How Designers Can Help Lead the Conversation about Science

Reflections on the March for Science in Washington, DC

May 30, 2017

Partner, NBBJ

“Energizing” is the word I would use to describe the March for Science in Washington, DC, last month on Saturday, April 22. Along with the People’s Climate March a week later, and with ongoing drama over the Paris climate accord, it’s obvious that people are feeling the need to get out and speak up on the issues surrounding our planet.

At the march I attended, it was wonderful to see such a wide diversity of age, race, geography, religion and profession uniting around the significance of science.

In particular the unanimous support for the reality of climate change is a call to action to reverse this human-instigated circumstance which could make many species — including our own — extinct in the next century.

The “science” of designing, building and operating the physical environment contributes significantly to adding carbon to the atmosphere — the leading cause of climate change — so our role as architects should be pivotal in reversing this. Designers can shape the dialogue in three ways:

1. Get Involved
I spoke to dozens of people along the March for Science and most were scientists and academics: although it’s possible I missed a few individuals, nowhere did I see the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) participating. I would argue our profession is at least half science, and therefore our input is paramount. Climate change is certainly discussed in architecture circles; however, it would be great if more people trained in design and architecture were in the political realm. Policy is the root of change and getting in at the ground level is key.

2. Implement Best Practices
There are a number of things the design industry can do that are simply best practices taken seriously, yet even today, 13 years away from the deadline of the 2030 Challenge, we are not taking the basics to heart. Design begins with one’s relationship to the environment, so appropriate responses to climate and solar and wind orientation are the most fundamental. Simple energy modeling that allows us to make big or even incremental moves can save megawatts of energy over decades. There are many passive design opportunities, from building orientation, to enclosure design, to building materials, to sun shading and louvers that we can take advantage of more frequently. We have a really big tool chest to work from!

3. Innovate
Then there’s the real science and innovation side, from things like photovoltaics, to making lighter buildings with less material, to sustainable materials like timber. There is no reason why the surface area of buildings can’t also be generators of energy or surfaces for agriculture. Even things like modular construction can significantly help reduce waste, in addition to creating better safety on-site and increasing construction quality. A whole range of potential innovations can be put into practice by the design and construction industry.

This will require help from our partners — clients, engineers, contractors — but the design professions can play a leading role. As the holders of the design vision, we have the platform and the point of view to orchestrate the conversation, to describe the issues and challenges. Initiatives like the USGBC and the AIA’s 2030 Challenge are a great start, but we in our profession we need to ramp it up.

 

Tens of thousands of people marching down Constitution Avenue and at over 600 similar events around the world send a clear signal to our elected leaders to take this matter seriously — science is the foundation of our future health, prosperity, even our very lives!

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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From the Growth of Tech to Economic Uncertainty, Four Takeaways from ULI’s Spring Meeting

Look to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for a Preview of the Changes Coming to Real Estate

May 18, 2017

Partner, NBBJ

Thousands of leaders in real estate converged on Seattle earlier this month for the annual Urban Land Institute (ULI) spring meeting. Clouds parted in the notoriously drizzly Pacific Northwest town to show off its finest hour as a city engaged in building one of the most “user-friendly” cities in the United States.

As the largest urban area in the Pacific Northwest and a tech cousin to San Francisco, this 700,000-person city — with a regional population of approximately 3.8 million people — enjoys tremendous growth in the technology sector, with companies like Amazon consuming massive amounts of real estate. To counter the growing pains of San Francisco, Seattle is trying to develop its urban core to take advantage of the city infrastructure and to diversify its community. Here are four key takeaways from the conversation about these issues at ULI, and a few provocations for the future.

1) Neighborhood as Catalyst
With a strong interest in the South Lake Union neighborhood, many events and tours at the ULI event showed the tremendous impact of revitalizing this once parking-lot-filled area of Seattle into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood. Home to a variety of organizations, South Lake Union integrates working, living and playing in a medium-density format. The area is rich with architectural character — blending the past and present with the energy of youth and optimism fueled by the millennial ethos. While not perfect, South Lake Union presents a great case study on how public and private partnerships can come together to spur development — from parks and retail, to corporate headquarters and new forms of transportation.

2) A Strong, but Uncertain, Economy
Another topic of interest was defining where we are in the economic cycle. Entering the seventh year of sustained growth after the “great recession,” there are varied opinions on the topic. Terms like “extra innings” and “double-header” were used as a familiar analogy to describe the sentiment. Are we close to a walk-off home run with two outs and a 3-2 count? Or are we in the 3rd inning of the evening game of the double-header?

One statement made by Tom Hennessy from Equity International caught my attention and I think is a more accurate assessment. Tom described the current situation as “land priced to perfection.” Unpacking his statement, Tom says the costs to continue this cycle of economic vitality are at a premium with zero margin for error. This will likely tighten the market significantly. However, the United States is and should continue to be a safe haven for international capital, which is beginning to flow into cities where vacancy rates are declining.

3) The Trump Effect
What conversation doesn’t include some discussion about politics? The market enthusiasm for bank deregulation, corporate tax cuts and support for small and medium business has everyone optimistic. However, many also expressed concern about the lack of traction and inability to move policy forward in Washington. This gridlock will likely not bode well for the markets, which could overshadow aforementioned positivity.

4) A Time for Tech
Seattle, with its tremendous development boom and 60+ construction cranes, had many people asking, “How much gas is still in the tank?” On one hand, it seems all economies are cyclical, even Seattle’s. But on the other hand, the growth of the tech industry seems to create anomalies that aren’t just based on traditional metrics. During the ULI meeting, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate, John Schoettler, announced that the company will hire 100,000 employees over the next 18 months. While that number represents employees around the world, it still equates to over 5,000 people per month — the size of a small Eastern Washington town. These figures underscore the dramatic shift that is happening in this “second machine age” fueled by extraordinary advances in computing technology. Developers and cities would be wise to continue to invest in this industry for years to come.

Regardless of these trends and what else is to come, it’s safe to say that we are just at the tip of the iceberg of the unimaginable changes that will take place in society. Over the next 10 years, disruptions such as driverless cars, more mobile ways of living and working, artificial intelligence and extraordinary breakthroughs in bio-science will transform cities and human life in profound ways. My friends and colleagues at ULI are perfectly positioned to lead and drive this discussion. Economy, ROI and politics aside — the future is bright and will be looking for innovation at all levels. It’s going to be quite a journey, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Image courtesy of Kevin Scott/NBBJ.

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Hospitals Play a Key Role in Building Pathways Out of Poverty

How Healthcare Providers Can Give Back to Their Neighborhoods, and Benefit from It

February 28, 2017

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was originally published by Next City.

As jobs in many low income neighborhoods have migrated to suburbs (or overseas), so have retailers and newer housing for those well-off enough to pull up roots and move out. Not so for the large hospitals that have substantial capital investments in existing buildings and, in many cases, social investments in existing communities. Public hospitals in particular tend to find themselves embedded in some of the most distressed communities in America.

As a planner working with many stressed cities in the “Rust Belt,” I frequently find local hospitals are the last and most committed economic anchors, but also the ones most impacted by economic decline in urban cores. City governments are searching for ways to leverage the economic benefits of these anchor institutions (hospital jobs certainly, but also subcontracting and services) for the benefit of the larger community. And some forward-thinking governments, along with aligned organizations and foundations, are now advancing policies and programs to do so.

For example, in Cleveland, the nonprofit development organization University Circle, Inc. has been cooperating with the city’s many world-renowned hospitals to enhance the surrounding neighborhoods. One such initiative, Greater Circle Living, is an employer-assisted housing program created to encourage eligible employees to live closer to their jobs, thus strengthening the local housing market and reducing traffic congestion on regional roadways. Another example, Next Step, encourages large institutions to focus their spending on local green businesses to supply cleaning services, food preparation or laundry. This not only advances green agendas but also bolsters local, and frequently minority-owned, enterprises and local employment in the services sector. Through programs such as these, local communities see direct benefits from the regional anchor institutions in their midst.

So how can regional healthcare institutions — that are struggling to provide quality care and attract new insured patients — benefit from these types of efforts and develop their own?

 

Think Local

By a biological analogy, a healthy organism thrives in a healthy environment. Under new accountable healthcare mandates, hospitals no longer necessarily profit from serving unhealthy populations as they may once have. Many local hospitals want to improve their positioning, marketing and general appearance for insured patients, but they also need to address the general health of the local populations which suffer from the highest preventable disease rates. Urban hospitals across the country treat residents in communities where nearly half the population is either uninsured or on Medicare. Treating population health issues and their causes is now more important than ever to reduce healthcare costs.

In the past, responses to poor local conditions may have led hospitals to clear blight in their vicinity, or to turn their backs on negative conditions in an effort to screen the problems and present a brighter face to their regional customers. Security frequently took the form of a siege mentality: fencing or large parking lots that separated troubled neighborhoods from secure zones within the campus. This approach did not do much to reverse neighborhood decline or negative impacts on the anchor institution, nor did it improve health outcomes of local residents.

 

Practice What You Preach

As in Cleveland, The Aultman Health Foundation (an integrated health system with two hospitals, a health plan and a college) in Canton, OH, is demonstrative of a more comprehensive approach to health. Aultman (and one other hospital, Mercy Medical Center) remains within the city limits, serving the city’s reduced urban population of 70,000 as well as the growing metropolitan-area population of 400,000. Employees and patients seeking specialized medical care must travel from far-flung suburbs and hamlets to one of Canton’s most distressed inner-city neighborhoods. While the neighborhood is arguably less blighted than the surroundings of other famous urban hospitals, the contrast is striking for patients and employees, and local conditions do not support healthy lifestyles for nearby residents.

The health district could eventually involve the entire neighborhood of 40 square blocks where, for example, existing residents would have access to a much-needed wellness (fitness) center, outpatient clinic, quality daycare and healthier food options. Local residents will share these resources with hospital staff, nursing students, patients and patients’ families. Nursing students, medical residents and staff will find housing in the immediate neighborhood in renovated homes or in new apartments. Redesigned roadways will reduce accidents and provide safer pedestrian crossings for kids and the elderly. Parks and tree-lined streets will encourage residents and patients to get outside in a safer neighborhood.

 

Be the Convener

As one might expect, some healthcare institutions are cautious about exercising skill sets beyond providing healthcare. They were rarely organized, or willing, to take on community blight or mixed-use development projects. But they are good at team-building. And this “Health District Strategy” takes many players — healthcare institutions, governments, foundations, private enterprises, even architects and planners — to succeed.

Aultman Health Foundation, by working with the City of Canton and their comprehensive plan, has begun to develop a comprehensive strategy for neighborhood transformation that involves an expanded group of stakeholders, city and state governments and the private development sector. At this point Aultman has convened city government, the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Canton Community Development Corporation, a local foundation and a private real estate developer to create a blueprint for a health district called “Aultman Health Village.” From fixing blighted houses to rebuilding roadways and adding needed retail and services, each of these players are addressing specific coordinated actions that are essential for success.

Aultman Health Foundation and Cleveland provide examples for other progressive healthcare institutions to follow. Anchor institutions can take a look at their surrounding communities to find win-win opportunities. One needn’t be a world-class center of medicine like the Cleveland Clinic to make a difference in one’s own community. Rather than retreat from each other in fear, institutions and communities can actively engage to reverse decline and surround the hospitals with the goods, services and housing that will heal both.

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

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