The world is changing quickly and no one really knows what the biggest issues are or how they will affect us. Technology is changing how we connect, what we think about and how we organize around emerging issues. New issues lead to new groupings of thought and action. Old boundaries are falling and new connections are rising. What does it all mean to design?
We want to know how we can make a difference in this changing world, so we strive to stay in touch with these changes. We participate in forums around the world where issues like public health, sustainability, and social equity are debated. These conversations always lead to uncertainties like climate change, economic instabilities and a continual emergence of new ideas, propositions and strategies. We think the future of our world lies in cities and feel lucky to have built a strong base of urbanism in design that we can build on. We are recognized thought leaders in this realm, but we have much to learn.
It is important that design is responsible to the people and places where we practice and accountable to the issues that matter to our clients and their constituents. Design thinking is about asking the questions that reveal the true issues, why they exist, what they mean and how they might be solved. We ask these questions and learn before acting.
Civitas is an ancient idea that people meet, exchange, settle and build a community around shared resources. They call it home. Cities exist because we need connections. The vernacular city sits where paths cross, water and food are available and the climate supports settlement. But as times and technology change, the patterns of the city, values, and meanings change. Today we have new ways of connecting that are causing change that is faster than any time in history. What does that mean for the Civitas Idea?
New technologies expand the way we touch one another. They impact what we know and what we care about. We see things in new ways, and the meaning of our world shifts a little. We are seeing global social innovation and political change as a result. When people connect around new issues where do they show it? In public places that mean something to them. The town square, the park, the steps of the Capital — this is where people express their needs.
Public spaces are not just pretty, formal places to set buildings. They are where people connect. They bind the fabric of every culture. Today these connections are physical + local and technological + global. We are in a place and in multiple networks at the same time. This new complexity makes the public realm more important. Some urbanists think the answer lies in walkability, others promote placemaking and others think that mobility or resiliency are key. We believe that the core patterns and networks of public spaces, streets, passages, open spaces and natural corridors together are the true foundation of urbanism. These interwoven connections encourage every activity from chance encounter to organized activities that support social and economic exchange. Physical connections and spaces of all types and sizes, each suited to their locale and culture and each making connections among people lead to healthier, more sustainable and more equitable cities.
The Civitas Idea means that design should find ways to make the public realm richer, more connected, more adaptable and more resilient to change. We see design as our attempt to bring people and issues together in patterns that build on the past, add new activity and set a course for positive trends in how people use their city. We don’t think there is a right way to do it, or that we have the all answers. We think it is our job to question, listen and bring together the best of what we learn in a new answer that is unique to each problem.
The city is a landscape, one that holds buildings and people together. The landscape is what weaves people and places into a whole. It is not always green, but more and more we understand that green is better. Green makes us feel better, green cleans our air and green holds carbon. Green feeds us and reminds us that our lives are better when nature is near and accessible.
Our medium is landscape. An urban landscape that is soft, hard, natural, made, seen, felt and perceived. City landscapes, both natural and made places, need o engage people, satisfy and be higher performance than landscapes we made in the past. New urban landscapes have a new burden – to heal scars, reclaim lost places, connect old and new systems, create cultural and economic value, attract people, activate neighborhoods and connect people to each other and the place they call home.
We believe that new landscapes create jobs, clean air, manage water, grow habitats, are beautiful, inspire, feel good, and set new social growth in motion. These landscapes are streets and plazas, parks and natural corridors, patches of green that gather carbon and grow food in the ground, on a rooftop, or in between other things like streets and buildings. A mosaic of landscape places and systems means a lot and does a lot. Civitas exists to make these places. Places that make a city, a civitas.
Cities are always changing. People are always coming and going and changing economies shift how we value them. Every city has areas that have been left behind by new economies. Old waterfronts, rail corridors, poor neighborhoods and leftover spaces have often been left behind. They have lost their meaning to the larger population. These places will not be revitalized unless we understand how we can make them mean more to more people. This is a question that we seek in every circumstance – how can we unlock the potential of a place by bridging the past with the future?
We have to know history and how the feelings of the community can lead to change. We talk and we listen. We try to find why people feel the way they do and how we might change assumptions, remove barriers or create new visions that will mean more. People will only embrace change when it means something more and better to them. It is up to us to listen, interpret and imagine.
It is not enough for design to look great, be durable and cost effective. Our work has to perform. It has to enable people, support activity and do so in ways that improve the world. New technologies are abundant and new materials are constantly emerging. Our objective is to stay ahead of these changes to ensure that our work is increasingly sustainable, efficient and responsive to environmental needs. We believe in seeking local sources, local materials, local crafts and local techniques to reduce waste and carbon impacts. We believe in using water wisely, and in making our design smarter using new technologies. Every project has to learn from, and perform more than the last one.
Design is not just form, pattern or materials. Design is also strategy. Design thinking is a powerful tool to ask the questions that reveal patterns, trends and forces that create an urban issue or condition. Without knowing what those forces are design can’t change them. So our goal is to find the strategies that will put change into motion.
We are about getting to the bottom of things, seeing beyond common assumptions, and finding connections and meanings where others may not see them. We find creative ideas in ordinary problems and we find complexities that others miss. The most effective design ties all these things together into new forms, materials and expressions that make a difference. Our approach is simple. We understand, question, investigate, discover, play, reformulate, test, discard and repeat. Ours is a learning process that leads to new ideas and solutions, whether the problems are old or new. We are about creativity and innovation, but not for their own sake.
Design has to work, meet budgets, be on time, and perform at the highest levels whatever the program and cost. Design must be accountable. We work between bursts of fierce creative inspiration and hard introspection into what the consequences of our ideas might be. We are left brain and right brain, at once and together. We believe that in the design of cities, less is not more. More is more. We just have to make more out of less to truly be effective.