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An Emerging World
This article appeared in the July issue of Civil+Structural Engineer Magazine. Click here to read the article.
By Richard Massey
Lisa Nisenson consumes a lot of media about smart infrastructure and innovative parking solutions. She travels a lot, talks to plenty of people and, most importantly, listens to what they say. At home in front of a city council or in a room full of West Coast tech junkies at a conference in Portland, Nisenson is positioning herself to do at least two things – solve a problem and even predict the future.
She’ll have plenty of chances to do both. Nisenson, after decades in the field as a consultant, researcher, activist, entrepreneur, and planner, was recently named VP for New Mobility & Connected Communities at WGI, a firm with huge aspirations for the future.
In the press release announcing her hire, WGI had this to say:
“Lisa’s experience spans work in the private, non-profit, and public sectors, including federal and local government agencies. At the United States Environmental Protection Agency, she developed pioneering policy for sustainable community design, including guides and regulatory support for low-impact development and redevelopment. She brings a practical approach to helping clients through new planning methods, interactive public engagement, zoning-code reform, and best practices that deliver multiple benefits.
“WGI clients are aware of both the potential, and challenges, associated with technology related disruption and change. Lisa helps demystify trends, engaging clients to develop both long-range scenarios and near-term roadmaps. This helps cities of all sizes incorporate new technology into existing planning efforts while anticipating potential and probable changes in transportation and land use.”
Nisenson’s hire comes on the heels of other major, forward-looking developments for WGI, all of it pursuant to the firm’s 2025 vision for 1,000 associates and $200 million in revenue.
In January, it acquired Austin, Texas-based multidiscipline firm Big Red Dog, and in 2017, acquired Michigan-based Carl Walker, Inc., which specializes in sustainable parking structures. Last year, the firm named Greg Sauter as its president. While Sauter checked all the traditional boxes for a top hire, he also brought something novel to the table. Sauter was the founder of Smart City Works, an accelerator for early-stage companies focused on civil infrastructure, a nice dovetail with Nisenson’s background.
Nisenson joins WGI as the world of urban planning and mobility, and public expectations about both, are being revolutionized by technology and innovation. Amazon’s purchase of old malls and their subsequent conversion into fulfillment centers is one of the big headlines, and it points in the direction of last-mile delivery, autonomous vehicles, and the ongoing transformation of grocery getting – all of which will change the urban landscape.
“It’s a whole new world,” Nisenson said.
There’s a fever pitch out there right now, as communities large and small are consumed by the Fear of Missing Out on the latest tech and trends, and fumbling the competitive advantage that allows them to recruit the workforce of the future.
Tech companies are cashing in, or attempting to cash in, by pitching their services to cities. But city leaders must be prudent and not fall into the trap of adopting technology for the sake of adopting technology. In that case, a community could be left holding the bag on something that is quickly left behind by the marketplace.
“You can’t adopt the tech because you think it’s cool,” Nisenson said. “You have to solve a problem.”
The smart-city grid here in the US is still in its infancy, and a lot of problems must be solved before the curbsides and sidewalks of the future are figured out. A big issue right now is one of speed. How do you mesh together various modes of transportation – pedestrian, bike, electric bike, scooter, and even moped – without creating chaos in the right-of-way? Nisenson might need to read the crystal ball, something she’s more than willing to do.
“You’ve got to get the infrastructure right,” she said.
A Conversation with Lisa Nisenson
C+S: You were recently named the VP for New Mobility & Connected Communities at WGI. What are your goals in this role?
Lisa Nisenson: The scope of innovation in the types of smart city and smart transportation is enormous, from smart streetlights that collect and distribute data to connected cars and even scooters. Less covered are the secondary impacts of all this technology on our built environment and infrastructure. As a full-service engineering and design firm, this means technology impacts every facet of what we do. My goal is to make sure we are prepared and ready to provide solutions to our clients that meet their existing needs as well as adapt to a changing future.
C+S: In the press announcing your new position, WGI talks about place-making, shared-use mobility, smart cities, and autonomous vehicles. The firm is adding expertise in this field as part of its strategic plan. What does the firm see on the horizon?
LN: Yes – we have a lot of talent in-house – and see the need to constantly evaluate trends and what it means for designing communities and infrastructure.
Because it’s difficult to tell exactly how technology will evolve, we look at two things. One are “tried and true” practices that stand the test of time. For example, we are working on a Complete Street in West Palm Beach that will support walking, biking, access to transit, and vehicles. The lesson here is not so much about technology, but about creating a street that supports not only mobility, but a sense of place. This in turn adds economic vitality.
Second, adaptable infrastructure will be critical, such as our garage design called FlexPark.TM. Parking right now is being impacted by technology, notably transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft. This is particularly true for entertainment districts, since ridehailing customers note the ability to avoid drunk driving as the top reason for using a TNC. Many experts see further shifts in parking, which means garage owners may seek to repurpose parking spaces for other activities.
Some of the emerging issues we are watching are things like the rise of e-commerce. If retailers want to get you anything you want within a couple of hours, imagine what that means for warehousing and the constant stream of deliveries on sidewalks, in streets, and overhead with drones. We are also mindful of the need for resilient infrastructure as trends play out with more frequent, dangerous storms. This affects all aspects of design, from buildings to infrastructure to land use and economic development.
C+S: WGI is a dynamic growth firm. How does the culture of a place like WGI feed into your own entrepreneurial approach?
LN: The most important part of taking an entrepreneurial approach is first and foremost listening to customers to see what their main problems are – or what they see looming. Nothing matters if you don’t address the right problem.
Second, I like to boil down my approach as getting out in front of the future. When I convene stakeholders, whether internal or in a design charrette, I always like to use a first workshop to explore technology and how it’s likely to evolve. This helps form a common understanding of the types of technology, likely impacts, and how we can manage impacts. For example, autonomous cars get a lot of press for the potential for both positive and negative impacts. Whether AVs cause more congestion or relive congestion will depend on a range of decisions on pricing, where they can park, and whether they are owned or shared.
C+S: In your new role, you will be working with all of WGI’s service lines. What’s the key to communicating with such a large, diverse group of colleagues?
LN: That’s really the next step. When I joined in March, the first couple of weeks I went out to talk to clients, and then formed a small internal group. Your question really addressed the next couple of months, which will require a lot of internal lunch-and-learns and office visits.
C+S: You are a national thought leader in your field. If you were talking to a group of young engineers, what would you tell them about forging a national profile?
LN: Find a way to take one of these emerging topics – whether it’s parking, autonomous shuttle policy, or the future of funding transportation infrastructure, and join professional working groups.
C+S: Civic engagement is a big focus for you. In terms of project delivery, what’s the difference between good, and poor, public engagement?
LN: I got my start in urban design as a civic activist in Arlington, Virginia, so I’ve been in several stakeholder roles. In my case, our neighborhood taught itself urban planning to make the case for a better project. By better, we had to think about how the project worked on several fronts (not just those of one neighborhood).
Ideally, the best engagement is ongoing and explores different facets of community life. Lately, stakeholder engagement is having to also pull in a lot of emerging (and sometimes worrisome) trends like climate change and technology. I’ve found, in this world of social media and relentless news cycles, local and personal is the way to go. Walking tours are my favorite way to study our communities closely for things that work, don’t work, or serve as a conversation springboard for talking about the future.
C+S: You worked for the EPA for 17 years. How did this experience shape your career?
LN: I got my start professionally working on pesticide regulation! I then changed over to the Sustainable Communities group after my experience in my own neighborhood working on sustainable, transit-oriented development. So it was less EPA shaping my career than me shaping EPA.
C+S: Your background includes a lot of experience working with governments at the local, state and federal levels. What’s the secret to delivering successful projects owned by publicly-funded stakeholders?
LN: Most of my work that was for public projects relates to street and roadway design. I’ve noticed a growing shift in rethinking the public’s investment in rights-of-way. For cities, streets often represent their largest real estate holding, yet it’s thought of for moving cars and stormwater. All too often, it does neither of these well (congestion with cars and polluted runoff and flooding). The other problem is our deficit in infrastructure repairs locally and for interstates.
I’ve noticed cities reviewing street design as a way to unlock local value. So, a street can be converted to a festival area or closed for markets. Right now, there is a move toward curbless streets that can easily be re-programmed for public spaces or the extension of private spaces for new sources of revenue. Though controversial, cities are reallocating parking spaces for pick-up and drop-off zones for ride services like Uber and Lyft, as well as moveable parklets and bike parking.
Working with the public, the message is about getting more value from every taxpayer dollar on public rights-of-way.
C+S: You have a biology degree, yet you are working for a large multi-discipline consulting firm. What perspective do you bring to the table that perhaps engineers do not?
LN: WGI has a talented, multi-disciplinary team – we even have the WGI Creative Services office with design professionals. This gives us access to videographers, graphic designers, and other visual storytellers. This gives us the chance to break from professional-speak to stories people can understand.
As a biologist, I am heartened by the increasing use of the word “ecosystem” to describe systems – even parking and streets. This recognizes that cities, like habitats, are interlinked systems and not siloed engineering topics.
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