One Crisis After Another: Designing Cities For Resiliency

17:09 minutes

Young people with face masks work at laptops on desks along a wall of windows.
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Over the past few years, many cities around the world have changed dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with shifts in office use and commuting patterns as well as where people choose to live, work, and play. But there are other major changes to communities on the horizon as well—such as the need to adapt to the changing climate and sea level rise, and move urban infrastructure away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Andy Cohen and Diane Hoskins are co-CEOs of Gensler, a global architecture and design firm, and authors of the new book Design for a Radically Changing World. They join guest host John Dankosky to talk about how design can help communities adapt to global crises, and the importance of involving local communities in design decisions.

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Segment Guests

Andy Cohen

Andy Cohen is co-CEO of Gensler, and co-author of Design for a Radically Changing World.

Diane Hoskins

Diane Hoskins is co-CEO of Gensler, and co-author of Design for a Radically Changing World.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And I’m John Dankosky. Over the past few years, we’ve seen cities around the world change dramatically as a result of the COVID pandemic with shifts in office use, commuting patterns, and where people choose to live, work, and play. But there are some other changes on the horizon as well, things like adapting communities to changing climate and sea level rise and the move to alter our infrastructure away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, my next guests have been thinking a lot about these sorts of changes to buildings and communities. Andy Cohen and Diane Hoskins are co-ceos of Gensler. It’s a global architecture and design firm, and they’re authors of a new book. It’s called Design for a Radically Changing World. Welcome to Science Friday. Thanks so much for joining me.

DIANE HOSKINS: It’s great to be here.

ANDY COHEN: Thanks so much, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so Diane, Andy, you’re both design people. What made you write this book?

DIANE HOSKINS: Wow, big question. As you were saying earlier, Andy and I, we lead a large and very influential architecture firm and design firm that works on thousands of projects. What started us down this path of wanting to even write a book was, frankly, recognizing how many lives were impacted by the work we were doing, and through the airports that we design, through the workspaces that we design, the experiences that people have in the stadiums that we’ve designed over the years, and on and on and on, and realizing that we had an important role as we look at, how do we make people’s lives better? How do we, as a design firm, create a better world?

ANDY COHEN: And I’ll add, John, that we’re living in this time of radical change. We’re facing wave after wave of compounding crises from the pandemic we went through, climate change, from economic volatility to geopolitical instability and social injustice. And our cities have been significantly impacted.

What Diane and I called it in our book, we called it the crisis multiplier, the crises that we face today that are interconnected later and accelerating. And we believe that design is the catalyst for positive change, the design is the difference maker.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to talk about some of these big crises that we’re in the middle of or that we’ve got coming down the pike. Some of these, like climate change, which you address quite a bit in the book, are things that we’ve been seeing for a long time. Design firms, architecture firms can look at climate change and say, OK, I can prepare for what that’s going to look like in 20, 30, 40 years.

When it comes to something like a pandemic, like COVID, that comes out of nowhere– you started talking about this in 2019. But then only a couple months later, folks, the world shuts down. So how does something like a pandemic change the way that you think about design and the way you put together communities?

DIANE HOSKINS: Here we were going to write a book, and we were going to talk about the impact of design. And all of a sudden, bang, we’re in COVID. But again, it’s all about, one, the fact that design is an important part of how you can impact people’s lives and find solutions through these very, very complex issues.

But also another really important overlay in our book is about how quickly these next and next and next crises, let’s call them, are coming at us and how, as designers, we are seeing a transformation in our process as well, that what was a very precedent-based profession– how was design done in the past?

Basically, we would take concepts, and refine them, and evolve them. But it wasn’t as much about invention. And so again, how we now are as designers, we’re going the other way around. We’re doing deep research. We are recognizing that we’re seeing new issues that need new solutions and not solutions from the past. This is totally upending what would have been the typical process of design.

Resilience is a great example because we design buildings to a building code that’s based on a location, that’s based on climate, that’s based on, again, a precedent review of conditions that have existed for decades, if not beyond. All of that is now changing as well. When we are looking at designing buildings today, we have to look at, what are the changes in the climate going to be in that place over the next 100 years? So literally projecting a future that has nothing to do with what was that precedent in the past and really, to your point, designing resilience based on whether it’s about heat, whether it’s about what’s happening with sea-level rise changing, whether it’s about storms.

All of this is really impacting our codes. And we are having to get ahead of that, using models, modeling systems, that we’ve never used before and really, again, anticipating– we’ll just use the example of how weather changes. But we’re also now starting to say, we need to anticipate, frankly, different uses for buildings.

We can pivot to the fact that another crisis we’re having right now is the fact that we have an overabundance of office space. A lot of– again, because of the changes of how people are working, we have upward of 30% of office buildings in many of our cities are empty. And at the same time, we have a shortage of housing. And we’re now doing a huge amount of evaluating of those kind of office buildings to see if they could be residential and apartments. And so we’re now starting to think in terms of design, how do we design buildings in general so that they can transform with the different needs of communities?

JOHN DANKOSKY: But the reason that there’s all that office space right now in large part is because so much about our workplace changed a couple of years ago with the pandemic. People found ways to work outside the office, and it became pretty clear that jamming a whole bunch of people together in a pandemic next to each other in an office wasn’t the best possible thing for public health. So I’m wondering how you take that into account to all of these other factors?

Changing weather and climate, of course, are things you need to prepare for, but there’s also this thing that could happen at any time, like a disease outbreak, that means the design for getting people together needs to completely change. Now what we need to be six feet apart or further.

DIANE HOSKINS: That is a great arena of how design is changing. And we most certainly will have another pandemic of some sort someday, maybe not in our lifetimes. But hopefully, generations to come can learn from what we learned. And this is something in our firm that we really spent focused energy on, helping our clients to understand how they could come back to the office, how they could work together.

And it was really three key things– separation, six feet away or whatever that dimension was that gave you some amount of safety. And it was touchless. How do we do a lot of the things we need to do in a space without having to touch the doorknobs, or the elevator buttons, or fixtures in restrooms, and all of these sorts of things?

And then the third thing, which actually now we’re realizing is probably the number one, is airflow systems and how we can create filtering in our HVAC and other airflow systems, keeping contaminants from transferring from person to person. But separation may be something that we found that we could probably let go of as we moved into a vaccinated world. But the ideas of touchless and better air filtration are actually things we’re carrying forward.

JOHN DANKOSKY: One of the other things, of course, that you tackle in your book is designing for transportation, how we get from one place to the other. I’m wondering how you’re thinking about things like electric cars. If we’re shifting away from internal combustion engines– and many states have already put forward very aggressive plans to do just that within the next couple of years– what does that mean for the way that we are designed, the way that we arrange our communities, our buildings, the places that we drive to and from?

DIANE HOSKINS: We can talk about multiple of layers of solutions– you mentioned transportation– but also this whole idea of mixed-use design. And just to touch on that for a moment, one of the– I don’t know if I want to call it a mistake. But one of the things we have done in our cities is to have single-use zoning in such large parts of our cities.

You have the residential area. You have the commercial area. You’ve got the retail area. And frankly, what that has created are cities that are less desirable by people.

We have– as part of our Gensler Research Institute, we survey people in over 50 cities around the world. People want mixed use. People want that it’s been called 20-minute city or 15-minute city, where you’re able to get to those places that are important in your life within a 20-minute or 15-minute time rather than a one hour to get to everything and long commutes. So reintegrating the uses in our cities is something that we are focusing on, and transportation is an important part of that as well.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Andy, what do you think?

ANDY COHEN: So what you bring up John is very, very important about the future because our cities must evolve from a car-first culture and must prioritize multimodal infrastructure. And that includes bike lanes, bus lanes, and safe mass transit.

As far as the autonomous vehicle goes, it is going to radically change the face of our cities and how they function. And it gives us the ability to take our city streets back for people. And we’re seeing the future being where, for example, we won’t need parking in cities. So imagine all the parking spaces, say, in a city like New York that can now be taken over and used for green space, public space, restaurant space, cafe space. But it won’t be parking spaces.

Diana also brought up the 20-minute city, which has been something that we have focused on post-COVID, the idea of accessibility to everything you need in a walkable environment, whether that’s groceries, or a cafe, or health care. Any amenity that you need in life we found from our research is a 20-minute walkable city.

And that could be a small city of 20 minutes, or it could be multiple 20-minute cities within a large city, like New York or Los Angeles. So we believe the future is bright for our cities coming out of COVID because of all these potential opportunities that we’re seeing.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Before we run out of time, I should ask you, though, to maybe give us a specific example or two of the ways in which this work will get done. Of the various cities that you profile in the book one of them is my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the concept of just having some big builder come in and saying, this is the way we’re going to design a city isn’t really going to probably work for the people who live there.

So I’m wondering how you think the future is going to look in terms of these buildings, these communities being designed. Are they by architecture and design firms, like yours? Or are they by the communities of people who live there?

DIANE HOSKINS: It’s really both, and that’s one of the things that we talk about in the book is that, when we talk about equitable design or design that really is for communities– and we’re talking about any community– that you have to include the voices of the people.

And we’re really excited right now to be involved in the design of the new Pittsburgh airport, which is a great example of what was a really good airport. It was an international hub that decided, we want to be a gateway to our community. We want to be connected to our community in a way we’ve never been connected before.

And so we were brought on board to help them reimagine what that might look like, and it will be open in 2025. But again, this idea of, how do we embrace local voices and every project? We believe in this idea of local and global. Bringing what we’ve learned, we bring that along with deep commitment to our local communities.

In Pittsburgh, in the Lower Hill neighborhood, which has actually been the target of redlining in decades past– and if you’re from Pittsburgh, you’re aware of this. I’m from the South Side of Chicago. I know exactly what that looks like, where families were displaced and disrupted.

We’re working on a new plan for this whole neighborhood, and it’s going to be created for celebration of the sites, yes, unique physical characteristics but also celebrating that community and supporting all of what we’ve been talking about with multimodal, connectivity, spaces for people to come together and creating inclusive and accessible green space. We know that that is important as we’re healing our communities. And Pittsburgh is one example of many as we’re working around communities across the United States and the world.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m wondering if you, Andy, if you have a favorite city that just really jazzes you up like, you see the things that they’re doing. And you say, yeah, that’s actually what I’m talking about.

ANDY COHEN: Thanks, John. I would say that– and it has everything to do with the future of cities that we were discussing before about having people at its core, not cars at its core. And a great city in the world is Copenhagen because Copenhagen is all about pedestrians. It’s all about creating a mixed-use environment where people can thrive.

And it’s less about the car. The cars are secondary. And I think it’s a perfect example of cities of the future that we’re seeing, where we’re going to be able to take our city streets back for people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: How about you, Diane? Do you have one?

DIANE HOSKINS: I have to say, I love cities. One of the great perks of this job is that Andy and I get to visit so many cities around the world. We were just in Bangalore, a tremendous city in India.

It is so vibrant, and we’re doing some great work there and working with communities, working with companies. And our team is just amazing.

But it was really, I would say, a really special moment arriving at the New Bangalore Airport and really experiencing a design– it wasn’t done by our firm– but a design that I think really exemplifies a lot of what we’re talking about as what design needs to do, which is to be authentic to its local community while bringing the best of global ideas and “state of the art” design.

And I always am just thrilled to see these kinds of design ideas, whether we designed it or another firm. And this is how we’re going to create a better world.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Andy Cohen and Diane Hoskins are co-CEO of the global architecture and design firm Gensler, and they’re authors of a new book. It’s called Design for a Radically Changing World. Thank you both so much for being with us here on Science Friday.

DIANE HOSKINS: Thank you so much, John.

ANDY COHEN: John, thanks so much for doing this. We love your program. Thank you so much for everything you do.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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