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The secrets to success in urban design

2/28/13

The key to designing suc­cessful sus­tain­able cities of the future is keeping many fac­tors of urban design in mind simul­ta­ne­ously, according to land­scape archi­tect Gerdo P. Aquino.

Aquino, pres­i­dent of the SWA Group, an inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized land­scape archi­tec­ture, urban design, and plan­ning firm based in Cal­i­fornia, served as the keynote speaker on Tuesday at North­eastern at the university’s City Design and Sus­tain­ability Sym­po­sium, held in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room. He explained that building suc­cessful cities of the future depends on whether many fac­tors at play in urban design—business, sci­ence, pol­i­tics, cul­ture, just to name a few—are flowing in unison and sup­ple­menting each other. This approach, he said, allows cities to develop mul­ti­fac­eted infra­struc­ture that addresses cur­rent objec­tives and can adapt over time to meet the needs of an evolving populace.

We’re trying to get a point where all those fac­tors are moving at the same pace,” Aquino said. “When that occurs, great design hap­pens and great plan­ning hap­pens.” He pointed to sev­eral case studies from his firm’s work around the globe, including green roof build­ings in Cal­i­fornia and an urban forest project in Shanghai.

The symposium—sponsored by the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the North­eastern Center for the Arts—drew inter­dis­ci­pli­nary experts from acad­emia and the public and pri­vate sec­tors for a day­long con­ver­sa­tion focused on how to design sus­tain­able cities for the future. Jane Amidon, pro­fessor and director of Northeastern’s urban land­scape pro­gram, orga­nized the inau­gural event.

As jobs and indus­tries change, we see economies change and new lifestyles emerge, and we see the building blocks of the city start to evolve,” Amidon said in opening remarks. She added that design thinkers must bring their indi­vidual exper­tise to forums like this one to develop inter­dis­ci­pli­nary solu­tions for sus­tain­able urban landscapes.

Xavier Costa, founding dean of the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, noted that the event aligns with the university’s effort to trumpet sus­tain­ability ini­tia­tives across dis­ci­plines through inno­v­a­tive fac­ulty research, stu­dent projects, and guest speakers. Sus­tain­ability is one of the university’s top research themes, along with health and security.

Throughout the day, panel dis­cus­sions addressed many of the com­plex issues related to designing sus­tain­able cities from three angles: sci­ence of design, policy of design, and busi­ness of design. All three panels were mod­er­ated by North­eastern fac­ulty: Amidon; Brian Hel­muth, pro­fessor of envi­ron­mental sci­ence and public policy; and George Thrush, director of the School of Archi­tec­ture.

In the first panel, par­tic­i­pants dis­cussed the effect of sci­ence, tech­nology, and the envi­ron­ment on the urban land­scape. Cli­mate change, pan­elists noted, presents sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges with regard to air quality and rising tem­per­a­tures and sea levels. Nigel Jacob, who co-​​founded the city of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which serves as a civic inno­va­tion incu­bator, dis­cussed the inter­sec­tion of civic life and city ser­vices. He noted, for example, how a mobile app, Cit­i­zens Con­nect, brings res­i­dents to the conversation.

Pan­elist Matthew Eck­elman, an assis­tant pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering, fur­ther noted that the pace of urbanism presents both great oppor­tu­ni­ties and prob­lems for engi­neers. He recently read that by 2030, the amount of new city space being added around the world will equal roughly the size of Mongolia.

The big push on engi­neering, and many other dis­ci­plines, now is under­standing the sys­temic effects, trying to couple all of the engi­neering sys­tems that need to take place in a city like this and under­stand how they interact with the nat­ural sys­tems around them,” Eck­elman said.

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