Megha Sinha, AICP, LEED AP BD+C

Megha Sinha, AICP, LEED AP BD+C

Principal, NBBJ
Megha’s planning and design expertise includes land-use planning and urban design for communities, planning for higher education and healthcare institutions, mobility planning and corridor studies. She brings value to her clients by integrating strategic planning, site selection studies, master planning, space planning, urban and environmental planning, community revitalization and economic development, sustainable implementation strategies and research. Megha devotes her free time serving on the Board of the Ohio Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), the APA Central Ohio Section Committee, and the Society for College and University Planning North Central Regional Council.

From Insight to Action

Three Ways Design Computation Empowers Better Decision-Making

February 17, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Megha Sinha, Nate Holland and Melissa Alexander


Computational tools—which harness the power of computation to streamline decision making—were once considered “nice to have.” Now they are integral to the design process. So why should clients care?

The reason is simple. Computation gives planners and designers the ability to quickly translate thousands or even millions of data sets into actionable insights. Not only does this lead to better engagement with clients and the community, it also creates more successful projects.

While important to all aspects of design, it is especially relevant to planning neighborhoods, districts and cities. Here, we explore three main opportunities—and corresponding real-world examples—for the use of computational tools in urban planning projects.

Simplify the Design Process to Create More Tailored Outcomes

Opportunity: Computational tools can simplify the planning and design process by allowing project teams to organize and analyze mountains of data sets into leverageable insights.

Example: At Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, planners were tasked with developing a comprehensive long-term master plan grounded in data. Using computational tools, the project team was able to translate over a terabyte of data related to land use, ground water information, topography, trees, and use and conditions data about each building and room on campus into models. These models quickly showed how planning decisions would affect physical space and identify use patterns and opportunities. Further, the insights helped the university decide which facilities could be renovated or replaced, pinpoint the best areas for new investments, identify the most strategic targets for limited capital funding, and budget for the most impactful interventions on their historic land-grant campus.

For the LSU Campus Master Plan, linking robust data sets related to all campus systems, landscape, building size, function, age and architecture through a custom-built interactive 3D GIS-based model quickly and accurately showed how planning decisions affect physical space.


Deepen Community Engagement, Co-Design and Input

Opportunity: Computational tools can make the planning process—and outputs—empathetic by giving communities more transparency into the design process, and more opportunities to provide feedback and build consensus with other stakeholders.

Example: On the LSU project, a 24-7 data exchange portal allowed planners to get input from students and staff on how they travel throughout the campus, including their typical paths and modes of travel, and note how they feel while moving across campus. On another project, the Wilburton Commercial Area plan, an upzoning planning study in Bellevue, WA, citizens advisory committee members were able to mark up a 2D map of the area with crayons which became automatic inputs for 3D tools, generating different city forms based on the land use ideas. This rapid visualization enabled quick iteration to build consensus around numerous differing inputs and collectively determine next steps.

Computational tools allowed citizens advisory committee members to mark up a 2D map of the proposed Wilburton Commercial Area plan as an interactive input for a custom data rich 3D modeling platform.


Empower Clients to Make More Informed Decisions

Opportunity: Computational tools make the design process more collaborative by providing clients with the tools to make objective and informed decisions.

Example: The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, TN—the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory—needed to develop an interactive 3D GIS-based decision-making tool to guide its multi-year planning and budgeting process for facilities and supporting infrastructure on the 300-acre Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor (EGCR) campus. In response, the planning team created a tool with an easy-to-use interface that allows a user to easily manipulate physical campus planning scenarios and test and compare development options for feasibility and cost implications. The tool is now being used by the client team to test out potential sites on their campus to locate development projects as the need arises.

In many cases, planning tools like this one created for Oak Ridge National Laboratory are becoming final deliverables for clients, allowing users to easily test and compare development options within their own organizations.


One important thread that weaves through the examples above is the growing interdependence between designers and planners, and the tools they use. The artful interweaving of data and information with empathy and intuition can improve our urban environments and create lasting results for clients and the community.

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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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Helping Universities Adapt and Respond

Three Ways to Leverage Campus Real Estate in Support of Mission and Longevity

September 16, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Megha Sinha, Kim Way and Britni Stone.


As universities evolve strategies for reopening amidst the pandemic, many are also faced with major financial and logistical challenges. The combined impact of the loss of international students, financial strains that predate Covid, and the millions in losses caused by shutting down in-person classes leave many institutions in a serious bind. The space needs of universities are also changing rapidly, with the evolution of teaching models, the need for socially distanced learning environments and hybrid classrooms that support online and in-person learning. Given this context, there is a compelling need for universities to take a deeper look at their real estate assets and be creative with how they leverage their campus.

Real estate can be a valuable and untapped tool for universities seeking flexibility and additional resources to support their academic mission and financial stability. There are three key strategies which can support universities in this effort—scenario planning, partnerships, and creating flexible campus environments and spaces.

1. Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is a strategic planning method that universities can use to create flexible long-term campus plans, which can be particularly valuable in this era of uncertainty. Rather than creating a prescriptive master plan that lays out a single vision for the distant future, scenario planning helps institutions to envision multiple scenarios, each of which triggers a different planning approach. This ensures that the campus plan evolves with the changing landscape, and enables a more creative, flexible use of available space.

Each plan is unique as each institution is unique, but there are four key steps for institutions to consider as they develop a scenario plan:

  • Identify the key space needs drivers, both internal and external. This may encompass factors like enrollment trends, technology, areas of academic and research emphasis, evolving teaching models and student life and support facility needs. It is also important at this stage to start with the institution’s academic mission and vision, and consider how real estate can support this.
  • Assess existing facilities. This step involves understanding how space is currently being utilized and the condition of existing facilities. The challenge of addressing deferred maintenance may loom large on the horizon for many universities, though careful consideration should also be given to how facilities in need of renovation can be modified and used to accommodate pandemic related space needs in the immediate term.
  • Explore plausible scenarios. Universities should map out how programs, enrollment levels, and delivery models may evolve and change over the planning horizon, and use these projections to create a range of plausible scenarios. For instance, a university may anticipate steady on-campus enrollment growth, but should also consider the possibility that enrollment levels plateau or decline.
  • Provide a range of near and long-term recommendations. The last step is developing multiple or alternative near and long-term recommendations based upon the scenarios. This allows an institution to pivot to the recommendation that most closely reflects the scenario that plays out. For instance, if on-campus enrollment grows, then the university can adopt the recommendation that helps meet growing academic and student life space needs on campus. If the growth takes place in the online cohort, then the university can adopt the recommendation that enables a smaller real estate footprint, or reinvestment in technology within facilities, if hybrid learning models evolve.

2. Partnerships

Institutions can create more flexibility by partnering with other academic institutions, businesses, developers and allied organizations, utilizing their real estate to further their academic priorities. This approach can include:

  • Raising capital. Universities frequently have valuable real estate which is often unused, including parking lots and ageing or vacant buildings which they can’t afford to renovate. This real estate can be leased or sold to developers to raise capital that can sustain and enhance the institution’s strategic and academic mission.
  • Campus expansion. Universities frequently have facility needs that cannot be met through the traditional capital budgeting process. By partnering with developers through joint ventures or other arrangements, universities can still realize important projects like town/gown commercial districts, research parks, student housing, recreation amenities or other facilities. Some universities, like UC Davis Sacramento, have gone further by seeking out developers to finance, develop, own and manage significant parts of a new campus.
  • Partner with mission-aligned organizations. Universities can also raise capital and further their academic priorities by partnering with mission-aligned organizations, such as industry partners. For instance, co-locating with and renting campus space to companies allied with an academic research program or incubator space could bring financial benefits to the university while strengthening its research capabilities or commercialization efforts.

3. Create Flexibility in Existing Campus and Facilities

The pandemic demonstrates the importance of flexibility, as universities scramble to repurpose athletic facilities, outdoor space and other unconventional settings for socially distanced learning, dining or other functions. As part of a more long-term strategy to enhance adaptability and resilience, universities should consider flexibility as a central premise for the design of their campuses and spaces. But in the more immediate term, there are a number of strategies which can enhance flexibility within existing spaces to promote social distancing.

A fair degree of flexibility has been built into classrooms over the last decade, and this can be leveraged to make learning environments safer. For example, movable partitions in seminar rooms can be used to create smaller hybrid classes, and reconfigurable furniture can be spaced out to support social distancing. Similarly, shared common areas can be repurposed and zoned for lower density, serving as secondary spaces for learning, with the existing technology potentially used for virtual learners in a hybrid classroom. With an increase in remote work, some institutions may even rethink the design of staff space, adopting hoteling or shared hub strategies that provide the same choices offered in classroom environments and third spaces to faculty.

Technology is another enabler which may create new flexibility within existing spaces. With classroom technology becoming increasingly mobile, a number of areas, such as outdoor open spaces, building terraces and indoor atriums with good ventilation can potentially be used as temporary classrooms. Some universities are also deploying mobile hotspots to students in remote locations and boosting parking lot wifi to facilitate online learning.

While the immediate challenges of the pandemic will eventually recede, universities will need to continue to adapt and evolve in response to changing teaching models, enrollment trends and financial dynamics. Scenario planning, partnerships and designing for flexibility will be important tools for universities as they undertake this vital work.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Matthew Carbone.

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