Thoughts on the dynamic cities sector
September 23, 2015
After spending more than a decade in government and real estate development, Brian Swett recently joined Arup in the role of Director of Cities and Sustainable Real Estate in the Americas. We asked for his thoughts on the cities field and his key takeaways from both the public and private sectors.
In the past, urbanism was almost a niche concern; now everyone seems to be talking about cities. Can you describe your view of the field today?
The thing that gets me most excited about working in the cities space is that for so many of the issues, opportunities, and challenges facing society today, cities are really at the front line in addressing them.
The entire world is urbanizing. We have more and more people moving into urban living conditions, moving into cities, moving into inner suburbs from outer suburbs. That provides an opportunity to address longstanding issues of health and vitality and the environment and resource efficiency. And it also presents many challenges.
How did you become interested in this field? What was your background prior to joining Arup?
I started off in environmental policy at the US EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] in Washington, DC. The job had a broad remit around both regulatory and nonregulatory policy, looking for innovative ways of bringing about positive environmental change.
I really fell in love with the urban context as the right lens to grapple with environmental issues and challenges. I did a lot of work looking at international best practices in cities — northern European cities predominately, as well as East Asian, Australasian, and South American — trying to find examples that we could bring back to the US.
I always envisioned my career bouncing between the public and the private sectors, so I went back to school and got an MBA and an MS in sustainable systems, with the idea that cities are inherently one of the more complex and interesting systems out there. After graduate school I went into real estate development, working for a major real estate and development company, Boston Properties.
I was very happy there but was then presented with an opportunity to oversee the environment, energy, parks, and inspectional services departments for the City of Boston. So that had me jumping back into the public forum, really combining my interest areas at the city scale.
And then coming here to Arup, I’m taking the lessons learned in these roles and applying them to cities throughout the region. I’m tremendously excited about the opportunities here at Arup in the cities space.
Relations between developers and communities can be contentious. Having worked in both the public and private sectors, what opportunities do you see to improve this dynamic?
Well, I think one of the big drivers is making sure both the public and private partners have similar timeframes and expectations. As a public official, I found that the developers who had the longest timeframes — meds, eds, long-term real estate owners — seemed to be most aligned with wanting to spend the time and the resources to think about what Boston was going to be like in 2030 or 2050. Once you start to have those conversations about what a city can be and do in the long term, you start to get on the same page a lot faster.
Sometimes you run into challenges when folks have near-term expectations of liquidity. If they’re building with the intent of selling the property fairly quickly, they’re then less interested in thinking about the implications of the building on the neighborhood, its impacts on the community.
Building better places, building better buildings in neighborhoods, increases the economic value for everybody.
Have you seen strategies that work well for reconciling those timelines?
I think part of it is being able to evaluate, analyze, and communicate the inherent value in thinking long-term — that building better places, building better buildings in neighborhoods, increases the economic value for everybody. And that oftentimes thinking short-term is far more risky, whereas investing for the long term is a much safer strategy.
Having worked in Washington, how do you see the relationship between the national and municipal levels when it comes to urban issues? What’s working well and what could be better?
Cities really get to be laboratories of innovation when it comes to design and policy and projects and developments, and I think the national government — and certainly this administration — is really appreciating this. They’re working directly with cities to try to tackle environmental and social problems. It’s often a very effective approach.
Working at the city scale, you’re doing everything from policy to direct implementation, and most citizens throughout the country have a more direct relationship with their city government than with any other form of government. They expect a certain level of services. They expect that the government picks up the trash, teaches their kids in schools, and provides basic health and safety services. So there are certainly policy directives and financial resources and major project coordination at the state and federal levels, but the opportunity to have a real and everyday impact on people’s lives is often greatest at the city scale.
So you think this administration is paying more attention to the urban scale. Do you see that as an inevitable long-term trend, regardless of who wins the next election?
Yeah, I do. And I think it’s challenging a lot of our government norms. Certainly you see that within the sustainable development and climate space, when you look at the growth and importance of C40 and Bloomberg’s work with cities. And now the UN has a special attaché for cities and the environment.
Many of the issues that have traditionally been the purview of nation-states are now being tackled by cities directly, and they’re talking to each other and coming up with creative and novel solutions. So as the world continues to urbanize, the role of city governments in solving problems is heightening. And the respect that other levels of government have for what needs to get done in cities is increasing.
I do think in the US you have some interesting challenges because our government structures aren’t necessarily set up to recognize the proportion of folks that live in cities. And the US has not traditionally been recognized as a leader in long-term masterplanning, in citywide planning or regional planning, and so it’s not always the easiest to get things done at the city level. But there’s a lot we can learn from highly functioning cities around the world, and we can begin to apply those practices more readily domestically.
Can you give an example of some things that have been shown to work elsewhere that might be applied here?
For example, the city of Boston is only 48 square miles. If you look at a map of the city of Boston it doesn’t make sense. It’s not clearly bounded by a river or other water bodies on different sides; if you look at the town of Brookline it’s sort of nestled within Boston. The city’s shape evolved for purely political reasons. So then when you start to tackle an issue like sea-level rise associated with climate change — which is geographic, respects no political boundaries, and really is much more of a regional issue — there isn’t a natural governance structure to take that up.
One of the last initiatives I led for the City was trying to address this gap in regional governance coordination on climate change. The mayor of Boston recently convened the first regional climate preparedness summit, bringing together his fellow mayors from the 13 inner-ring cities and towns around Boston to discuss a coordinated approach to sea-level rise.
Regional governance structures are much more popular out west and in other countries, but far less so in the Northeast. But we clearly need to recognize that regional challenges like sea-level rise associated with climate change demand regional solutions.