Urban Waterfronts Should Be Designed to Protect Our Communities

Four Strategies to Balance Equity, Ecology and New Development When Designing and Planning for Waterfront Revitalization

March 7, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Alan Mountjoy and Margot Jacobs.


For the latter half of the past century, our urban waterfronts have undergone a major transformation, from working waterfronts to places defined by leisure, recreation and economic development. In particular, the past 20 years have seen a wave of redevelopment that transformed formerly heavy industrial waterfronts to a knowledge-based economy.

Enabled by the passage of the Clean Water Act, a wave of projects—from innovation districts and multi-purpose amenities to green habitat corridors—continue to redefine river, lake and ocean shorelines. As we look to the next chapter of our waterfronts, we now have another set of environmental, social and economic factors to consider. How do we build on the momentum of these new projects while balancing equity, ecology and new development along the way? In this post, we explore four strategies to consider when designing and planning for waterfront revitalization.

Prioritize Resiliency

Although coastal cities have a more obvious challenge with rising sea levels, every community needs to become more resilient and adaptable in the face of climate change and evolving natural stressor events such as heat waves and higher intensity storms. With climate events like “100-year floods” occurring more frequently, green infrastructure—in the form of public parks, wetlands and grasslands, urban forests, green roofs and rainwater gardens—is our most affordable, effective and beneficial strategy in protecting cities from the impacts of climate change.

Thoughtful solutions can restore the natural systems that have been lost in prior industrial development and address multiple goals like reducing flooding risk, reducing heat islands, improving water quality and restoring natural habitats. For example, Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park is designed specifically to flood when the Ohio River breaches its banks. This intentional inundation reduces downstream impacts by providing additional flood storage lost to prior industrialization of the flood plain. And in Shantou, China, a new urban design vision locates the densest areas of commercial and residential development inland, away from potential coastal storm surges thus freeing up the coastal waterfront for public space and cultural uses. As in Louisville, the park is designed to recover from episodic flooding with resilient design that can easily and quickly be regenerated after an event.

The urban design vision for Shantou, China’s, waterfront places the densest zones inland and connects to existing river systems by a series of canals.


Shift Perceptions

In many places, redeveloping waterfronts also requires a generational shift in perception and working with communities to help them reimagine waterfronts with entrenched—and often negative—reputations.

In Pittsburgh, the Riverlife Task Force had to counter years of negative storylines and neglect of the city’s once polluted and dangerous waterfronts that housed the city’s famous steel mills. Over the course of the last two decades, the Task Force has shifted public sentiment through persuasive lobbying, continuous public forums and generous funding to ensure full pedestrian access to miles of former industrial waterfront and active recreational use of the rivers despite concerns from barge operators who still ply the rivers. Today, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Park has successfully transformed into the city’s preeminent open space system, hosting nearly all the city’s celebrations and public events with new shoreline parks, sports venues and commercial and residential development facing the cleaner rivers.

The legacy of industrial waterfronts is also characterized by numerous barriers between residents and the waterfront where railways and highways have been located close to shorelines. These places are frequently near to lower income neighborhoods where working people lived to serve the labor needs of maritime industry. In addition to lack of access, lower-income communities have traditionally seen much lower rates of investment—in part because they are more likely to be located near un-remediated environmental hazards. Ensuring that waterfront planning efforts are done with full participation of the adjacent communities, and that brownfield remediation and other decontamination strategies are implemented to address the residual impact from previous industrial uses is critical to environmental justice goals and improving access and health benefits to residents.

Focus on the Human Experience

Cities have been settled along bodies of water for the benefit of commerce for millennia. But proximity to water is more than simply an economic equation. In Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace Nichols outlines the myriad benefits we experience through our connection to bodies of water—including altering our neural pathways in ways that make us calmer, happier, healthier and more connected to ourselves and others. It’s no wonder that people in cities are looking for evermore opportunities to be reconnect to their waterfronts after industry made them inaccessible for decades. This compels a shift in thinking in how we design for waterfronts—employing an approach driven by human experience, mental health and reconnection to nature.

The next generation of multiuse and multi-beneficial projects compel a shift in thinking in how we design for waterfronts, employing an approach driven by human experience, mental health and reconnection to nature. The Mahoning River Corridor Revitalization Plan, that covers a 25-mile corridor through former steel industrial corridor in Northern Ohio, does just that. The comprehensive open space network provides convenient access a once highly polluted riverway with recreational amenities—including water demonstration gardens, an environmental learning center, and floating agriculture—for residents of Mahoning and Trumbull Counties and the region. The removal of former low-head dams allows visitors the chance to see, feel and interact with a cleaner river and myriad wildlife that has returned to its banks and the chance to kayak and swim in a newly free flowing river.

When restoring waterfronts, it is also crucial to work with underlying dynamic processes and other environmental factors rather than fight against them. Development should be grounded in the ecology of the surrounding area, working with natural systems. In some landscapes, it is also necessary to amplify the natural protections systems such as sand dunes, kelp beds, mangroves or even fallen logs to protect against climate change while still harnessing the natural defenses inherent in the original landscape processes.

Redefine the “Working” Waterfront

Despite years of disinvestment in waterfronts due to offshoring of heavy industry and the consolidation of global maritime cargo into larger containerized ports, we are seeing a return to the “working waterfront” with more light-industrial uses—from prefabrication assembly sites to artisanal creative industries—coming back to our waterfronts. For example, the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, which served as America’s premier naval shipbuilding facility until it was decommissioned in 1966, is currently undergoing its largest expansion since WWII and is now home to organizations ranging from film and television production studios to a Green Manufacturing Center and the country’s largest rooftop farm.

However, the transformation of our waterfronts from heavy industry and maritime uses and the various forms of gentrification that creative clustering can trigger inevitably creates unease around existing livelihoods and fears of economic displacement. In Boston, where the waterfronts are under strong pressure for redevelopment, commercial developments are exploring a hybrid model: incorporating traditional water-dependent industry at the ground floor while reserving the upper floors for offices and biotechnology laboratories that cater to the market demand.

Commercial developments on Boston’s waterfront must cater to a true mix of uses including traditional maritime industry as well as science and technology companies. 


Finally, while the idea of a working waterfront may still call to mind billowing smokestacks or crowded, polluted conditions, today’s definition of industry is not the same as it was just 50 years ago. Waterfronts that were once dominated by oil and energy importing and refining facilities now serve as places where we export oil from shale and ports on the East Coast—in places like North Carolina, Rhode Island and the Gulf of Maine—are transitioning to places for deployment of offshore wind.  The so-called Blue Economy promises to exploit more of our oceans for sustainable industries only just emerging in research labs.

Waterfront redevelopment is a delicate balancing act, reconciling economic opportunities with an equal concern for equity and resiliency. This moment, even with all its uncertainty, provides planners an opportunity to design the future of our waterfronts in a way that can protect our communities while building toward a more environmentally sound future.

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How Space Impacts Creativity in the Hybrid Workplace

A Research Endeavor to Improve Problem-Solving Through Design

February 25, 2022

Partner, NBBJ


The first time I heard author Daniel Pink speak about creativity was in 2003. As a futurist, he projected the employment challenges society would face because the jobs we’d steadily relied on were quickly becoming anything but. Roles that were “routine, rule-based, single discipline and managed” were disappearing, or at least becoming less important. Even two decades ago, the fields of accounting, law, manufacturing and retail were feeling this impact. In Pink’s words, work in the 21st century would be conceptual, empathic and big picture—perhaps not surprisingly, the very traits of creativity that make us distinctly human.

As an architect, I practice in a field where such creativity is paramount. To address critical issues from environmental impact and human health to urban integration and social inclusivity, creative individuals and teams are essential. This demand for ingenuity, however, is not specific to just the arts. Corporations have long leveraged creative skillsets to drive innovation and differentiation in their products. At the time I was listening to Pink’s predictions for the future, Stanford University’s d.school was forging its existence, helping people unlock their creative potential to tackle some of the messiest problems in healthcare, education and social innovation.

This necessity for multi-faceted creativity in the workplace has led NBBJ to various cross-disciplinary collaborations over the past years. Our primary intent for such exposure has been to improve how our ideas help organizations perform at their highest level. In a recent research partnership with Kristen Dong and Tyler Sprague at the University of Washington, we collectively pursued a deeper understanding of creativity to specifically guide how NBBJ designs the spaces and relationships that allow people to do their best thinking. The following post outlines our process and findings on how to create ideal platforms for generating ideas.

But First, Why Design for Creativity?

In an ideas-based economy, competing with the best thinking starts with offering environments to attract the best thinkers and provoke the best thoughts. It doesn’t stop there. Creative employees are not only more effective workers—they also tend to be happier people. Employees with creative agency report higher productivity and fulfillment as well as higher retention rates. As an innately human characteristic shared by cultures around the world, creativity also fosters an inclusive mindset. Like the “yes, and” of improv, it supports thinking that is open to new and different perspectives. An environment that encourages these benefits is one worth getting right.

Approach and Learnings

For the sake of our exercise, we defined creativity through the lens of the Alternative Uses Test, designed by J.P. Guilford in 1967. Given creativity is difficult to measure and evaluate—and that many we interviewed stated they were not “creative” types—we inquired about tasks related to creativity in addition to direct evaluations, such as open-ended problem solving ability. We also utilized a mixed-methods study to make sure our quantitative and qualitative data supported each other.

The study focused on 36 different social and spatial factors in workspaces. It included questions regarding behavioral outcomes prior to work-from-home conditions demanded by Covid-19. Following the quantitative evaluation, we interviewed a smaller group of participants for qualitative insights. Although unintended, our research efforts coincided with the very beginning of the pandemic. The impact of remote work and distanced interactions yielded a condition that enabled us to explore creativity through a narrowed—but no less complicated—lens.

Finding 1: Regardless of the Workplace Setting—Whether in the Office or at Home—Control Remains Important

The pandemic certainly accelerated discussions happening prior to Covid-19 around what a workplace should be. The importance of choice in the workplace—how space is physically used and the behaviors around those uses—remains fundamental to employee satisfaction and performance, whether remote or in an office. The work-from-home scenario surprisingly didn’t solve the issue of control—while people had greater autonomy over their direct atmosphere (i.e. temperature, lighting, noise, posture, dress), they had less influence over their periphery (i.e. housemates, access to the outdoors, room proportion, furniture options).

Datapoint: Those with high agency to adapt their space were the best performers in work-from-home; those that had low agency fared the worst. Study participants with low design agency in their space were poor performers across all behavioral outcomes.

Potential: Design for Convenience in the Hybrid Workplace

  • Easily accessible temperature and lighting controls provide an office convenience that is often an afterthought in a home environment.
  • Wheeled, modular furniture is an inexpensive, low-tech means to allow for a variety of configurations and greater sense of control.

Furniture that allows for multiple configurations, and easily controlled lighting and temperature, contribute to a sense of agency that helps to enhance performance.


Finding 2: Perspective Matters, Everywhere

How you—and others—literally see ideas offers a unique prompt difficult to achieve in the virtual world. Per our research, displaying ideas in various ways appeared to inspire divergent thinking, boost collaboration, clarify vision, and enhance innovation. This finding, however, wasn’t limited solely to moveable partitions and animated walls. Whether remote or in-person, interactions that are familiar or static can limit the way we stretch our thinking. However, per our research, it appears that exposure to different stages of development, life issues and communication styles initiated important mind shifts by introducing new vantage points, whether socially or physically.

Datapoint: Caregivers who lived with families reported the highest creativity among all participant demographics. Those that lived alone struggled. As trying as it was for many of us to balance work with caregiving, this activity appeared to provide an unforeseen benefit.

Potential: Design for Multi-Generational Relationships

  • While remote work has been difficult for many, participants noted this has allowed for more flexible schedules and improved individual problem solving.
  • Peer-only relationships can be limiting. Encourage cross-generational groups that are not solely project- or department-specific.
  • Opportunities to teach, coach, or care for others may provide important outlets for staff not yet engaged in an organization or community.

While remote work has been challenging, the opportunity it provided for caregivers living with families to engage in intergenerational interaction resulted in increased creativity. Designing for multi-generational relationships and mentorship in the workplace can provide similar benefits.


Finding 3: Despite Technological Advancements That Improve How We Interact, Creative Thinking is Still Heavily Influenced by Our Physical Surroundings 

Most participants reported struggling to match their former performance prior to remote work and learning. 50% shared a workspace with others, and 70% said mental health issues impacted their ability to learn. Generally, interviewees felt less effective in productivity, team problem solving, time management and open-ended work (e.g. writing an essay). Individual problem solving was improved, implying that isolation from others was helpful for this type of thinking. In our qualitative interviews, people voiced a need for more space, separate space and minimal distractions as critical to improve their creative thinking.

Datapoint: According to the survey, the best place to work was a dedicated office room with furniture that allowed for movement and platforms for ideas. These spaces, however, were the least common spatial features in participant workspaces. Conversely, the worst place to work in was a kitchen without windows or spaciousness. While having these elements didn’t contribute to better performance, lacking them significantly affected participants.

Potential: Design “More” Space

Expansive spaces can boost creativity. An element as simple as the height above you can have an impact on how a space supports ideation or focus. Whether at home or in a formal “workplace” this sense of expansiveness can reduce stress. Therefore, for employees who are primarily remote, it is important for employers to understand how constraints of their remote space may limit their contributions. This may suggest organizational support through a “home office in a box” kit.

  • Increase perceived dimensions through mirrors, natural lighting, and high ceilings to make spaces feel larger than the floor plan allows.
  • Create comfort through contrast by offering differing scales and juxtapositions. A small space next to a large open area can make an individual feel more comfortable (the strategy of prospect and refuge) while making the overall experience feel more expansive.
  • Build in separate space to rest or step away from work. Research suggests that taking a break in a direct workspace rather than outside of it are not as restful or beneficial to creativity.

A feeling of expansiveness can increase creativity. High ceilings, differing scales and contrasting spaces all contribute to an environment that is more conducive to ideation or focus.


Potential: Design for Movement

Numerous studies show movement enhances creativity by boosting cognition, learning, memory and decision-making. Even in confined conditions, workplaces can encourage people to move in different ways. By using standing desks and yoga ball seating, participants responded with the highest creativity and problem-solving abilities.

  • Quiet flooring allows occupants to tap their feet or fidget without disturbing neighbors.
  • Workspaces that are separate from eating and relaxing areas will force movement, but it is important to consider transition spaces as well. These areas must be inviting while encouraging a quick “mental break.”
  • Consider the difference between a prompt and an inconvenience. If spaces are too troublesome to travel through regularly, occupants will find a workaround or skip movement altogether.

From small-scale solutions like flooring that muffles the sound of tapping feet, to inviting transition spaces that encourage a mental break, promoting movement enhances creative thinking. However, if spaces are inconvenient or hinder travel, they may have the opposite effect.


Creativity remains a trait that is hard to define when present, but highly noticeable when missing. Factors of personal perception, background and area of study will continue to frame how individuals and organizations reference this elusive term. Yet new research is enabling designers to identify techniques that will encourage diverse thinking through environments and behaviors. As expected, the spaces and dynamics around us remains critical, but so do the people we interact with outside of our jobs, especially in the post-Covid workplace. As companies look for consistent differentiation in their work and products, these creative advantages may not only help them recruit and retain the best talent, it may also offer holistic wellness while delivering better financial and cultural returns.



  • Future Research Centers: The Place of Creativity and Innovation. Bisadi, M., Mozaffar, F., & Hosseini, S. B. (2012). Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 68, 232–243.
  • Creative environments for design education and practice: A typology of creative spaces. Thoring, K., Desmet, P., & Badke-Schaub, P. (2018). Design Studies, 56, 54–83.
  • Literature review and interviews on the impact of space on creativity using previously defined space typologies. Thoring, K. C., Guerreiro Goncalves, M., Mueller, R. M., Badke-Schaub, P. G., & Desmet, P. M. A. (2017).


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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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