Cities Conference Wrap-Up

In the heart of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States with over 2,700,000 residents in the metro area, BuiltWorlds hosted its Cities Conference, which brought leaders in the built industry together to discuss the ways we can build our cities more effectively and efficiently. It’s an incredibly important conversation to have because people are moving to the cities in droves. While researching the latest BuiltWorlds’ Insights piece, “Thinking Smarter: The Next Step in City Infrastructure,” we found that nearly 55 percent of the planet’s current population lives in urban environments, and that figure is expected to explode to 70 percent by 2050.

In a keynote focusing on his work with the Lowline Underground Park in New York City, Marquise Stillwell, the founder and principal of OpenBox discussed how building in urban environments should really begin with the community.

“The way we look at the built environment has to be people-centered,” he said.

While planning and building the Lowline Park, Stillwell and the park’s other board members engaged the citizens in the local neighborhood to gauge their thoughts and concerns surrounding the project. People living in the neighborhood were added to the projects advisory board to provide their input on the park, and the community was kept apprised throughout the project.

“We need to bring in people who actually live right in the community because it is their neighborhood that is actually being affected,” Stillwell said. “We are building the future now, and building the future now means respecting and connecting the communities now.”

One of the largest issues facing these communities is problems in their cities’ infrastructures. On a macro level, America’s infrastructure is lagging far behind other developed nations. Our roads and freeways have seen better days and our energy grids are sorely out-of-date.

Audrey Wennink, the director of the Metropolitan Planning Council; Tim Ozinga, CEO of Ozinga; Benet Haller, Cook County Government’s transit manager; and Elle Ramel, Farpoint’s director of development spoke on a panel moderated by Lynn Osmond, the president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation that focused on challenges and solutions associated with city infrastructure.

“One of the changes we face is rapid growth,” Tim Ozinga, CEO of Ozinga, said about the city of Chicago. “How can we co-exist together in the same environment and benefit from the same resources the city has?”

Ozinga is using one of Chicago’s most valuable natural resources, the Chicago River, to ship materials and debris from construction and demolition sites. According to Tim Ozinga, 850 truckloads of materials were barged along the river last year. This alternative to trucking saved some 17,000 trips.

While speaking about Chicago’s infrastructure, Haller pushed back on some of the statistics used to justify the revitalization efforts discussed in the “Revitalizing Detroit’s Neighborhoods” panel moderated by Donna Pugh, a partner at Foley & Lardner, and featuring Jake Chidester, director of operations at Bedrock Detroit; Mike Rafferty, the vice president of small business development at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation; and Patrick Beal of the Detroit Training Center.

“Often times in these discussions the region and the cities are inflated and gives a false sense of revitalization and where it occurs,” Haller said.




Lisa Diaz, the founder and managing partner of Turf Academy and keynote speaker at the conference, challenged Haller’s comments during the question and answers portion.

“I don’t know if you went to Detroit during the dark days, but I was appalled. Basically, in core downtown Detroit, only four percent of the traffic lights didn’t work, the water system didn’t work, the fire system didn’t work,” said Diaz. “I know there are mixed opinions about Dan Gilbert and what’s happened, but if go to Detroit now, it’s turned a corner.”

While Haller’s comments sparked a spirited conversation about revitalization and infrastructure in cities, the fact remains that Detroit has indeed come a long way in recent years. Revitalization efforts like those discussed on the Detroit panel are helping the city transform from the grim vision described by Diaz into a vibrant, thriving area. Yet, conversations like this are worth having, which is why BuiltWorlds provides a forum for them to take place.

Other topics covered at the Cities Conference include an in-depth look at the construction of the Jeddah Tower, a mega-structure currently under construction that is set to be the tallest building in the world. It’s going to be so tall, in fact, that it is double the size of Chicago’s own Willis Tower. Mehdi Jalayerian, the executive vice president of ESD Global, discussed the hurdles the company needed to overcome when planning such a tall project.

Building a structure at that height possess many issues. Jalayerian touched on everything from the building’s heating and cooling systems (which need to change as you get higher up, as the temperature drops 11 degrees from the bottom of the building, to the top) to its elevator network.

Paul Doherty, the CEO of The Digit Group spoke about the smart cities technologies the company is using in projects all around the world including Medina, Saudi Arabia. The city has great significance to Muslims as it is the burial place of the prophet Muhammad. The Digit Group in the process of introducing driverless buses and city-wide WIFI to accommodate all the visitors.

Missed the Cities Conference and want to hear more about these panels? Keep an eye on the BuiltWorlds website for videos of the panels and keynotes, which will be posted soon.