Urban Places Idea Lab (Part 1): Tweaking plans, designs, and sustainability strategies

April 5, 2018 Joe Geller

Fine-tuning by the interdisciplinary design team focuses on how sites, districts, and even cities will function tomorrow

 

Early this year I convened Stantec’s first Urban Places Idea Lab, a brainstorming session for thought leaders from across our Urban Places team. Our goal for this first meeting: take a wide-ranging and freewheeling look at a possible collaboration with a developer for a high-profile urban redevelopment site.

You don’t often get a crack at a site like this: more than 120 contiguous acres in a central neighborhood. With other firms circling hungrily, the developer wanted to submit a proposal for a mixed-use district that would stand out for both thoughtfulness and innovation. Multiple questions—about neighbors’ skepticism, about the site’s brownfield status, about topography, climate, and urban design—made the site an ideal focus for our Urban Places team. With bench depth in a dozen urban-focused disciplines, I felt confident that our Idea Lab would come up with something great.

 

 

We began by reviewing guidelines drawn up by the city and the current parcel owner (who will ultimately choose the developer). The discussion quickly took off from there, with ideas pinballing off one another. How could we build a genuine, ongoing dialogue with skeptical neighbors and with a goal of moving them from NIMBY to YIMBY? Would smaller, networked _q_tweetable:We didn’t generate dramatic, outside-the-box ideas. Instead, we delivered something far more useful: smart, nuanced analysis._q_green-infrastructure features do a better job of managing storm water than a central facility? If we planned the development around autonomous vehicles could we cut the cost of parking infrastructure? What benefits could we get from rotating buildings a few degrees to increase solar gain and boost onsite solar power? (Quite a few, it turned out.)

What made this process so exciting for me—and for the development team, when we met a few days later—might seem counter-intuitive. We didn’t generate dramatic, outside-the-box ideas. Instead, we delivered something far more useful: smart, nuanced analysis.

Architects, landscape architects, urban planners, engineers, environmental specialists, transportation planners, and financing experts all picked apart standard assumptions about redevelopment and about this site. With a 360-degree examination of issues and opportunities, the Idea Lab laid the groundwork for a detailed and thoughtful outline that showed the developer how the proposal could mix the visionary with a solid grounding in financial feasibility.

We think the Idea Lab approach holds enormous promise and plan to start using it more widely for more of our large urban assignments. As it did in its debut, this group review can uncover multiple astute ways to tweak plans, designs, and sustainability strategies.

Critically, this fine-tuning focuses on how sites, districts, and even cities will function tomorrow. What issues will they face? What emerging practices can address those issues? The Idea Lab goes beyond simply asking what will make a project great to asking what will keep a project great for generations to come. That results in better projects—and more savings—for clients. That’s a hard combination to beat.

 

The Urban Places Idea Lab’s objective is to propel ideas, harness knowledge, and improve projects. As part of a continuing series, we’ll share what we’ve discovered in these ongoing sessions.

 

About the Author

Joe Geller

As a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects with over 30 years of experience, Joe Geller believes landscape architecture betters our quality of life, our communities, and our world.

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