Melissa Alexander

Melissa Alexander

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ
Melissa is currently a practicing urban designer. In past lives she has been an architect, a furniture designer/maker, a fabrication shop draftsman and a fellow at two non-profit design organizations. Melissa has proven to be rather nomadic; Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Detroit, Brooklyn and Boston have all been “home” at some point. She is interested in American urbanism, in urban-scale representation, in meta-narratives and in design pedagogy. She is a firm believer in brunch, the oxford comma and collages.

Are Zoom Towns the Future of Cities?

July 27, 2021

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

More than a year after the pandemic caused an abrupt shift to working remotely, offices are starting to reopen. However, in many cases, hybrid work policies are here to stay. This year-long work from home experiment showed that some tasks are more productive at home, while others benefit from being in the office (and others, such as essential workers, are required to do their jobs in-person).

According to a recent study by Microsoft, 73% of workers prefer a flexible work environment, and 46% of the global workforce is planning to move now that they can work at least partially in a remote configuration. From the employer perspective, remote work could upend the demand for companies to locate in competitive markets near an established talent pool and offering geographic flexibility could be a talent attraction strategy. If some employees are offered a flexible work environment, and many employers can now hire from anywhere, where might people choose to locate? Enter the concept of “zoom towns.”

Zoom towns are locations that are beginning to see a significant influx of remote workers. Initially, many zoom towns were in vacation destinations like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Aspen, Colorado and Lake Tahoe, California. But as employers make hybrid and remote options more permanent, zoom towns are evolving to a wider variety of locations, such as Austin, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina and Butte, Montana. Publicly available data has already started to give us a glimpse of the future. The USPS “Change of Address” dataset shows an increase in both overall moves and in net out-migration from larger cities. A national Bankrate/YouGov survey found millennials are most likely to have moved in 2020; movers preferred smaller cities or less-dense neighborhoods and; movers tended to relocate within the same region as their previous address. The survey also revealed that 21% of people relocated for their job, while 17% moved because they can now work from anywhere.

Given the availability of this data, new tools can help employees and employers identify ideal locations for their homes and businesses. A zoom towns location analysis tool developed by our firm uses geographic layers that capture a specific data theme, and compiles those layers to produce a weighted location suitability index for every area in the U.S. For example, an employee is ready to work remotely and move her family out of a major city. Her ideal home is in a location with a temperate climate (more important) and a low tax burden (less important). First, each data layer is classified, giving the best locations a score of 9, and the worst a score of 1. Second, each layer is weighted based on importance. With the layer classification and weighting complete, a simple arithmetic analysis produces the result: the best locations to live with both a temperate climate and low taxes are throughout the middle of the country, in certain locations throughout the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific Northwest coast. The analysis is quick and easy, and the employee can now see multiple location options that perhaps she hadn’t previously considered.



As zoom towns continue to see an increase in population, it’s also important to think about how we make these smaller, more remote areas more community-oriented and sustainable. People who are considering or have already moved to a zoom town may need to find new ways to network and connect outside the workplace. Activities like supporting small businesses, volunteering, joining neighborhood or civic associations, and researching local issues and causes allow zoom towns to support and accommodate their new residents, and to thrive as strong, resilient communities.

Additionally, many small towns are not prepared for a large influx of new residents, which may strain resources and cause problems like congestion, unaffordability and infrastructure constraints. This so-called “amenity migration” can have destructive consequences if not planned for and managed, according to researchers from the University of Utah. Adequate infrastructure, denser development, cleaner and more accessible public transportation, and access to a stable, fast Internet connection can all help zoom towns to retain both new and existing residents. Zoom towns may also help counteract the widely researched effects of “brain-drain” – the loss of highly-educated residents from rural environments to large cities.

Zoom towns do not mean an end for more traditional large cities, or the destruction of urban growth. Rather, zoom towns may need to be more like cities, adapting to challenges such as housing and transportation, and developing sustainably. With new tools and the ability to choose where and how we live and work, the two can coexist and even benefit one another.

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Put a Lid on It!

Freeway Lids Can Right the Wrongs of Urban Renewal — If We Keep these Five Principles in Mind

June 16, 2016

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the New Cities Foundation.

In nearly every major city in the United States, urban renewal-era planning connected downtowns to newly developing suburbs with multi-lane highways, in the process destroying acres of city fabric. In rare instances the highways tunneled under the city; more frequently, they were elevated or placed in depressed channels to segregate the fast-moving traffic from “impediments” (that is, people). As a result, urban neighborhoods were divided and separated from the city center, and large swaths of the city transformed into “no man’s land,” undesirable for pedestrian occupation, housing or commercial development.

Today, from Duluth to Dallas to Denver (and many places in between), channeled urban highways are being “lidded” where they cut through downtowns. A highway lid is just what it sounds like — a concrete shelf constructed over the road and capable of supporting parks, housing, office buildings, even local city streets. They have the potential to reconnect neighborhoods and to offer much-needed open space or development potential right in the heart of the city.

Recently we participated in a community-based design charrette to explore design ideas for lidding portions of I-5 through downtown Seattle. A number of recurring themes surfaced, including five essentials for designing a great highway lid:



Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, Texas, covers a three-block segment of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. (NBBJ/Sean Airhart)

Bikes and pedestrians want the dedicated infrastructure that cars already have…

Direct, convenient routes designed primarily for cars are ubiquitous, but pedestrians and cyclists desire the same kind of paths designed specifically for them. Highway lids offer an opportunity within the city to provide greenways and viable off-street routes for non-motorized traffic. Like many cities, Seattle has public park gems, such as Volunteer Park and Discovery Park, but it lacks the comprehensive network of linear parks and greenways that are so desirable to cyclists and pedestrians for off-street circulation. A highway lid project such as the one proposed for I-5 could address the need for linear green space in the city.


…but the cars aren’t going away.

In typical urban renewal fashion, highways tend to cut through cities with disregard for neighborhood cohesiveness and local connectivity. Highway lids offer ample opportunity for new parks and pedestrian routes, but they also offer an opportunity to reconnect the street grid and right the wrongs of past planning practices. In the case of Seattle, currently I-5 causes frustrating traffic choke points along its entire length, which could be mediated with a few more cross-highway connections. Design proposals have to balance the needs of street network connectivity with the opportunity for pedestrian-focused circulation.


People want great public spaces with fun programming…

Current planning practices focus on programming for public spaces. Some of the most successful parks and plazas in the U.S. and abroad have non-profit organizations dedicated to managing public events and inventing fun programming for a wide variety of users. Examples include rotating public art installations, movie nights, food trucks and lawn seating, farmers markets and craft fairs, and active uses like tai chi and yoga. Large, uninterrupted areas of open space offer the most flexible environment for dynamic, engaging programming.


…but private development can provide dollars and amenities.

Verdant parks and sparkling fountains garner the most enthusiasm from the public, but dense private development makes those public spaces financially possible. Moreover, a good mix of office, housing and retail amenities will draw people to the site and ensure that public spaces will be vibrant with human activity. Good lid design needs to balance the need for large, flexible public spaces with development opportunities, and smart urban design guidelines should ensure new development is equitable and affordable.



Boston’s “Big Dig” buried part of Interstate 93 and replaced it with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, shown here with an installation, “As If It Were Already Here,” by artist Janet Echelman. (NBBJ/Sean Airhart)

No more mono-functional planning.

Mono-functional planning — in this case, privileging the car by allowing a highway to cut through the city — was a mistake perpetuated by nearly every city in America. Even though a huge swath of green space in the city seems desirable, dedicating the entire lid as one large public open space is just another type of mono-functional planning that does little to physically reconnect neighborhoods. Conversely, dedicating the entire lid for private development misses the opportunity to design a city that caters to a plurality.

Highway lids offer an opportunity to correct the planning mistakes of the past while also increasing the vibrancy and livability of the city. A list of best practices for lid design has to be more thoughtful, intricate and community-focused than the planning practices that put the highway there in the first place.


Author’s Note: Thanks to Daren Crabill, Wyatt O’Day, Claire Showalter, April Soetarman, Amy Taylor and Keith Walzak for their input and participation in the I-5 charrette.

Banner image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr.

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#Engagement Is More than a Hashtag

What Planners Should Know about Using Technology for Public Engagement

April 19, 2016

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

I recently moderated a session on the topic of technology and community engagement at this year’s American Planning Association Conference in Phoenix. The panel included one representative each from four important groups involved with the topic: government, academia, planning, and the tech industry. We learned about the exciting emerging technologies being used for engagement by the private and public sectors.

Here are my top five take-aways from the discussion.


Screenshots from Civic Insight

Technology changes everything …
An ever-increasing array of apps and web platforms are available to facilitate all types of engagement. Some are designed very specifically for planners. Civic Insight is a web platform that allows cities to make data about vacant and abandoned homes easily available. SMap brings community meetings right to any desktop computer. Some apps are produced by governments to connect citizens directly to city agencies — in the case of StreetBump to report potholes using smartphones and GPS. And the recently released Data USA is an open-source platform promoted as “the most comprehensive website and visualization engine” ever created for U.S. government data.

Other technology, designed for wider use, can be adapted to a planning context. Submittable, a web platform for accepting submissions to companies such as those in the music or publishing industries, can be used by planners to solicit ideas from the community or to host ideas competitions. StoryCorps is a long-running campaign for collecting oral histories, and now they have an app that can be used to easily collect and organize stories from a community. Typeform is great for web and email surveys, and Poll Everywhere is great for SMS (texting) surveys.

… yet technology doesn’t change anything.
Apps and web platforms are new and exciting, but engagement itself isn’t new at all: planners have been working with communities long before the internet and social media even existed. Technology has given us fun new tools for communication, but the traditional goals of planning and public engagement remain the same: gathering good data, accurately assessing public opinion and stakeholder needs, building trust between citizens and planners, and increasing the legitimacy of decision-making.

Meet people where they are.
A 2015 Pew Research report estimated that 68% of Americans own a smartphone, and 2012 census data indicates that 74.8% of all households have home internet access. Though these percentages are high, it doesn’t stand to reason that socio-demographic groups are represented equally among those figures. Moreover, different generational cohorts interact with technology in different ways. Millennials are more highly represented in texting, Twitter and Instagram, while older generations prefer Facebook and email. Given this variety, technology should never be a replacement for in-person engagement. The best engagement campaigns meet the people where they are, and now some — but not all — people are at their smartphones. Engaging across a variety of modes is more important than ever.

Academia is your friend.
Planners shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to academia with ideas for apps and web platforms for engagement projects. A collaboration between the City of Atlanta and Georgia Tech produced Cycle Atlanta, a smartphone app that tracks user cycling routes to inform future planning decisions.

Professors and researchers need ideas for projects, students enjoy working on “real world” problems, and collaboration is good for everyone. Universities and research centers are the obvious choice, but don’t forget about high schools and community colleges too!

Stay current.
There is no master list of good technology tools for public engagement, so planners need to stay up-to-date the old-fashioned way: by reading articles and blogs, participating in conferences and keeping up with the work of their colleagues.

Technology offers great new tools for planners but is no guarantee of greater success or even time savings. New tools have the potential of reaching a wider audience, but they should always be supplemented by in-person engagement. Data collected still needs to be synthesized by a human. How a community member interacts with technology needs to be very carefully considered. Great public engagement is designed — for this reason, thoughtful planners are essential.

Special thanks to my panelists for their time and expertise: Alice Brown, AICP, Project Manager for Go Boston 2030, Boston Transportation Department; Dr. Camille Crittenden, Deputy Director of UC Berkeley CITRIS & Executive Director of the Social Apps Lab; Nicolas Rivard, Urban Designer and R+D Leader, Overland Partners, San Antonio; and Eddie Tejeda, CEO of Civic Insight & Director of Technology for OpenOakland.

Banner image courtesy of Go Boston 2030.

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What Can Pedagogy Teach Us About Practice?

Why Design Studio Is the Ideal Model for the Classrooms of Tomorrow

September 8, 2014

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

My professional life is a two-sided coin: most days, I practice as an architect and urban designer at NBBJ. Other days, I am adjunct faculty at the Boston Architectural College or a teaching fellow at Harvard College. This unique pairing of practice and pedagogy is symbiotic: because I practice, I am a better teacher; because I teach, I am a better practitioner.


The studio inside Gund Hall, Harvard University Graduate School of Design (Image courtesy Parsa Kamali)

The Instructor-Practitioner

The many benefits of having active practitioners as instructors are quite obvious: We have our fingers on the pulse of development. We know who is commissioning work and what types of projects they desire. We know what a realistic program might be for any given type of project. We know all the rules of thumb, from parking garage net-to-gross ratios, to typical lane widths and curb radii, to street light and street tree spacing. We know how to craft a project narrative that will convince a client of our ideas, and we know how to engage with the public in meaningful ways.

The benefits of having academics (even part-time ones) as practitioners are a bit more obscure but critically important nonetheless. In the studio model of education, a group of students (usually twelve) are assigned a program for a design project, then given a semester to produce individual designs to a schematic level of development. There will be a bit of assigned research and precedent analysis at the beginning, but a good part of the semester is devoted to a student simply working through the problem: trial, error, reflection, analysis, synthesis, representation, verbal communication, etc.

Experts in Ambiguity

The purpose of a studio is not that a student becomes an expert in a specific project type. Instead, success requires a student to hone her own creative problem-solving skills: researching a problem, navigating creative ambiguities, defining priorities and developing formal and spatial responses. Students build their creative muscles by being thrown into the unknown again and again, until they can navigate their way through any problem, spatial or otherwise. When we teach a studio, we jump into the unknown with each student — like taking our own design studio, times twelve. This type of immersion into the creative process doesn’t happen on a daily basis in practice.


Kanye West visits the studio (Image courtesy Irina Figueroa Ortiz)

This is why engaging with students — as an instructor, guest critic or mentor — is critically important to not just the design profession, but any profession. Our rapidly changing world is not a scene in black and white, but rather a rich spectrum of grays: ambiguities, unknowns, uncertainties. Our most valuable practitioners aren’t the so-called “experts” in any particular project type; they are the ones willing to embrace the gray, to reimagine problems and tackle them anew. Moreover, it is the crutch of expertise that blinds us from observing emergent trends in the way we live, work, play, study, interact, engage with and move through the world today.

And this pedagogy applies to education more broadly, too. Students use the studio not only to work on their individual projects, but also to meet, chat, speculate, even drink and dine. Indeed, peer review, professional networking, and the development of a flexible environment for teaching and learning are equally as important as the generation of design solutions. We should plan more such “studio spaces,” at the scale of classrooms, buildings, even entire campuses. After all, students learn as much from each other as from their instructors — and they might just teach their instructors a thing or two.

Banner image courtesy of Nick Amoscato/Flickr.

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