Metropolis Think Tank: Designing for People, Place and Socioeconomic Progress in Chicago

  • March 20, 2017
  • Author: Timothy Swanson

CHI-CD_Metropolis70When talking about the value of design, I’ll often highlight my belief that buildings and places should directly enrich the lives of the people who engage them regularly. I feel that’s a critical perspective to bring to our work across the world and I always strive to focus our Chicago team’s efforts around this notion.

Given the chance to host a Metropolis Think Tank discussion in our office last week, our team seized the opportunity to focus the conversation on Designing for People, Place and Socioeconomic Progress Across Chicago. With Metropolis’ partnership, we were able to secure remarkably insightful panelists (listed below) who each brought their own dynamic perspective to this narrative. As we noted in the description for the event, we sought to highlight how “recent urban development projects reveal how socially-minded designers can address inequality, create jobs, develop neighborhoods, and forge connections among a diverse citizenry.” We also wanted to focus on the new ideas and opportunities the city can seize to create a stronger, more equitable Chicago.

Thanks to the help of many, the event proved an inspiring success. Attendees from numerous Chicago organizations like the Chicago Architecture Foundation, BuiltWorlds and local universities attended to listen to the discussion and share their own ideas. We also broadcast the Metropolis event out to all of our other offices. The event provided an opportunity to have the kind of discussion we should host in cities across our firm.

SusanTruly, the event shined because the panelists made it happen. I’m very grateful to have had the chance to take part in the discussion with leaders in our Chicago community, led by moderator Susan Szenasy:

  • Susan S. Szenasy, Publisher/Editor in Chief of Metropolis, who helped frame, moderate and drive our discussion. Her passion for leveraging design to promote equity, great sense of humor and grasp of urbanism was evident throughout.
  • Alden Loury, Director of Research and Evaluation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, brought critical insight into how policy needs to be evolved to make a more equitable Chicago a reality. Alden highlighted how our underserved Chicago communities are equipped with numerous strengths and resources that can bridge gaps, forge connections and better unite Chicago.
  • Paula Worthington, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, who kept us thinking about the policy and economic ramifications of solving the challenges ahead. We joked she handled the “tougher questions,” and she did so with great insight.
  • Mimi LeClair, President and CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, who offered direct insight into how our decision-making impacts our youth today and into the future. She shared looks into how she’s reframing Boys & Girls Club programs to help our youth be safe, educated and ready to lead our communities, organizations and businesses of tomorrow.
  • Edward Uhlir, FAIA, Uhlir Consulting, LLC and past leader of the Millennium Park Foundation, shared stories of how Millennium Park and other distinct Chicago architecture came to be. He told those stories in a way that highlighted the strategies, realities and best practices we need to keep at the forefront of future efforts to expand Chicago’s prosperity.


No doubt, our 90-minute discussion covered many topics and corners of Chicago. And, while so much of the conversation is still resonating in my head days after the event, I’m proudest of the optimism on display during our Metropolis Think Tank panel.

As Susan Szesany introduced the panel, she shared her opinion that Chicago is a wonderful American city. Yes, it faces challenges and needs to do more to promote equity. However, Chicago’s current situation makes it ripe for design intervention and change. Our panel agreed that by combining our talents and voices, we can leverage design to create a Chicago that enriches the lives of all who call it home.

Launching the Dream Box Project with Chicago Children’s Theater

  • January 20, 2017
  • Author: Timothy Swanson

chicago dream box projectOne of the more rewarding efforts our Chicago team has recently taken part in is the launch of Chicago Children’s Theater’s (CCT) Dream Box project. The project, launched in partnership with Kaboom! Play Everywhere, is a creative collaboration with three local schools to help Chicago’s youth envision the future of Chicago. The results are four Dream Boxes located around the city that offer peeks into the future world from the minds of Chicago children and also bring Chicagoans together through free public art.

“The Dream Box project aims to elevate children as the authors of our city and inspire them to imagine what the urban future could look like,” said Frank Maugeri, Community Programs Artistic Director of the CCT.

To create the dream boxes, CCT led conversations with students at the three area schools to spur their imaginations and understand their dreams, visions and beliefs about the future. The children’s creative imaginings were collected and provided to noted Chicago visual artists including Kass Copeland, Andres Lemus-Spont and CoCo Ree Lemery, who realized their innovative ideas in miniature scale.

Our team collaborated with CCT and the local artists to create the boxes, which resemble post-modern, outdoor mailboxes. I had the good fortune of attending a ribbon cutting event for the new CCT theater and see the boxes up close with students last week.

Now created, the Dream Box structures will also live on for lasting, long-term community impact, as the art inside can be updated or changed with new themes by new sets of students.

Learn more about our Chicago Office >

BuiltWorlds Obama Presidential Center Crowdsourcing Competition

  • August 17, 2016
  • Author: Timothy Swanson

One of the more fascinating events I’ve been able to take part in over the past year has been serving as a judge for the BuiltWorlds Obama Presidential Center crowdsourced design competition. If you’re unfamiliar, the Barack Obama Foundation announced it had narrowed its field of candidates to seven prominent architects who will compete to design the upcoming center and library on Chicago’s south side. For fun and creativity’s sake, BuiltWorlds decided to ask, “What sort of Presidential Library would the people design?” and invited all designers, from everywhere, to unlock their design talent and generate visionary architectural and urban design schemes for this extraordinary, one-time opportunity to shape our president’s future library. While the crowdsourced competition has no bearing on the actual design competition, it spurred scores of submissions, idea-sharing and creative brilliance.

As one of the judges for the BuiltWorlds competition, I was able to review the proposals and we recently announced the winning design schemes. There’s a great video online that features the submissions and thoughts from the judges that I’ve embedded below and you can learn more about the competition online.

Designing Places with Purpose

  • February 23, 2016
  • Author: Timothy Swanson

The Design Community’s Power to Elevate the Human Condition

Above all else, we must never forget that designing places is about understanding people.

While we can appreciate the beauty of the buildings we create and the intelligence of the systems we define, ultimately these things are only successful if they help the people who will use them. Creating successful schools and hospitals is not simply about designing modern facilities with cutting-edge technology.

It’s about listening to the pulse of the community that needs these spaces. Understanding its challenges, its economy, its health outcomes, its fundamental needs – and delivering the right solution for that specific community.

When the design community invests itself in this way and pulls every ounce of its creative energy spanning myriad disciplines, it is a positive, powerful force to be reckoned with. It is a force that belongs infused in every conversation and meeting focused on helping the world tackle the many challenges it faces.

At first thought, it’s daunting. How can designers help make the world a better place for current and future generations? How can we improve health outcomes across a global population with more than 7.4 billion people? How can we increase access to education for the 9.3 percent of children around the world currently out of school? These are remarkable challenges with intense complexities.

How can the design community help tackle these challenges? By bringing our best thinking across health, education, architecture, engineering, city design, landscape architecture, etc. and applying it to improving communities one by one. Here’s a look at a few leading examples from around the world:

Creating a Pipeline for Employment in Chicago

Recent research indicates the Chicago region is on pace to experience a significant gap between its current market of qualified healthcare professionals and a projected 84,000 new healthcare jobs headed to the region in the next decade. In response, City Colleges of Chicago and Malcolm X College recently opened a new School of Health Sciences. The 544,000 sf facility will accommodate up to 20,000 students and features a virtual hospital complete with operating and emergency rooms, an ambulance for EMT simulation, an exercise and sports sciences area that features a 900-seat gymnasium and a dental hygiene clinic to open later in 2016. It’s a forward-thinking facility for the students, the community and the city.

“Today, we lay the foundation for a best-in-class learning environment that will be the pride of the West Side and all of Chicago,” said City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman upon announcing the project years back. “The new Malcolm X College will be a centerpiece of our efforts to ensure Chicagoans are prepared for careers in growing feels like healthcare.”

Places appropriately designed and calibrated to their community’s needs don’t just happen. The Malcolm X school required the input and hard work of City Colleges of Chicago, Rush University and Rush University Medical Center, community members, political support and firms like Moody Nolan, Jacobs Project Management, CO. and CannonDesign. It required design expertise spanning education, healthcare, science, sports, urban strategy, landscape design, architecture and engineering to come together to create a singularly dynamic solution for the community.

Fighting Cancer in India

It is estimated that approximately 2.5 million to 3 million people have cancer in India at any given time. Each year, more than 1 million cases are diagnosed and more than 650,000 Indians die of the disease. In response, the Tata family worked with designers to create Tata Medical Center – Eastern India’s first world-class cancer hospital and research center.

The medical center sets forth a modern vision for mass delivery of cancer care in a rapidly industrializing part of the world, an integrated health campus embodying clinical best practices. Treatment processes and patient encounters are optimized to improve the patient experience and increase staff efficiency, ultimately uplifting the spirits of both children and adult patients as they endure the physiological and psychological stresses of cancer treatment. Sensitive to the region’s culture and context, patient-centric design provides alternative waiting areas on comfortable open air terraces and pediatric interior design showcases native Bengali fables in a comforting yet sophisticated manner. Again, delivering such an impactful space required creative collisions between health planners, architects, urban designers, interior designers and multiple other disciplines.

Driving Social Change in Texas

Located on the southernmost piece of Texas and directly across the border from Mexico, Browsnsville, TX is a powerfully unique place. The 16th most populous city in the state, Brownsville has grown significantly in recent decades as its economy has focused on international trade with Mexico and increased manufacturing. Still, the city also faces unique socio-economic challenges including border condition poverty, low graduation rates, high unemployment and poor health outcomes despite some of the highest healthcare costs in the country.

Recognizing it could become an even stronger vehicle for change in the region, the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) recently engaged a diverse team of designers and thought leaders as part of an extensive visioning process to reshape its academic mission. Teaming with educational planners, architects, researchers, economists, sustainability experts, urban planners and more, UTB completely rethought how its academic plan and spaces could better align themselves to educate students to tackle these regional challenges. By scaling up to see itself as more than just a university in a city but actually a force for regional change, UTB is promoting renewed economic vitality, environmental protection and the health of its surrounding community. This efforts creates new opportunities for local students and also for the university to be globally significant while spurring economic development in the region.

UTB undertook a visioning process to reshape its academic plan to become a mission-focused, sustainably-minded research and teaching institution that directly addresses these regional challenges and promotes economic vitality, environmental protection and the health of its citizens. This effort creates new opportunities for the university to be regionally focused and globally significant while spurring economic development in the region.

While in different locations across the globe, these places listed above are connected by the fact they are designed with purpose. They are created with the individuals who need them in mind and aligned to their specific needs.  They are representative of the power of the design community to engage in elevating the human condition.

That’s the key and the core to design – creating value for people. When we do that, we can systematically catalyze impactful change for individuals and cities. We can build positive momentum, individual-by-individual and place-by-place, all coming together to change the world for the better.

View more of our work >