Place Making for Uncertain Times

In the future, where and how we live must balance resilience with openness, density with privacy, technology with nature. Can these challenges coexist?

For centuries, the popular sense of place has been defined by highly visible elements such as distinctive infrastructure and stand-out skylines. Now, traditional thinking is being challenged by mega-trends from climate change to the pandemic, and from an aging society to a more widespread focus on equity. As these forces converge, it is time to define the next generation of place-making.

If the old approach was defined by what you see–by buildings, transit, and greenspaces–the future may be equally defined by what you don’t—by sustainability, equity, and health. Delivering on those priorities means planning buildings and infrastructure that connect and create authentic experiences while performing beautifully, inside and out.

Becoming Future Ready

Becoming future ready involves a mindset that goes beyond thinking about the property to prioritize the qualities that make a place great. 

It requires us to take a holistic and human-centered approach to questions such as intended and potential uses, design and attractiveness, safety and comfort, accessibility, linkages to transit and the surrounding area, and even sociability. It means considering current requirements and preparing for a future that will look and feel meaningfully different from the world we live in today. 

Property developers and managers would do well to pay attention. That involves deeply listening to a wide range of stakeholders to surface underlying visions not just for construction, but for a company or community. Our challenge is to translate technical topics into things that people value, whether that is greater health, equity, or business resilience.

For example, corporate leaders might say that they want the best customer experience. Unpacking that goal can lead to sharper priorities that involve clear challenges, which in turn spark innovation. A property manager might want a development to be a destination. Exploring what people want and why can help surface a range of potential new physical, cultural, environmental, and economic uses for a place. 

The best solutions take an interdisciplinary approach and involve a data-driven approach to development. A capable team can translate that vision into technical requirements for the built environment. Taking the time to blend technical studies with engagement over a series of iterations helps respond to stakeholders in ways that yield better results. 


Drawing credit: WSP USA

A future ready approach toward place-making isn’t a blanket solution or one-size-fits-all model. Rather, it can start with questions that can serve as a springboard to a new approach. A few include:

1. How can we better connect communities? 

Connected communities can engage a range of issues, from transit-oriented infill development to sustainable and resilient landscape design. 

For example, a master plan to modernize Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas involved both the public and private sectors in leveraging future transportation plans to set the stage for over 30 acres of mixed-use space. 

In NY’s Sleepy Hollow, the East Parcel Redevelopment Plan transforms a former brownfield site into a resilient civic focal point and community destination with a new community center and municipal waterfront park connected to surrounding development. Critically, it incorporates flood protection measures, edge treatments sensitive to historic properties, and leverages community assets for economic development. 

Both projects proactively bring to life strategies designed to connect people and places for greater resilience and quality of life.

2. How can infrastructure become more adaptive? 

According to the IEA, buildings that exist today will still make up approximately 2/3 of the global building stock in 2040. These days, there is considerable buzz about the adaptive re-use of office buildings, driven by the combination of vacant offices, the housing shortage and many people’s desire to live in a vibrant, walkable urban neighborhood. 

Re-development requires overcoming challenges such as zoning, footprint depth and community concerns when they feel left out or threatened. Yet “living buildings such as Seattle’s Watershed are built with both sustainability and flexibility in mind. It’s not just buildings. There’s a significant opportunity to rethink the ways we adapt existing infrastructure to evolving needs. Examples range from highway decks to railyard overbuilds that can help communities adapt to a changing world. 

3. How can we make the built environment more resilient and equitable?

Placemaking should involve reckoning with the past as we plan for the future. 

Bridgeport, CT is developing a resilience strategy that maintains the area’s relationship with the water while promoting equity by strengthening communities left vulnerable as a result of past policy and planning decisions. An energy strategy involves creating hardened infrastructure and employment opportunities. 

Pilot projects aim to protect homes, businesses and infrastructure from chronic and acute flooding to foster long-term prosperity in the city’s South End. The design includes earthen berm to incorporate historic park features and raised streets as part of an integrated flood protection system that connects to affordable housing and economic opportunities.  

4. How can we go beyond a focus on properties to a more holistic view of a place?

This emerging approach involves taking an expansive view and understanding what people want not only from a property, but from its relationship to the surrounding area. 

One inspiring example is the vision for a newly accessible segment of the Los Angeles River, which is being developed as a complete live-work-play community. With improved water quality, the naturalized and greened waterway is being connected to nearby state and city parks via a network of complete streets, pocket parks, and bicycle paths. 

A promenade and overlooks will provide access while maintaining flood protection, increasing usable open space and leveraging existing city investments to support revitalization on both sides of the river. The result is an authentic experience where none previously existed.

5. How can we engage people in building the future?

Future ready spaces are people-centric. This thinking applies to projects of all sizes, from the large-scale redevelopment of cities and neighborhoods to relatively inexpensive, small-scale improvements that enhance the asset and bring immediate benefits to people who use it. 

Think: a bench that encourages people to stop and talk, combating loneliness, and encouraging shoppers to linger. Or a public art display, shade trees, or a pop-up food truck rally. It is essential to start with what people want, particularly as consumer priorities shift towards smarter and more sustainable places—and as the dynamic of power shifts in their favor.

This new approach involves starting with the vision, prioritizing human-centered design, considering both what you see and what you don’t, and planning for a property’s ongoing evolution. 


Photo credit: Built Work Photography

It involves smart systems that are more sustainable; design that facilitates human connection and promotes wellbeing; and planning for places that intentionally organic and more climate resilient, less prone to flooding, for example, or more resistant to extreme heat. It also considers the context, with placemaking that can strengthen communities.

This approach can help reduce and manage risk by integrating various scenarios into a cohesive vision, translating that vision into an actionable plan, and creating a model for sustainable management over the long term. 

Our built environment influences every aspect of our lives. Truly future ready built environments are designed not just for a skyline, but to foster health, happiness and social cohesion, enhancing the lives of people who inhabit it for generations to come.

This Housing 2.0 presentation is sponsored by:  Jinko Solar, LP Building Solutions,  Mitsubishi Electric Panasonic, Schneider Electric  and Sunnova.