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Design Forecast: Tomorrow's Vibrant Communities

Smart urban design understands that cities are interconnected environments where success is predicated on all components (education, culture, transportation, resiliency) working together. Myriad Gardens. Image © Prakash Patel. Landscape architecture by the Office of James Burnett

By definition, cities encompass an encyclopedic collection of all aspects of our daily life. In order for a city to function at the highest level, it must be home to a well-designed infrastructure capable of incorporating housing, commerce, transportation, schools, health and hospital facilities, cultural institutions, and a resilient backbone for information and disaster recovery. While each of these building blocks is typically addressed as a separate design typology, we see them as interconnected parts of a shared sector, tasked with providing the fabric of services and relationships that allow our cities to thrive. Committing to design strategies that intertwine resilience, connectivity, wellness and emotion is the key to what we see as achieving a critical vibrancy in our communities.

Urban projects interrelate and cross multiple areas of practice in surprising and not always evident ways. A hospital shares similar DNA with a data center even though one is packed with people who need care and attention and the other is packed with information systems that allow sophisticated medical procedures to take place. Each is in its own way a critical “operations” facility that requires resiliency embedded in its design. We need to remember that every plan we conceive needs a back-up plan and a back-up to the back-up plan so that we can address all natural and man-made threats.

Resiliency is such an important component of city life because planning and urban design strategies that anchor a city’s growth and prepare it to embrace changes rely heavily on the continued and safe operations of all sorts of facilities. From hospitals and critical facilities to the local University Campus, as well as cultural institutions, and transportation continuity plans. Each of these urban contributors can learn from one another, and increasingly, as they overlap and share services, this overlap results not just in increased efficiency, but also in the dynamic effect produced through achieved synergies.

The University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning and its Dean Robert Shibley are a good example of planners making a case for the benefits of integrated development. From the creation of an integrated medical corridor to a renewed focus on the waterfront, the school's hands-on involvement using the city as its laboratory has injected design thinking into Buffalo’s broader economic development plan, and the city is now seeing a ripple effect of positive results.

Preserving diversity will help cities preserve value and achieve critical vibrancy. The Martin Luther King Jr Medical Center. Image © Gensler

In designing for community, it’s not just about the new. It’s taking a hard look at aged structures and their potentials for re-use. Doing so enriches our collective sense of place and belonging, particularly when arts and culture are embedded into the planning. An authentic sense of place is incredibly significant—grassroots arts activities bring life and emotion to communities. Everyone wants to be the first to identify the next SoHo or TriBeCa. Formerly industrial, these neighborhoods emerged when the rents were low and artists could afford to live there. In a twist of cruel irony, artists and their live/work studios were then priced out by the very value they created. To generate new development cycles, we have to find the right balance between cool and affordable; we must mix in start-ups and community services, affordable development, inclusion of artists, and schools that provide services for all ages. We can’t always fall back on the predominance if 21st century luxury housing. We'd like to think that this planned diversity will result in a kind of trend proofing that will keep neighborhoods vibrant for the long run.

If we approach the design of our communities as urban strategists, we can ensure the solutions we create are always trend forward. One of the things that has become abundantly clear in recent years is the important role public awareness of health plays in urban communities. It’s fomenting a desire for safer infrastructure, more open space, and better mass transit. This is not a trend that will go out of style; it will push us to create holistic environments where wellness is a priority. For example, in Saudi Arabia, major new cities are being designed with dual considerations: to allow for new housing in the major centers and to allow these centers to be live/work centric. In a difficult climate, it's easy for daily life to be lived only in cooled environments. The problem with this is it discourages simple exercises, such as walking from place to place. Smart new city designs are now planned around creating shade in open spaces. This encourages walking and therefore promotes a healthier lifestyle. By focusing on just this one issue, shade, the future of a healthy lifestyle for this culture can be transformed.

In designing for connectivity, we are looking to get ahead of the future. We can do this by looking to past models and learning from history. We can also seek to understand differences as we look at common trends. For example, on-going studies of the London Underground and the Tokyo subway system show how functionally similar they are. Those studies also show a clear distinction in each system's approach to services, security, wayfinding and amenities. Is it culture or technology or something else altogether that accounts for these differences? The transportation systems of a city creates the means for life to function. The huge impact of bike share programs (while not without controversy) has been global and relatively swift in implementation. Here is a low-tech means of transport (think Amsterdam) that thru 21st century tracking, allows locals and visitors alike to connect to the city on a more individualized scale. The result is a more personal connection to the city.

Comparing successes and failures of the past can reveal opportunities for the future. These opportunities can then lead to an acceleration in the field and our design practice as a whole. They push us to deliver design that not only meets performance demands of our clients but simultaneously enhances the public experience, with solutions that are resilient, connected, healthy and emotionally rich. We see the next generation of cities as a community of neighborhoods, embracing their roots and also emboldened with a creative and nimble spirit.

Welcome to the vibrant city.

This post is part of a series related to the 2016 Gensler Design Forecast, highlighting trends that will transform how we live, work and play in the next decade.

Maddy Burke-Vigeland is a Studio Director in our New York office, and a Firmwide Leader of Gensler’s Community Sector. Building a reputation as a leader of successful collaborations, both with high-profile clients and peer design firms, her projects have had a significant impact on cities and communities. Contact her at maddy_burke@gensler.com.
Bill Hooper lives and breathes airport design. He’s traveled the world to design terminals from Jeddah to Chennai, and has the travel stories to prove it. He’s flown a flight with chickens on board, passed time in business class with an actress who shared her pharmaceuticals, and once rode the baggage claim belt at Washington National Airport (not as fun as one might hope). He is a Principal at Gensler and serves as Firmwide Leader of Gensler's Community Sector, encompassing practice areas in Critical Facilities, Education, Health & Wellness, and Planning & Urban Design, in addition to Aviation & Transportation. You can contact him at bill_hooper@gensler.com.

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