Strategizing a Unique Practice

September 3, 2011 · by Peter Ellis

Few firms have been able to build their urban visions, designing and constructing cities complete with infrastructure, neighborhoods, and the full architectural fabric.

Invariably, when I am asked at a dinner or cocktail party, “And what do you do for a living?” my reply, “I design cities,” is greeted with at first disbelief, then awe, and then the question, “How do you do that?” The ensuing discussion can last long into the evening.

I have created a practice, Peter Ellis New Cities, to design and build cities. Historically, there have been few opportunities to build our urban visions, with new capital cities such as Chandigarh, Canberra, and Brasilia being rare exceptions. Furthermore, there are few clients, either public or private, that can command the very complex undertaking of a new city. And where they do, they often dismiss the very architects who have established the initial vision.

New Era of City Building

We are experiencing an era in human history of unprecedented growth in cities. The developing world is making a massive shift from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing and service economy that drives the creation of cities.

We are all aware of the tremendous growth of a global urban economy in China. A similar process is occurring in India, where millions of people are migrating from farms and villages to larger towns and cities. Delhi, for example, which had a population of several hundred thousand when India declared independence in 1947, now claims 16 million residents. The National Capital Region has more than 22 million people and is projected to grow to more than 30 million in the next decade. India has grown from 300 million to 1.3 billion people in the same period. If recent population projections prove correct, India will grow to 1.7 billion people by 2050, while the United States will add an additional 100 million residents. This would be the equivalent of eight new cities the size of New York, or an endless sprawl of suburbs.

Existing towns and cities cannot accommodate this massive urban migration. New cities will rise, either haphazardly or by design. The design and engineering professions as a whole are not equipped to deal with this challenge. There is little experience in building new cities. Therefore, I have created a practice that brings together the necessary skills to focus exclusively on creating new cities.

Taking on the design of entire cities is a bold task for someone who was about to retire. But having worked for a year in Dubai as a partner of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill collaborating with the firm’s excellent planning studio, designing the city’s new commercial center and beginning to build it before the collapse of the global economy, I learned some key lessons.

Strategy for a New City Practice

Reside with your client. A successful new city requires a strong master plan framework that is clear in its underlying structure yet able to adapt to rapid change. Often, master plans fail not because they lack great vision but because they are missing the creative hand to guide them through the competing market forces that ultimately shape them. To achieve well-designed new cities, it is essential to control both the vision and the implementation process. The only way to achieve this combination is to design the city around you. The design team must reside with the client in the home country. Rapid response to change cannot be achieved from a distance, nor can a deep understanding of the culture in which we build. Above all, sharing the conditions in which a client lives and works builds confidence and trust. This is essential to earning the credibility and authority necessary to guide the city.

I started our new office not in Chicago but in New Delhi, where our team works most of the year, since it is in the developing world where new cities are rising. This requires a significant commitment and change for team members, but it’s mandatory for the success of our practice.

Collaborate. Although thousands of professionals will contribute to the design and construction of the city, only a handful are required to guide the overall process. I refer to this core team as the brains of the city. The leadership of our firm is multi-disciplinary: architects, urban planners, infrastructure design, environmental design, landscape design. We define the conceptual design of the city, including the master plan, the infrastructure, the park system, roads and transportation, key neighborhoods, and significant buildings. We endeavor to establish the highest international standard. Yet we cannot do everything by ourselves; therefore, we collaborate with many other practices, both local and international, to design and realize the city. Collaboration is vital, particularly in the developing world, where local professionals command considerably lower fees than their international colleagues. Furthermore, there are many talented local architects and engineers who demand and deserve inclusion in shaping their new city and their country.

Be great teachers and designers. Here in India, there was little growth over the past 60 years until the government liberalized a centrally planned economy in favor of a Western market-driven system. Consequently, although India is experiencing a massive surge in construction, there is little experience with large-scale projects among architects, developers, and contractors. We offer value as both teachers and designers in demonstrating processes and techniques that have been well-honed in the West. We teach clients as well as collaborators by example: working next to them. Again, this requires the commitment to live and work abroad.

Current Practice

We are now designing and implementing a new city in India, Jaypee Sports City, which is located about 30 miles south of New Delhi along a new toll road to Agra. The city is being planned on 5,000 acres for more than 1 million residents (with an addition 1 million commuting to the city to work). While a partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, I led the urban design team in India in collaboration with the firm’s planning studio in Chicago. Tom Leader Studio led the landscape design, and WSP led the infrastructure and transportation design. Together, we established a framework that defined ambitious yet achievable urban and environmental objectives.

Peter Ellis New Cities is carrying forward the master plan, overseeing the design and implementation of the infrastructure. We are designing the first neighborhoods, and we have started architectural design on significant buildings. We are collaborating with several architectural and engineering practices and working very closely with our client’s team in their site office. We are literally designing the city around us, refining and adjusting the master plan, responding to changing market conditions, and doing our best to stay one step ahead of the bulldozers.

Our city can now be seen on Google Earth. To drive along one’s drawing, to experience the curving roads in real time and space is truly an exhilarating experience.

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We cannot do good buildings without good clients, and this is even more true for a city. The Jaypee Group is among India’s largest and most respected companies. Founded by Japraikash Gaur in 1958, it is a diversified infrastructure company that owns and builds major projects throughout India. It is the largest provider of hydroelectric power to India, having financed and constructed major dams in the Himalayas. It operates conventional power plants as well as wind farms. It is among the largest manufacturers of cement and has created a luxury brand of hotels. Currently, the Jaypee Group is financing and building major toll roads between India’s cities. Opening in October is a 140-kilometer toll road from New Delhi to Agra. Parallel to this road, the Jaypee Group has acquired vast tracks of land on which to build new cities.

Most remarkable is that these cities are being created completely within the private sector. The Jaypee Group owns the land, finances and builds the infrastructure, parks, neighborhoods, and residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. It has established its own educational and health care system and will create a transportation company, a utility company, and a city management team to attend to the needs of the city.
 
This private model of city building is unique in the world. In the West, we are used to multiple players creating multiple projects within an urban arena controlled in varying degrees by government. The Jaypee Group, however, has the singular authority and the resources to realize the total urban environment. Gaur has stated that he will build great cities — that he will build the new India.

Future Strategy

A city for a million people is somewhat hard to digest for a new practice, but we are meeting the challenge. I want to demonstrate that we can actually build a city, not just draw it, so I am committed to focusing our talents on realizing a beautiful, livable city.

To create new cities that sustain the natural environment is a daunting responsibility. There have been many advances in building technology and urban systems that can help us achieve that goal. Much invention is yet to come. Working at the scale of a city, we have a unique opportunity to employ and integrate sustainable technologies that smaller developments cannot. We are committed to bringing these new systems to our cities wherever feasible.

We will invest in research by reserving a percentage of our profits to fund a not-for-profit research group. We are exploring collaboration with universities in India that are investigating solutions to the urban environmental challenge. We will also collaborate with leading designers in all professions and in private industry who are pushing the frontier. We have just begun this process, and there is much to learn.

At the appropriate time, we will design other cities. We will create a separate leadership team that will guide a new city following the same strategy we are establishing here in India: working together with our clients, collaborating, and living within the city throughout design and implementation. Meanwhile, we have opened an office in Chicago, where we work several months of the year, catching up with our friends and families. As we grow to several city design teams, the Chicago office will become our central resource and our repository of knowledge and experience. Someday, I hope to be able to apply the lessons we have learned designing new cities in the developing world to the restructuring of historic cities, particularly in the United States, where we are falling behind much of the world in the creation of a sustainable urban infrastructure.

Observations

We are a young practice with a unique client, creating a unique city. Our strategy is serving us well. I believe that there is no substitute for having an office in the region where one wishes to work. Flying in only for periodic meetings suffices for certain projects, but in-depth involvement in a country requires a physical presence. As the developing world becomes more experienced in design and construction, clients will expect us to be on call in their own time zone.

As the global economy matures, it will be necessary to promote local talent to leadership positions within our firms in order to grow intellectually and creatively as well as to remain competitive. Great ideas flow in all directions, not just from the United States. The best global practices must be culturally diverse. Great ideas make great firms.

Finally, I believe our profession will prosper to the extent that it takes greater responsibility for the entire built environment. This requires reaching beyond standard practice to take well-considered risks, to be entrepreneurial with the goal of applying our considerable expertise to improve the built environment. Our holistic approach qualifies us to assume a leadership role. Our financial well-being will follow.



Peter Ellis is the founder and president of Peter Ellis New Cities, an architecture and urban design firm dedicated to the design and implementation of new cities, with offices in Jaypee Greens, India and Chicago. He launched the firm in October 2010 after retiring as a design partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP. Ellis is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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