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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The Future Science Workplace Is Here Today (Part 2)

A Conversation with Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute

December 9, 2020

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the second of a three-part series, we speak to Professor Philip Withers, Chief Scientist of the Henry Royce Institute to gather insights about what it means for the future science workplace.


NBBJ: What do you consider to be emerging best practices in designing new workplace research facilities of the future?

Philip Withers: Science workplaces need on one hand to bring people together to share ideas and spark new ones, but on the other provide contemplative spaces to enable these ideas to be worked through in detail. They should reflect the aspirations of the company and provide a convergence point bringing together people from industry and academia and to enable serendipitous encounters between those visiting for meetings and those who are permanently resident.

The new science workplace must support the four key activities taking place within:

  • Engage: To draw in visitors and inform them about the science and to provide an informal meeting space/display area.
  • Collaborate: Where people can converge to discuss ideas formally in meeting rooms or in small groups, or perch for a short period to send emails etc., between meetings in the building.
  • Concentrate: To think, concentrate and contemplate – an aspect often overlooked in modern workplace design and critical to scientific discovery and learning.
  • Experiment: Fully serviced with state of the art facilities for cutting edge research with access electronically enabled.

Key to all of these areas is flexibility to adapt to the constantly evolving needs and opportunities for science and research.

NBBJ: Many research facilities are built with flexibility in mind, but how flexible have they proved to be in practice? What flexibility and longer term adaptability strategies need to be rethought, and how do they need to change?

Philip Withers: Scientific challenges of research institutes evolve quickly; indeed the challenges of Covid-19 and the subsequent recovery of our economic base are reminders of the pace at which the UK’s science and engineering challenges can change. Equally, there will be no such thing as a standard day in the life of a research building, with different types of activities, meetings and events taking place simultaneously.

Flexibility, agility and configurability are therefore key to long term strategies and may include placing meeting and engagement spaces at the front of the building to encourage and enable engagement; large windows into laboratory spaces to demonstrate ‘science on show,’ and creating visual connections between research groups to encourage collaboration.

New state of the art equipment will be acquired, groups will grow and move, and exciting, novel activities and interdisciplinary links will be forged. The ‘engine room’ spaces in a research building should be zoned according to different activities (bio, chemical, engineering, etc.) with the appropriate services/environments to accommodate and run different types of complex equipment supplied from the ceiling so they can be reconfigured to meet future needs.

NBBJ: Were there any other sectors — corporate workplaces, commercial development, healthcare, retail, process engineering/production – you looked to for inspiration when briefing a new space?

Philip Withers: Research spaces are often multidisciplinary, so ideas from diverse sectors can be helpful for developing the design brief. For example, large commercial developments may influence the way we incorporate open spaces, such as mezzanine levels with ‘mini atria’ interlinked by open staircases, to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration between inhabitants on different floors.

At the opposite end of the scale, the way small companies use multipurpose reception spaces inspires ground floor presentation/immersion spaces. Small companies don’t have space for a dedicated large lecture hall to promote their company but we were inspired by a company in Delft which set up an immersive area for presentations and introductions. This is a fantastic way of enabling interactions between the scientists that work in the building and members of the public who are interested in what we do, as well as providing a great space for ‘Café Scientifique’ style meetings.

When designing the laboratory areas of a building, we look to hospitals for the most effective way of segmenting research space according to biological complexity to allow for different levels of work to be done in different areas. Similarly, we learn from process engineering labs that micro-scaling facilities would allow access to have a wider range of processes and more flexibility in the additive manufacturing and 3D printing spaces.

NBBJ: How do you see the development of technology and automation impacting facilities, workplace and general operations? As we move into the era of robotics, how will this define the new workplace and how do we safeguard a human-centric approach?

Philip Withers: In materials science, our field of expertise, there has been a move towards additive manufacturing, reconfigurable manufacturing and Industry 4.0. This looks at how we can use large numbers of sensors and information to increase the efficiency of industrial processes. Merging sensors and digital precision with computation and machine learning will accelerate the development of new materials.

In effect we have tried to build on the concept of the ’96 well plate’ used for high throughput screening to create prototype manufacturing systems which allow us to systematically make, test and characterise large permutations of advanced materials on a small scale.

Quickly iterating materials design through a combination of modelling, experimentation and machine learning will vastly accelerate the development of new materials systems. Further, we’ve been learning from our partners at Liverpool Materials Innovation Factory and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy how robotics can rapidly generate reliable and repeatable research data and handle hazardous materials, enabling scientists to efficiently and safely tackle the complex problems that challenge our society.

NBBJ: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting your working practices? How do you think the Institute will need to change in the future to support these changes?

Philip Withers: Covid- 19 reminds us how quickly priorities and working practices can change and the importance of the design of research spaces to keep up. Flexible design means we have the option to reconfigure laboratory space to ensure people can work together safely as required.

Here at the Henry Royce Institute, we have core capabilities at partner spokes across the UK and are open to all UK academics and industry. In fact, bringing together separate groups to collaborate is at the heart of what we do. Consequently, we were already practised at connecting numerous people at disparate locations using online meetings and providing remote access to equipment, but certainly the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this process.

The response to Covid-19 also raises expectations about the degree to which working together in science and engineering can bring about rapid change and accelerate the rate of discovery. This must not be forgotten once the initial concern over infection has eased; rebuilding our economy will need the same adventurous and collaborative spirit.

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Responding to a China on the March

December 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: This piece, written by former Architectural Record editor Clifford Pearson, has been adapted from its original version and is used with permission here.


I’m not a political scientist or an economist or a military expert, but I have covered China as a journalist since the early 1990s and have learned a thing or two about the country by viewing it through the particular lens of architecture. First of all, it is many places with different peoples and languages. Go to the mountains of Sichuan, the river deltas of Guangdong, and the desert landscapes of Gansu and you’ll find an incredible diversity of attitudes, customs, and cuisines. Same as a road trip around America would.

In the nearly three decades since I first visited China, the country has been transformed into a global juggernaut. While this may have surprised many in the West, it is seen in China as a return to its rightful place at the center of the world. There’s a reason why the Chinese think of their country as “the Middle Kingdom” and see the previous two centuries as a brief (for China) period of humiliation at the hands of unscrupulous Western nations.

On my first trip to China in the autumn of 1994, I shook my head at all the new buildings clad in white bathroom tile and fitted with reflective blue glass — materials that seemed “modern” to the locals. When I visited the offices of a major architectural publisher in Beijing I noticed large piles of cabbage on the balconies of an adjacent building. They were the allotments of winter produce that the publishing company gave members of its work unit as part of their housing.

Today, all those blue-glass buildings are either gone or dwarfed by architecturally ambitious structures that grace the pages of magazines like the one I used to work for. Many of the most innovative buildings in the world rise from the streets of Chinese cities. In a few brief decades, China has developed the wealth, sophistication, technological skill, and ambition to build world-class architecture. Driving this boom has been a powerful competitive streak in the Chinese character, not dissimilar to that of America’s.

During this same period, China has also nurtured a generation of talented local architects. Many of them earned graduate degrees in the United States, Britain, and Europe, then returned home to set up their own practices. Because the nation was building so much, these young designers got the opportunity to work on the kind of ambitious projects that their American counterparts could only dream of. Although not well known outside of China, practitioners such as Pei Zhu, Zhang Ke, Xu Tiantian, Liu Jiakun, Neri & Hu, Urbanus, and Atelier Deshaus have been busy creating remarkable architecture around the country. In 2012, Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize.

After establishing thriving practices in China, a few of these architects came back to the West to run academic programs, including Yung Ho Chang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ma Qingyun at the University of Southern California. (Disclosure: I worked for Mr. Ma at USC, teaching and running the school’s American Academy in China.) One Chinese architect, Ma Yansong, is a rising star both at home and abroad.

So a vibrant back-and-forth exchange is shaping the relationship between China and the United States in terms of architecture. Despite current geopolitical challenges, American architecture firms remain busy in China and Chinese architects are starting to make their mark in the U.S. Thousands of Chinese students are studying architecture at U.S. schools and when they graduate many of them work for American firms doing business in China. In 2018, China had 662,000 students studying abroad, more than any other country, and those in the U.S. accounted for a third of all international students here.

Engaging China has been remarkably rewarding for American architects and the architectural profession in general. According to the American Institute of Architects, China was the biggest market for American architecture firms working internationally in 2017—accounting for 26.8% of gross billings for foreign projects, compared to 19.9% for Western Europe, 11.6% for East Asia and the Pacific, 11.4% for Canada, 7.3% for the Middle East and North Africa, and 6.8% for South America.

While China now has a deep pool of talented native architects, it still relies on large foreign firms to design many of its biggest projects. For example, American architects have designed nine of the 10 tallest buildings in China and Hong Kong, showing how the country’s ambitions have strengthened a collaborative relationship between the two countries. In recent years, the expat community in China has hovered around 600,000 with Americans accounting for the second largest number, behind only South Korea.

As every athlete knows, you play your best when you play against the best. For the past few decades, China has learned from the U.S., while buying our products and providing business opportunities to our companies. “When I moved to China in 2008, all of the Chinese executives I met wanted to know what Bill Gates’ office looked like, what Google was doing,” says NBBJ partner Eric Phillips. “Now these guys are setting standards that American companies need to match.”

While architecture represents a very small piece of the complex relationship between the two countries, it shows how a competitive, two-way process can be productive for both sides. The presence of U.S. architects in China has made Chinese architects better and the flip side of this equation now is pushing American architecture and business forward.

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