’s worth asking if there’s a better way to imagine our districts, neighborhoods and cities to reflect what we want the world of tomorrow to look like. If 20th century planning + design was defined by how we plan around the car, 21st century planning and design can be defined by how we plan around people and healthy communities. Here are five ideas as to how that could happen:

1. First, Look Beyond Our Shores
While we’re at the beginning of this journey in America, cities across Asia and Europe already demonstrate what re-envisioning cities and districts looks like. Forward-thinking mayors like Ann Hidalgo of Paris and Ada Colau of Barcelona shape their cities’ long-term thinking through movements like the 15-minute city (where all necessary day-to-day amenities and services are concentrated in walkable neighborhoods requiring fewer car trips) and superblocks (where concentrations of blocks become pedestrianized except for essential and emergency vehicles).

In Asia, ambitious commitments by cities and companies push the boundaries of car-free, human-centric planning. For example, we’re currently working with Chinese technology company Tencent on its new districtwide Net City project in Shenzhen as an urban lab for testing ideas that put people ahead of the car. The project is a tabula rasa site with one main public space and connected nodes, all centered around a pedestrian-friendly framework. While coming from a considerably different cultural, political and geographic context, there’s a lot to learn from these projects that can be applied here.

2. Make It Slightly Inconvenient (and Safer) To Drive
Convenience is a motivating factor for day-to-day choices. So if we want to pivot away from a car-dominant mentality, we need to encourage cities to make it at least slightly inconvenient to drive. And while it’s unrealistic to expect a wholesale shift away from automobiles in cities, there are a host of solutions we can explore to make it easier for people to opt for alternative modes of transportation.

For Tencent’s Net City, traffic engineers are exploring interventions such as streets with acute corners so cars can only turn certain directions, ensuring traffic routing and pacing in a way that privileges pedestrian mobility over car movement. By changing street and traffic patterns and reorganizing blocks and functions, it’s possible to repatch the city to force drivers to slow down – something that is safer for both pedestrians and those in the car. It also makes the city quieter, an added benefit.

And in Oslo, making walking, biking and public transit the more convenient transportation option has meant removing over 700 parking spots from the city’s Downtown.

Note that while we want to shift the mindset of private automobile use in metropolitan areas, we need to double down on inclusive design and ADA accessibility which offers a new opportunity when traffic congestion is reduced and the competition for the curbside seeks new activity patterns.

3. Consider the Benefits of Wide Roadways
In the U.S. we tend to veer away from wide street and road patterns that are more commonly found throughout Asia. But there’s actually a way that we can adapt this model for US cities to plan dynamic people-centered environments. For example, the Tencent Net City requires a wide roadway right-of-way to meet the current planning regulations. But micro mobility strategies are also layered side-by-side: pedestrian walkways, protected bike lanes, bus lanes and space for scooters, e-bikes and green infrastructure buffers. Designers must envision intermittent uses that flex over time to support community creation for city dwellers and small businesses.

In addition, right-of-way width of roadways preserves daylight exposure onto the streets and sidewalks and it allows the urban fabric to ventilate. These fundamental provisions date back to the public health performance of streets in history that remain paramount during the pandemic. A hot steamy summer in New York with piles of garbage bags sharing the sidewalks with people is a picture that convinces many to want to redesign street spaces. As cities densify, daylight exposure becomes a right as well. Wider streets means more ample sunshine for everyone and even the urban forest that survives all year long inhabiting the street. Even an accommodation of three more feet to expand tree and plant beds offers a more humane streetscape to offset carbon emissions in our cities.

We already see this happening in an informal way during the pandemic in both big and small cities throughout America, which have introduced outdoor seating on sidewalks, moved walkways into the street and turned medians into hangout areas. The wider roads can provide space for both temporary and tactical urbanism interventions and programming as well as more permanent adjustments. This also allows for spaces where greater intergenerational and social mixing can occur.

4. Transform Roadways to Pedestrian Ways Across Scales
Wherever possible, we should look for opportunities to transform roadways for cars into pedestrian ways that can accommodate recreation and active transportation. We’ve already seen the popularization of car-free streets, where multi-street corridors are turned into walking and biking zones.

But there is also an opportunity to look across scales – whether it’s at an individual block level or across entire districts and neighborhoods. With the Denny Substation in Seattle – a project that turns a public utility into a community park and amenity – walkability is improved with the inclusion of community space including a quarter-mile walkway lined with public artworks, a dog park and gallery space and areas for food trucks. We also see this at the district level with Dallas’ Arts District which seeks to turn one of the most notoriously car-centric cities in America into a walkable central hub for culture and recreation.

5. Expand the Pool of Stakeholders Committed to This Work
The process of reshaping cities away from 100 years of car-dominant planning and design will take a wide and committed group of stakeholders. While this work has often been led by local government, a widening group of private and corporate firms – including a number of forward-thinking companies – are taking on this work, especially at a neighborhood and district level. These initiatives are even more impactful when new industry and local government work together in tandem to imagine, fund and maintain this work. And with city budgets constricted by the ongoing pandemic, it’s going to take additional vision and commitment by the private sector to move toward this vision.

In Summary
The reprioritization of city planning to focus first on humans and later on cars is central to the values we want to see – cities with a smaller carbon footprint and lesser climate change impact, healthy cities with cleaner air, less noise pollution, more opportunities for active transportation and more inclusive and equitable cities with quality transportation access for all. The challenge and task at hand is immense but it is achievable if the collective wisdom and commitment to bring together city planners, developers, corporations and the wider design community is realized.

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Focus, Collaborate, Learn, Socialize and Rest

How Five Work Modes Can Redefine the Return to the Workplace

January 14, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a six-part series that outlines a framework for five different work modes. Subsequent posts will explore a single work mode in greater depth.

This post initially appeared on CoreNet Global.

While the pandemic alters how and where we work, employees still need to create new ideas and advance the work of their organizations. The physical workplace they return to will look a lot different, likely providing them with more agency to move between different types of work and the settings in which to complete them.

For knowledge workers, teams and organizations to flourish in a post-pandemic world, work environments must nurture the ability to focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest. These five work modes can provide a balanced framework for increased creativity, health and productivity for organizations pursuing knowledge work. To help bring people back to the office and strategically deploy investments, it is critical to identify these work modes and also understand how organizations and design can shift to accommodate them.

Origins of Work Modes
Different modes of work originated within the fields of knowledge management and creation. In the 1990s, organization experts Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi identified four knowledge-building activities that drive business innovations. These include socialization, externalization, combination and internalization. The most innovative companies, they argued, combine these work modes to launch a continuous cycle of knowledge.

Outside of business management, organizations have adapted and augmented these work modes with social science studies and research findings to apply them to the changing nature of work. They’ve also been able to utilize a set of tools — including the physical work environment — to enable their success.

For over a decade, we have crafted our workplaces to enable the modes of work critical to knowledge creation — focus, collaborate, learn and socialize. Based on recent research and the information it reveals about what humans need to be successful, we propose an additional work mode — rest. While the original four are critical to developing new ideas and sharing knowledge, the fifth enables individual reflection and further clarification of ideas and concepts that benefit the shared knowledge of teams and organizations.

Below is a look at the five key modes that organizations and companies can promote in the transition back to the physical office, not just for improved innovation, but for wellness too.

Focus
Create zones for distraction-free work that power company success on an individual, team and organizational level across distributed environments, from the workplace to the home office.

Focus work — what we typically think of as heads down or solo work — is a core element of most knowledge work. This work is essential to efficiently absorb and process complex pieces of information so it can be effectively used. It is the “super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy,” writes Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work. Focus work encompasses tasks such as contemplation, strategizing, research and idea-generation. Think of jobs such as the coder, the accountant, and the writer.

Central to focus work are spaces that enable the ability to concentrate without interruption for chunks of time. Two factors can help unlock successful focus work: physical separation that offers a quiet zone and the ability to control the environment.

In conversations with clients, including tech companies like Google, employees are known to wander far to find the best place for heads-down work. At the company’s office in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, a variety of home-like focused work areas are integrated throughout. There are booths near windows, darkened lounges, a library room, private seating niches and more, so staff can easily find a place for the right level of seclusion if needed.

Collaborate
Offer places that harness team synergy and serendipity to drive creativity and innovation.

Collaboration — working with others — is required to advance ideas and is the backbone of the world’s most innovative companies. Critical to an organization’s success, it fosters creativity, increases bigger-picture thinking and aligns team goals. Most important, it expands initial ideas by welcoming a diversity of perspectives. Collaboration involves discussion, active listening, brainstorming and co-creation. Almost every knowledge worker collaborates in their work, although certain creativity-driven roles employ collaboration more than others, such as consulting, human resources and media.

As we may see more heads-down work completed at home after the coronavirus, workplaces that provide a range of easily accessible and inviting areas for collaboration is key. This could include flexible spaces for 1:1 touch bases and small team huddles to larger tech-equipped places for strategy sessions. Dedicated team areas situated near work stations can provide a hybrid digital-analogue space to collaborate. These areas could feature tactile digital walls for brainstorming and project check-ins, as well as space for teammates to pin up posters and leave behind analogue messages. Equipped with video cameras, remote team members could video conference in, and collaborate in real-time on the digital wall with distributed teams.

Yet as much as it is essential to offer areas that facilitate planned collaboration, enabling serendipitous moments are critical too. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, staff shared how before the pandemic they loved standing in line at the foundation’s café: they said it was wonderful to not only catch up with friends, but a perfect opportunity to exchange “half-baked” work ideas with colleagues.

Learn
Create spaces that celebrate mentorship and learning across all levels of an organization to improve business performance and growth.

Lifelong learning and mentorship are essential at all stages of life, but especially at work for the acquisition, transfer and application of ideas. Learning expands perspectives to help individuals, teams and companies grow so they can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances and deliver high-impact services and products. Learning includes activities such as training-by-doing, conversations with advocates and group lectures. It can also encompass unintentional connections with colleagues or even overheard conversations, which are nearly impossible to have at home on Zoom calls. To foster learning, organizations must provide effective environments in tandem with the right policies and practices.

It’s essential to create workplace conditions that make learning a priority and a positive experience so knowledge can be easily shared. Offices can provide opportunities to accommodate pop-up learning moments, library-like reading nooks and multi-purpose rooms that change with ease to support different learning environments. Learning spaces can also provide a place to remove everyone from the demands of their day-to-day work to immerse themselves in new information and new ideas.

Organizations can also foster greater knowledge by opening themselves up to the community. Classrooms in office buildings and corporate campuses can help activate underutilized retail space both during the day and evening via partnerships with outside organizations like community colleges. As learning is active and adults learn by doing, providing places that offer a balance of instruction and application enables the development of new skills.

At the F5 Networks headquarters, a 28-story continuous stair spirals up through the tower to heighten connections between employees, clients and visitors. It encourages unique opportunities for them to more easily interact and informally exchange knowledge, exponentially expanding the sphere of learning to colleagues across floors and departments (and to even get in some brain-stimulating and stress-reducing exercise!).

Socialize
Foster opportunities to build culture and social connections through environments that grow trust, meaningful work and mental wellness.

People feel less stressed and happier with more high-quality relationships at work, which helps foster risk-taking and innovation. We think the areas where social capital — the social bonds and shared values that enable trust and teamwork — is formed, is evolving. Before the coronavirus, the office as a shared physical space became an increasingly important place to build social cohesion and meaningful connections.

The pandemic is challenging work relationships, with social distancing hindering our ability to gather in shared spaces. In a post-pandemic world, workplaces that allow for formal and informal socializing can set the groundwork for stronger collaboration, learning and compassion, which in turn can drive greater creativity and wellness. This could include café areas where staff can gather around the kitchen during meal prep to niches facing windows with comfortable couches for casual conversations. Yet socializing is also about connections outside an organization. Welcoming ground level amenity spaces can draw the community inside and employees out of the office to intermix. Public spaces, like art galleries, cafes and outdoor lounges, can also be dispersed throughout office buildings and campuses to better facilitate social opportunities.

When the renovated headquarters of a coffeehouse company opened, the former CEO noted that the design of the new interior space seamlessly reflected the culture and human connection-focused mission of their organization. Before the coronavirus, staff relayed how much they enjoyed discovering new places to sit and connect with colleagues, especially in the multi-tiered lobby, which allows for unique intersections between employees and the public.

Rest
Provide purposeful spaces for respite, engagement and positive distractions that encourage relaxation so people can let their minds wander.

Working smarter, not longer, may be the key to better performance. Numerous studies show rest is essential to creativity and productivity, and as such, it must be considered an essential work mode too. A short break — ideally every 90 minutes — is helpful to reduce work errors, improve productivity and prevent burnout. In addition, a 26-minute nap can dramatically improve alertness by 54% and performance by 34%, a NASA study found. Rest can also take the form of other deep breaks, like daydreaming, walking and mindful meditation.

It is helpful to create policies and appropriate spaces — from simple to more advanced — to encourage rest when needed. Calm, peaceful areas in the workplace away from digital screens can enable rest so staff can better reflect and absorb ideas, skills and knowledge. This can range from cozy high-backed chairs in a quiet corner with restorative nature elements to full-fledged napping rooms with gentle circadian lighting, cooler temperatures and sound-reducing features.

Rest is an important component to the Google work experience. In their South Lake Union workplace, a relaxing jellyfish lounge with dimmed lighting provides a peaceful place to rest, while a dedicated nap station and a “treehouse” lit via circadian lighting help mitigate Seattle’s darkwinter days.

In Summary
Organizations that incorporate these five modes — focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest — into their work environments may achieve greater innovation and wellness. As the pandemic accelerates these modes in different types of settings, it’s crucial we apply these insights to help shape a real estate and workplace strategy now and for the future so we can enable the best work experience possible.

A workplace can help support a company’s business goals by fostering greater knowledge-sharing, and as a result, set staff up for success on an individual and team level. The time is ripe to plan, experiment and try something new.

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Rethinking the Medical Campus

Three Steps Hospitals Can Take to Better Utilize Their Office Space

January 7, 2021

Healthcare Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This post initially appeared on Forbes. It was co-authored by Ryan Hullinger and Sarah Markovitz.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has many industries reevaluating the office needs of employees, and healthcare is no exception. While ICUs are once again seeing surges of Covid-19 patients, not all spaces inside hospitals are being utilized effectively. Roughly one third of academic medical centers is dedicated to non-clinical hospital workspace. By rethinking administrative space, hospitals have an opportunity to elevate the workplace experience and free space for new (and more productive) uses. With this in mind, here are three steps hospitals can take to analyze and then efficiently utilize administrative space.

 

Measure the Current State

To create a more productive and effective workplace, hospitals first need to better understand how existing workspaces are being used. Space utilization studies, employing smart occupancy sensors and staff preference surveys, can help determine how frequently each space is occupied and why. This gives valuable information that can help identify underutilized and high usage spaces and create a data-driven foundation for decision-making. Hospitals also need to evaluate administrative space in terms of adjacencies, function, team dynamics and role requirements in order to understand how effectively space is being used and how it might change to better align with patient care and organizational needs.

This deeper understanding of space usage can then be aligned with current and anticipated workforce trends. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that many tasks, especially in departments like administration, finance, medical records, case management, support and IT — can be done effectively from home at least part of the time. For some hospitals, it may make sense from a financial and productivity standpoint to enable certain positions to continue working remotely. Such a move could also help with talent attraction and retention, as a 2018 survey from Becker’s Hospital Review finds that 80% of healthcare workers want the ability to work remotely. Yet it’s important to note that there is no one size fits all solution — each hospital needs to weigh the specific costs and benefits of such moves and determine which employees should be on-site, remote, or a mix of both.

 

Rethink Workplace Design

Design can play a fundamental role in creating workspaces that foster a better workplace experience while using space more effectively. For hospitals pursuing a more wide-scale remote work policy, the reduced need for workstations and offices opens a number of possibilities. If remote workers are going to be in the office part-time, shared workstations may be an option which occupies far less space. Staggered shifts could also be implemented, allowing more people to use the same space, and modular furniture and partition systems set up which occupy less space but provide far more flexibility.

Hospital workspace could become more of a hub for project team work, multi-disciplinary consultation and collaboration, and hands-on learning and mentoring and social connection, while concentrated heads-down work happens at home. Hospitals could consider how outdoor space can be used for amenities, informal collaboration and connecting to nature, effectively expanding the usable office without increasing the square footage. With less space dedicated to offices and workstations, more engaging amenity and teaming spaces could also be carved out within the existing footprint.

The private physician offices, which typically range in scale from 80 to 120 square feet or larger for director level positions, are another area for consideration. While recent trends point to smaller offices and increased team space, academic medical centers still offer far more private offices and relatively little meeting space when compared to contemporary high performing corporate workplaces. Yet this is changing as systems begin to reevaluate the return on investment for this space. Some have found that when departments are required to lease space using their own funds, many physicians opt not to have a private office, and choose instead to allocate that funding to other areas of the department.

However, there may be opportunities to retain the prestige and advantages of private offices without needing to dedicate the actual office space — which can be costly to build and maintain. For instance, private offices could be consolidated into shared workspaces, with access to a physicians-only, amenity-focused lounge that encourages new levels of collaboration. Alternately, physicians could be provided resources to outfit their home offices with high-end technology and furniture, freeing office space on campus while still maintaining physicians’ private offices in considerably less expensive residential settings. With the expansion of telehealth and physicians’ ability to work from home, this latter option may become more prevalent.

 

Evaluate New Uses

For some hospitals, the process of understanding space and adopting new workplace design strategies will result in consolidated office footprints or smaller clusters of offices. The question then becomes how to put the newly emptied space to better use. Some hospitals may opt to expand IT, digital and virtual capabilities into the vacated space, creating electronic ICUs, command centers for monitoring patients, or centers for telemedicine.

Other hospitals may look to use the excess space to expand fast-growing service lines into adjacent, previously unavailable workspace. With significant wait times for many key procedures at hospitals, the chance to extend clinical capabilities without building new space is a unique opportunity. Alternately, hospitals may opt to expand staff wellness spaces or services, or services which typically have difficulty finding space such as occupational and physical therapy, holistic and wellness services, community education hubs, or patient support groups. Some of these programs could even be accommodated after hours in hybrid spaces used during the day as offices, amenities or team spaces. Hospitals may also use space to improve safety and infection prevention, such as areas for rapid testing for employees — both now and for potential future pandemics.

With the financial implications of the pandemic still unfolding, there is a heightened need to make better use of existing real estate assets. This is a complex task that will lead to different outcomes for each hospital, but the process can reap significant benefits — both in financial terms, and in the workplace experience and productivity of staff.

 

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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