A Call for Urban Intensification

Five Priorities for Creating Mixed, Happy, Intensified Cities

November 13, 2017

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

As cities around the world grow, questions are rising: How many people can one city sustain? Will cities be affordable places for all — and for all activities — or enclaves for only the wealthy? What impact will they have on the environment?

Often these questions revolve around metrics that measure density — ratios or other units of measurement such as population/acre, dwellings/acre, or floor area ratio — and the denser a proposal, the more likely a community will resist change. However, these figures express only the quantitative aspects of city life, leaving aside the qualitative: the what and the how people are doing, and when. Interrogating this also helps us answer the why. Why are people often still car-dependent? Why do some places feel unsafe at certain times of the day? Why are people not getting enough exercise?

Rather than focus on urban “densification,” therefore, perhaps we should consider urban “intensification.” Intensification focuses on the complementary uses that occur around-the-clock, whether in a building, a block or a wider piece of city. Not only would intensification create better cities by reducing travel time between places of work, living and learning, promoting knowledge exchange and fostering a multi-generation environment, it would also have the potential to solve many of the most complex issues of our time.

 

Blur

The good news is our urban environments are already ripe for intensification as the lines between activities and land uses are blurred:

  • People want to, and do, work from where they live. Household configurations are changing as people live longer and urban living becomes less affordable.
  • Where, how and when we work is changing — productivity is mobile, happens 24/7 and is collaborative. Our live-work communities are often virtual, but the importance of face-to-face interaction is still central to success.
  • There is a desire to integrate leisure activities and play — sport, recreation, culture — into our daily lives as their benefits to health and well-being are understood. Similarly, academic and “commercial” research are intertwined with “learning through doing,” linked to social sustainability.
  • Ideally, the city should be envisioned as an educational laboratory for all ages — we learn outside the classroom.

We are seeking spaces for collaborative production in the city — spaces and places that integrate where we live, work, play and learn. It is happening already as retail, entertainment, workspace and residential uses are vertically arranged within a single building envelope, in places such as the Seaport in Boston. Co-working spaces have been established in cities everywhere, often hosting knowledge exchange events. Custom-built co-housing often incorporates spaces for collective work or recreation. Parking garages that are vacant on the weekend and malls that are empty at night are appropriated by skateboarders.

 

Intensification

However, living, working, playing and learning do not always co-exist happily under the same roof, or even within the same city block. The 24-hour city might sound exciting, but sleeping next to a dance club or a welder might prove irritating. On the other hand, one can imagine a lecture hall that turns into a dance club, a welder’s yard that is shared by a vocational school several hours a day, or a rooftop kitchen garden and greenhouse shared by the occupants of a building — that perhaps includes seniors’ residences or a secondary school — overlapping in their use of the amenity but each also having dedicated time in it.

It is critical that we devise visionary and innovative responses to current trends that allow for an increase in urban intensity while maintaining a high quality of life. Ultimately this is a call to revisit not only the types of buildings and urban blocks we are producing, but also the policies that currently restrict a maximized and productive mix of uses and, in turn, restrict growth through intensification. It is a call to ensure that:

  1. Building and block typologies are developed that are flexible and draw on lessons from the past while innovating for the future. Homes should provide a range of spaces that allow for living, working and sharing space and facilities between households. Some condominiums recognize this both through their covenants and the provision of shared indoor and outdoor space. The multi-generation home allows for this flexibility, providing an ancillary building for the extended family, privacy and/or a place to work.
  2. Strong and clear governance is provided across buildings and neighborhoods — a return to the civic through the identification of a shared common purpose that promotes behavioral change, normalizing sharing and resource efficiency. This is highly attainable — we did not recycle 30 years ago, yet in many cities it now feels wrong to throw away plastic with organic waste. Co-housing and co-working spaces can be a great success, intensifying the use range and knowledge exchange, but only with the right governance in place.
  3. Development incentives that promote innovation in sustainability and delivery methods are instigated. Regulations exist that set environmental and social sustainability performance targets; however, dedicated funds for this infrastructure must be introduced that ensure a use mix beyond retail and integrate natural systems and resilience.
  4. Local identity is recognized and promoted, especially in the public realm, where difference should be celebrated and reflective of the local culture. Intensification is not just about buildings. Food production need not be ground-related — for example, the rooftop urban agriculture of Brooklyn Grange provides food and plays a pedagogical role. Infill buildings can literally bridge diverse uses while intensifying the city.
  5. Innovative delivery models are implemented that subsidize social infrastructure, recognizing the importance of short-term wins for long-term gain. In order to deliver high-quality, low-carbon development in growing cities undergoing change, it is critical the right people work together and recognize the benefits of intensification. Development and project briefs produced by both public and private sector clients must encourage innovative thinking rather than opting for the status quo. This calls for collaboration across diverse disciplines combined with political will.

Through big data and a myriad of tracking technologies we are now beginning to have the tools to measure intensification; what we don’t always have are the policies that allow and encourage it, nor the type of buildings and urban blocks that best accommodate it. Understanding use patterns creates the opportunity to explore how intensification can accommodate growth in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way.

Banner image courtesy of Pexels.

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What’s the Value of City Master Planning?

A Conversation about the Imagine Boston 2030 Master Plan — and the Top Issues Facing Cities Today

November 7, 2017

Architect / Urban Designer, NBBJ

Amidst a thriving economy and growing population, the City of Boston released its much-anticipated “Imagine Boston 2030” plan. Now that a broad range of perspectives and recommendations have emerged from the plan’s extensive public engagement, a discussion about the specific priorities identified, and how to marshal these to action, has begun — a discussion that mirrors those taking place in cities across the country.

On October 25, 2017, NBBJ hosted an informative debate about Imagine Boston 2030, along with:

Following are excerpts from that discussion. From healthcare and academia to commercial development and government, these experts highlighted the merits of the master plan — as well as the work that remains for us all.

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0041What is the value of Imagine Boston 2030 — or any master plan?

Dante Ramos:
“When we think of a master plan for a city, we sometimes think of zoning maps that say ‘this area will be 100 feet tall, and these uses will be allowed in this area.’ That’s not really what Imagine Boston 2030 is. This plan expresses more of an attitude toward growth, rather than decreeing precisely where it’s going to go. It describes a certain urban core and gradual improvements in quality of life, as well as enhancements in density and a move towards mixed uses.”

Joel Sklar:
“From our perspective, the master planning priorities outlined in documents like the 2030 plan are about what kind of neighborhood, what kind of vision do we collectively want to build together. Then we focus on the nuts and bolts of master planning: what should the streets look like, what should the sidewalks look like, what’s the mix of uses and what’s the density? From our perspective, those master plans have to take place at the local, community level. I think a broader visioning document like the 2030 plan is an appropriate context within which to really dig in at the neighborhood level to envision what happens.”

Valerie Roberson:
“To me, the value of a plan is the opportunity for people to discuss the data and what the data means. For Roxbury, it was a way to tap into industries outside of education. It allows us to respond in a way that’s appropriate for the students and the community that surrounds us — it certainly helps us to organize our plan within the larger plan for the city.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0023How has technology changed the way cities work?

Valerie Roberson:
“At Roxbury, partly because of the solar canopies we built, people started talking to us about smart building technology. We did the research, and there are not a lot of programs across the United States that talk about who’s going to run these smart buildings. We’ve made them high-energy-efficiency, but we are not training people to run them and not realizing the savings. So we’re building this program for the people who are going to run our smart buildings, to give them an opportunity to really contribute to the economy.”

Joel Sklar:
“One of the most impactful technology-related trends, not just in Boston but around the world, is Uber. It’s filling gaps in urban transit systems like Boston’s. We’ve gone from having to provide about 70 percent of our residential units with parking spaces to now somewhere around 30 percent. We were building large shopping destinations like Target woven into the fabric of the city, and we had to provide significant amounts of parking that are just not being used.”

Alex Krieger:
“I agree, although in the interim period there will be more congestion rather than less. Our cars, Uber cars and driverless vehicles will all be competing for space. Every transportation enhancement in history has made people want to move more and take more trips. The other half that will become important over time is ‘stuff coming to us,’ rather than ‘us going after stuff’ — whether jobs or meals or so forth. Hopefully that will lead to an ultimate reduction in the need to travel.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0075If technology is transforming mobility, what role will transit play in the future?

Tom Glynn:
“More people access Logan Airport via high-occupancy vehicles than at any other airport in the country, about 40 percent, mainly because of the Blue Line and the Silver Line. So we are very dependent on a successful transit system, both for our employees and our passengers. 17,000 people work at the airport, and most are probably coming in on the Blue Line or the Silver Line. And when I worked at Partners Healthcare, 40 percent of Massachusetts General Hospital employees took the Red Line to work. I think we sometimes underestimate how important transit is for the functioning of our major institutions — the airport and MGH being two good examples.”

Valerie Roberson:
“I’m from Chicago, and this is just my opinion, but a lot of the problems in Chicago are directly because of the lack of economic mobility caused by people not having equal access to transportation. Without that access, they have to create their own economies, and that erupts into all kinds of social ills. So I don’t think there’s too much emphasis you can put on a plan to make sure that cities ensure access to all populations. That’s an integral part of what we have to do as a city, to keep each other safe and to keep opportunity there for all citizens.”

Tom Glynn:
“When I was at the T, from 1989 to 1991, I had half the number of passengers and a thousand more employees. I think they’re doing a good job with the situation in which they find themselves, because we keep expanding the system, but the revenue base hasn’t kept pace with the expansion. I’m optimistic, but I think they have a lot of catching up to do.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0070What are the challenges to building affordable housing?

Joel Sklar:
“There’s been a pronounced and steady decline in resources available for the creation of affordable housing. An incredible amount of funding comes from the federal government, whether in the form of community block grants, low-income housing tax credits, Section 8, or HUD programs. They all trickle through the states and down to nonprofits and public housing authorities. Today there’s a goal of creating 53,000 housing units to keep up with demand in this market, but resources aren’t coming from the federal government. So there’s been a focus on harnessing the internal subsidy of a for-profit, market-rate apartment building, to build 13 or 15 percent of the units as affordable, but all the juice has been wrung out of those private deals throughout the last 10 or 15 years.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0097How can cities finance what they need?

Alex Krieger:
“If there’s no funding available from the feds, some other model has to emerge. There must be some way to gather resources from prominent institutions and developers for a broader goal, beyond the immediate benefit they provide on their own property.”

Joel Sklar:
“I would say, why are you asking developers and local institutions to finance it? Over the last ten years, the cost to build a high-rise apartment building has increased 60 to 70 percent, and the returns correspondingly have decreased dramatically. Already, projects are not going forward. We’re at such an inflection point that I don’t see that being a viable way to finance infrastructure. We won’t even say the word anymore, but why not think about taxation? Everybody benefits from overall infrastructure, beyond real estate developers and property owners.”

Alex Krieger:
“As a taxpayer, if I don’t see the major investors, developers, institutions — public and private — doing what they can towards a larger goal, then I’m going to resist my taxes going up. Maybe, just for image reasons, a coalition could make an initial contribution in hope to change the tax laws, or inspire venture capital, or whatever. There’s a sense from the population at large that we have to bear the cost, but others, that seem able to bear more, never rise to the level of the broad public good.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0948Is the future regional?

Alex Krieger:
“Some form of regional planning needs to emerge, because many of the issues that we complain about are not going to be solved within the municipal boundaries. Boston led the way to regional planning, when a bunch of Brahmins in the 1890s bought a bunch of land and became the Trustees’ Reservation, which eventually became the MDC, which controlled the parkways and waterways. So there are moments in American history when regionalism seemed to rise, but not enough of it is happening. More of it should. How? I don’t know.”

Joel Sklar:
“The notion that housing needs to be resolved in core neighborhoods is difficult. The cost to build a high-rise in Boston is $650 to $700 or more per square foot. A little further out, but still in Boston, a low-rise podium with stick-built housing is maybe $450 to $500 per square foot. Take that same project and move it to Somerville, or further along the rail corridors, and it’s $350 dollars per square foot. So there are inherent options in regionalization that we can’t, no matter how well we plan, address just within the core of Boston. Transit is obviously another issue that can’t be solved without a regional approach. Regional planning is critical.”

 

Banner image courtesy of PixabayAll other images courtesy of NBBJ.

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The Amen(c)ity Tower

A Design Concept for the Future of Amenities in Commercial Real Estate

July 5, 2017

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by NAIOP.

As employees increasingly work from a variety of locations and companies lease co-working spaces — or even do away with offices altogether — real estate developers and owners seek the ever-elusive “edge” that will keep their companies and their buildings competitive. To do so, developers are expanding building amenities to entice top talent and facilitate staff engagement. According to Colliers International, traditionally only 3 percent of commercial real estate was devoted to amenity space; today, the recommendation has more than tripled to 10 percent, or up to 12 percent to attract high-value tenants [PDF]. The value of increasing amenity spaces can be significant: CBRE has reported that in one instance, amenities like gyms, lounges and restaurants boosted asking rates by 15 percent.

Amenities have typically ranged from providing daily conveniences (dry cleaning, food courts, etc.) to recreation or health (gyms, saunas, clinics, etc.). To appeal to a younger generation, building owners are in a race of amenity one-upmanship, with popular amenities like table tennis and free food becoming less of a differentiator than health complexes, basketball courts and hair salons.

Drawing on Daniel Pink’s treatise on human motivation, Drive, we can postulate that most, if not all, of these amenities draw upon ideas of extrinsic motivation — what he calls Motivation 2.0. They are based on the assumption that we would rather do anything than work. They empower us to distract ourselves by taking a break, getting our hair cut, or playing some shuffleboard.

Compare that to Pink’s research that suggests organizations should instead tap into intrinsic motivation — those internal motivators for creativity and accomplishment that fill the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Architects are beginning to understand what these ideas could mean for physical spaces and the types of amenities inside.

tower_section_fin_smAssessing these trends, NBBJ wanted to test spatial ideas of how we could address the future of amenities in urban high-rise office buildings, in an urban concept we call the Amen(c)ity Tower. Created to generate new ideas about the future of high-rises, this proposed design comprises an office tower that would be cylindrical in organization, with traditional work environments stacked at the perimeter, amenities at the building core, and social/collaborative spaces serving as the glue between the two. New amenities, now organized at the building core, are enablers of creativity. Black box performance spaces, maker spaces, holistic wellness facilities, and artist studios provide freedom to undertake the mental and physical exercise of becoming more focused, inspired and purposeful at work.

This tower scheme is based upon a premise that workplace amenities should occupy a higher proportion of leasable area — understanding that “work” doesn’t just happen at a desk. The design also requires a shift from traditional leasing strategies in which tenants lease a finite amount of space with limited access to amenities. In this model, tenants instead have access to the full range of amenities afforded by the entire vertical campus under the assumption that providing expanded access will have a positive effect on the work environment.

vertical_garden_fin_smResearch tells us that the biggest drivers of productivity in the workplace are related to interior environmental quality and focus. The Amen(c)ity Tower employs ways to optimize both.

A central vertical greenspace reaps the benefits of nature, as well as using plants to clean the air. In this case, plant species which have been proven to purify and oxygenate air such as the areca palm are distributed into columns throughout the central greenspace, enhancing both the aesthetics and functionality of the space.

Distraction dampens creativity and productivity in the workplace. According to a study by the University of California Irvine, it takes more than 23 minutes to reorient to a task after an interruption [PDF]. A Basex study has reported that workplace interruptions resulting from emails, instant messages and even casual conversations cost the United States $588 billion annually [PDF]. The Amen(c)ity Tower aims to curtail this productivity loss and mental strain through an amenity that employs an array of individual pods that completely block wireless signals, enabling greater concentration. Outfitted with acoustic dampening and full spectrum lighting, these prefabricated pods provide a comfortable space of solitude — perhaps the most undervalued amenity in today’s world.

void_create_pods_fin_sm

While workplaces have made huge gains in employee comfort and convenience, we still operate under the premise that work in and of itself is not something we choose to do. If the aim of providing amenities is to make our work better, our Amen(c)ity Tower concept seeks to understand what aspects of the workplace keep us from being our best selves, and what features might fuel our internal predisposition to be inquisitive, productive and creative.

All images © NBBJ.

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