the civitas idea

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 and access. 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 Capitol — 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 make every activity accessible, from chance encounter to organized 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.

City as Landscape

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 to 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.

Looking for Meaning

Cities are always changing. People are always coming and going, and changing economies shift what we value. 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.

Design that Performs

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 for a changing world / strategies