New Episodes Launch Each Wednesday!

Close this search box.

Part 2: How To Build Long-Lasting Regenerative Cities With Steven Cornwell

Watch the episode here

Listen to the podcast here

With the right mindset and proper technologies, living a sustainable life is not impossible even in an urban area. Steven Cornwell of ERA-co joins Corinna Bellizzi once more, this time to discuss how to build regenerative cities. Together, they explain what it takes to create sustainable living spaces while considering carbon neutrality, the hybrid future of work, and the rise of electric mobility. They talk about achieving a balance between people’s density and infrastructure while shedding light on the unabated issue of overpopulation. Steven also explores the various lessons New York City and many urban areas in the United States can learn from other places around the world. He explains how European cities excel in reducing carbon footprint and why everyone would soon opt for shared living spaces just like in Asian countries.

About Steven Cornwell

CMBB 152 | Regenerative CitiesSteven Cornwell is the Global Director of ERA-co, currently living in NYC. Over the course of 20 years, Steven has garnered an international reputation for developing leading brands from a broad range of sectors including real estate, place, culture, consumer retail, media, transit & infrastructure and professional services. ERA-co is a global place brand specializing in data science, research and insight, user strategy, urban systems and brand experience.

Guest LinkedIn:

Guest Website:

Guest Social:

Show Notes:

00:00 – Introduction

01:48 – Embarrassments as a kid

05:32 – Carbon neutrality and the future of office culture

13:51 – Corporate America’s culture problem

20:12 – Net-zero cities

26:17 – Dissecting city structure samples

39:33 – Shared living spaces

51:21 – Advice on creating regenerative communities

45:46 – Mobility and parking spaces

58:02 – Saudi Arabia’s THE LINE

01:02:06 – Closing words and conclusion

Join the Care More. Be Better. Community! (Social Links Below)








Support Care More. Be Better: A Social Impact + Sustainability Podcast

Care More. Be Better. is not backed by any company. We answer only to our collective conscience. As a listener, reader, and subscriber you are part of this pod and this community and we are honored to have your support. If you can, please help finance the show ( Thank you, now and always, for your support as we get this thing started!

Part 2: How To Build Long-Lasting Regenerative Cities With Steven Cornwell

In the last episode, we kicked off an important discussion about regenerative food systems that can nurture humanity and help reverse global warming. Now, we’re pivoting into a conversation about community building, city living, and ushering in a new era of modern living. Don’t start reading this episode if you haven’t read the last one. This is part two of an important deep dive into the things it will take to build that better future.

I’m honored to be joined again by a master of many domains as we wander through these imaginings of what the future could hold with Steven Cornwell. Steven is the Global Director of ERA-co who presently resides in New York City. ERA-co is a global place brand specializing in data science, research and insight, user strategy, urban systems, and brand experience. Steven Cornwell, welcome to the show.

Great to be back. Thank you for having me.

I have an unconventional question to ask at this point to get this discussion started. What embarrassed you as a kid that no longer embarrasses you now?

That is a very good question. Sadly, I had way too much hubris to be embarrassed. I wasn’t a particularly good reader. I was slightly dyslexic, but I had an issue in trouble getting through long-form novels, which I don’t anymore. I always used to find that a bit of an embarrassment that I couldn’t read as well as everybody else. What got me through was more of my social intelligence and my emotional intelligence. I overcame that a little bit. I would’ve liked to be more academic. I loved math, but I wasn’t very good at it.

My embarrassment is ironic. When I was young, I was embarrassed to share with people that my parents were hippies and that I had spent much of my time growing up in shared living spaces.

You were embarrassed by that growing up?

I lived in a small lumber town. It was an issue to me that all my clothes came from goodwill. Now I am proud of that, but at the time, I felt out of fashion. I didn’t have the latest Espree or whatever.

You would’ve been the poster child of sustainability back then.

We grew asparagus, strawberries, and peach trees, and raised chickens and rabbits for food.

I was trying to explain this to the young kids in our office. I was trying to explain to them that the concept of fast food in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a relatively new concept. My mother used to go down to the Chinese takeaway store with a pot, pick up the food in the pot, and take it home. That’s how dramatically things have changed since then.

I bought myself a beautiful Lafayette basket years ago to be able to go grocery shopping. I put all my produce in there now when I go to the farmer’s market. I’ve gone back to those roots. It’s that earlier sense. I want to farm chickens, but my husband says no, and my son says, “I want chickens. Let’s put it where the trampoline is.” I’m just like, “You’d rather have a chicken coop than a trampoline?”

I wonder how many chicken coops have been put out of service post the pandemic. Everyone got a chicken coop because of the supply chain problem. Assuming now we’re back to normal, everyone’s removing their chickens, I suspect.

All it takes is one raccoon that’s crafty getting in to decimate the entire population. We call them trash pandas while they’re also very crafty little creatures.

I live where Walt Disney wrote every single cartoon. I have every animal here. I have skunks, woodpeckers, deer, and rabbits. I have the whole thing. I’m the Elmer Fudd of the farm. I’m trying to keep everything out of the house. It’s great. Getting back in nature and having animals around is something I miss. I grew up in the country, but then I became a city dweller for many years and just rediscovered what it’s like to be out around farms and people.

Let’s use your example, a city dweller because of the fact that you’re living in the ultimate convenience of everything. You generally have a lower carbon footprint than someone living out in the countryside. Unless you have a regenerative farm that you’re living on, you’re making all of your own food. Can you talk about what the difference in that carbon footprint might be so people can get a picture of even someone who’s mindful of what might happen?

It’s changing. The challenge is the myth that living out of the city because when you live in density, you have much less energy to expend on achieving your day-to-day living. You can neutralize your footprint relatively easily. Still, not everyone can do it, but relatively easier when you live further out. Before we had electric cars, before we had anything to do with electric mobility, you used a lot of gas driving and everyone could catch a train.

With all of that changing and personal mobility becoming electric, we still have to worry about carbon with coal burning to create electricity. Great cities of the world are producing their coal burning and they’re looking at alternative energies. Living outside of the city, outside of the farm where you’ve got natural produce, local produce, where you’re surrounded by the very low cost of living too, I suspect that this is all going to change.

We talk a lot about what we do because there was a time when being on the green belt out of the city was frowned upon because you have to travel long distances to go to work. Now, the work rituals have changed. No one needs to be in the middle of the city in their office to have a fruitful, big career. We are a good example of that these days. I’m Upstate New York, and you’re somewhere on the West Coast. We are working hard. I was in London. I walked from the Sanderson Hotel through a little place called Fitzrovia Place. There was a young man lying on his back in a little park looking at his phone. As I passed him, I didn’t hear the question, but all I heard was, “I’m at my desk.” He was lying on his back and he was conducting a conference call in his right hand, eating a sandwich, lying on his back in the sun.

The bottom line is the culture of the office is forever changed. You can present and work anywhere. This whole concept that density produces a better result for the world, maybe the cities are getting too overpopulated, and people, without huge impacts on the globe, can now work from anywhere. If you think about affordability as a key driver of great success for a community, our cities are being overdeveloped and they’re too expensive. Unless we can change those things, you’ll find new levels of carbon neutrality happening by focusing on innovation on that very topic in the outer belts of cities.

[bctt tweet=”The office culture is forever changed. You can work anywhere, and this delivers a better result for the world.” via=”no”]

I’m encouraged to hear you say this because I anticipated that your answer would be a little different and that you would be focusing on basically getting everyone to move into cities. If you read the last episode or if you refer back to the conversation we had there, I don’t like living in big cities. In fact, the only city I’ve ever stayed in for any length of time where I felt relatively at home was Paris. The reason for that is because they are so community-driven.

If I stayed in les allées piétonnes, I could get everything I needed within 100 yards of my door and yet I could walk the whole city. What’s unique about Paris is several things, but one of them is it’s not an incredibly tall city. I find that when I go into a large metroplex like San Francisco, the buildings are so tall that you feel rather small and they also trap more heat or more cold so you feel more chilled, or they trap wind so it comes through in biting ways as opposed to trees.

I love the idea of the dynamics of cities. I love the topography of cities. The idea of great cities can be reimagined and certainly can be better than they are. Waste management, clean water, the idea of homeless, regenerative buildings, and the changes mix of buildings will change now because we don’t need all that office because people are now working in other places. What’s happening is certainly younger generations of people are moving further out where they can afford to buy. They are getting electric bike to go to the farmer’s market, and coming back and plugging it in. They’re using a car, jumping on the train to go to the city for work for a couple of days, and coming back home.

What happened is there was this mindset that we were groomed on as young, fertile teenagers in high school. To be successful, you had to go and work in a big city. To be a great success and to innovate, you had to be in a city. We are working with Lendlease and Google up in San Francisco, up in the Bay Area outside of the city where great innovation and corporate life are about to happen. It’s outside of the city center, it’s 40 minutes away. You realize very quickly it’s not about the city location. It’s about the quality of life and the amenities of the region and of that neighborhood. It takes a different bit of mindset to say, “Can we create an amazing life for a young family that’s not right in the dead center of the city?” The answer is we can, but we have to have the mindset to do it.

We have to use new technologies and electric vehicles. We have to think about personal mobility and getting away from the big gasoline car so that we can create what you are calling carbon-neutral living, which is to try and balance your footprint. That’s all coming. I don’t think we are there. This is all new. This is all post-pandemic. New work rituals are still settling down. I read that some companies are doing three days a week in London. Some are doing what they’re calling a minimal Monday. Work from home, don’t worry about meetings, but just work, and come in Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday because culture matters and being together, and then take your Friday to go do what you need to do.

Sweden went four days a week. It proves that you could be as productive in 4 as you are in 5. The happiness factor for all of the people working went up 50%, and there’s more loyalty and a better experience. It’s no surprise to me that the top four countries in the world that rank as the best carbon-neutral cities at Copenhagen, Sweden, Reykjavik, Iceland, and Vancouver, Canada because they’re all using renewables, going away from fossil fuels, changing their work habits, and changing how people work. It’s not just the energy change. It’s the culture change.

Even in how people travel for work. I have worked for a couple of years for a company called VAXA Technologies. They have headquarters in Israel, manufacturing in Iceland, a scientist in Boston, another in New Jersey, and me here in California. We all collaborate in vastly different time zones. To your point, four-day work weeks, I try to do that a little bit myself because I work for myself. I’m a contractor. Since the company is headquartered in Israel, they take Fridays and Saturdays off. I try to take Fridays as my light day, but most of the time, I don’t get to clock out before 3:00 because I have other things I have to take care of during the week that cut into my work time like taking the kids to the dentist or whatever.

For the longest time, Corporate America was about clocking in and clocking out. You were clocked in, you were clocked out. “You didn’t turn up for a meeting, why weren’t you at the office?” The way that we think about our business at ERA-co is we try and engage with other like-minded companies to partner with as it’s just about the quality of the work and the outcomes. We don’t put pressure on people to be anywhere at a certain time. We do encourage a couple of days a week in the office so that people get to know each other. You can’t beat the pheromone. You need human contact to understand.

CMBB 152 | Regenerative Cities
Regenerative Cities: Workplaces must not pressure employees to be anywhere at a certain time. But they need to encourage a couple of days a week in the office. They need human contact.

You’re more productive when you have better relationships with people and you’re able to collaborate. That’s the biggest challenge. Would everybody be remote? There are little things that slip through the cracks.

There are mental health issues. People don’t get connected to their cause. We have a central idea for our business, which is advancing humanity throughout the place. We have a cause that says that everything that we touch has to advance the community and the human. Whether it’s architecture, placemaking, regenerative, large-scale master planning right down to a mixed-use building, we are always looking for how we can get those advancements to happen. There are many ways that that can happen through the channels that we operate under. You have to have that in your sightline to enable you to do a great job. When you’re together, you get the comradery of that idea.

Unfortunately, I travel all over the globe for work, so I’m not there as often as I need to be. The team is together. We don’t clock people. We’re not time-punching. It’s so funny because medical’s not great and there’s a whole raft of you only get two weeks a year. I came from Australia where it was a mandatory four-week holiday plus all the public holidays. You have about two months of the year to yourself.

It’s the same with all the European countries too. There are 6 to 8 weeks a year, generally speaking.

They work their talent into the ground and they don’t let them have the time to replenish. We’ve adopted the Australian rules and all of our team get four weeks’ holiday and give them paid leave and all the public holidays. In reality, happy people create great work.

I believe that through and through. More companies now in technology, especially, are taking this other model which reduces the liabilities on their books where they don’t grant formal vacation time. They just say you can take reasonable time off and there’s no limit, but people don’t take it off.

Why is that?

The only reason my husband takes vacation time is I make him, and I’m just like, “The kids’ school is closed for these days. We are going,” and we’re out of here.

It’s hard to change hundreds of years of culture. When someone comes out like Google and says, “It’s unlimited time off. Take the time you need,” you got decades and centuries.

2 weeks, maybe 3 or 4 if you’ve been there for a while.

My son went from the Australian school system to America. The education system here is very different. We had a French culture person that helped us acclimatize to America. I said to her at the time, “Surely Australia and America are the same. Why do I need a culture consultant?” What I discovered was that everything’s different. I hadn’t written a check for ten years in Australia. I had to write checks when I got here. The point is, my son went into the education system and he was groomed. He had to do homework every night of the week, all four subjects, and hand them back in the next day. It was like a military exercise. The first few weeks, he was crushed. Something happened, and he changed his behavior.

He went from a C-grade student to an A-grade student over the course of two years, graduating at the top of his class by the time he got to the end. I always said to him, “That wouldn’t have happened to you in Australia. You would have gotten lost in the system. The homework was slack. There was no regimen.” There’s a reason New York is innovative and a big heavy-hitting city because it’s highly competitive. If you want to play football in New York City as a New York City kid, you have to try out at 8 years old and you get a rejection letter as an 8-year-old kid. What it grooms is these hardworking, competitive people, and that creates the industry of New York City that creates the pressure cooker that makes New York a place where the world wants to come to innovate.

CMBB 152 | Regenerative Cities
Regenerative Cities: New York City is an innovative and heavy-hitting city because it is highly competitive. It grooms hardworking people.

Let’s talk about New York since you’re so familiar with it. How close do you think New York is to getting to become a net zero?

San Francisco has probably done some quick research, number seven in the world in terms of neutrality.

I was thinking Paris would be up there.

No, it is in the top twenty. The thing that’s hard for New York is it’s got a broken and very tired infrastructure. It has the problem of density. It has a lot of people. Your chances of living in a utopian net-neutral society happen quicker in smaller European towns and in places outside of the kinds of density that New York has. New York’s probably going to come last in the race to be net neutral. There are other places in America. I was doing some research. You’ve got places like Aspen, Colorado, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon, places that are investing in getting off their carbon electricity systems and coal burning and getting into renewables. All of those cities feel right also because, culturally, they’re innovating.

At the top of the list is Burlington, Vermont, which I’ve never been to, but 100% of its power is a combination of wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources. It doesn’t have any coal-burning power. That’s the first in the country to do that. I’m going to do more research on that because, not far from me, there are places that are pushing that in all the right directions, but the big cities of America are not. There are too many people. It will come in last. No doubt. San Francisco’s top of the list.

You mentioned a couple of times that these cities are simply overpopulated, which means that you’ve got high rises and people are living right on top of one another. There aren’t enough green spaces to compensate for how many people there are. Transport may be problematic, where they’re getting their energy sources may be problematic, and not enough easy, quick solutions to replace that with something kinder.

There are a lot of issues with overpopulation. There’s no secret source on population. There’s no one fixed number that says this should be the right density. You can also under-populate something so you don’t get the right amenities and right services. It’s always a fine line with how populated you want it to be. Density is a good thing, and we want to have as much density as we can. Overpopulation is when the infrastructure starts to break and cannot service the people that are in it.

[bctt tweet=”Cities must have as much density as they can over overpopulation. When the infrastructure starts to break, it cannot service the people living in it.” via=”no”]

Do you think that’s an example that would sit for most big cities like London and New York?

London’s infrastructure is a low-rise city because it sprawls a bit more than New York City is less like that with the way the boroughs are broken up here. Manhattan is a hotbed of density and overpopulation during the day. It empties out by about five million people at the end of the day. I lived in Soho for many years. I’ve just moved further downtown near the office, and it’s just overrun with tourists during the day. At night, it’s an absolute ghost town. During the day, it explodes into this massive metropolis, and then at night, it clears out. It’s a very odd thing to see happen.

A lot of big cities do that anyway. To your point about Paris, Paris is a well-oiled machine. I’m sure it has all the same problems that New York has. All that aside, New York probably, if it doesn’t pay attention to sustainability as a core driver of its development, will start to break under the weight of infrastructure pressure.

We are conducting a little debate at the World City Conference in October 2023. The headline of the debate is Death of the Architect: Will AI Finally Replace The Architect in our Pursuit to Create More Resilient Cities? It’s a little bit of a protagonist statement. It’s not talking about AI in general because that’s a debate that would run for a few years. This is a more narrow debate around who are the right people to design cities and who the right people are to be making decisions. For the last 100 years or longer, architects played a pivotal role because they built the largest infrastructure, which is buildings.

They were the power brokers of city design. What’s happened over time is with evidence and data, with good development of other professionals who can make good decisions around city design, urban design, and master plans, architects who don’t understand the human dimensions of a project or an ecosystem of the city become less important in those decisions. We need to get a very different model for how to create resiliency in cities. Architects, unfortunately, are groomed and always trained to be the apex leader of every conversation. When you go into a room, it’s the architect holding court. That’s, thankfully, over and we can kind of move on to a different type of conversation around resiliency.

I’d like to talk about the city structures that we build that people will want to live within and give a few examples before we dive into that. One is this concept of live-work-play development. We’ve seen quite a few of these erupt in Silicon Valley where you have shopping downstairs, apartments up above, and maybe there’s a MoviePlex. The only reason these places get rented out is because we just don’t have other places to rent. In some cases, it’s almost like you’ve got a Safeway grocery store and you’ve got apartments above, but it’s the same thing.

Like a vertical city, you call it live-work-play. What’s fascinating about this conceptually is that, in Asia, this is the way people live. In Asia, shopping malls are on the ground, and you live above them. Culturally, that’s acceptable and that’s a great culture. That’s what happens. You live above malls or you live above retail. Everything is densified that way. You have a great MRT and you can get around Hong Kong very easily.

In America, we have not understood the idea of mixed-use very well yet, certainly in New York City. If I look at all the big super towers up on 57th Street, they’re all designed by themselves in isolation from any other conversation around how they impact that street. When you walk down 57th Street, you have just met with a series of giant towers that hit the ground heavily, which are all foyers that are not for the general public. That street’s shutdown is something that anyone can utilize. It’s become a very odd street.

There are some examples like Hudson Yards here in New York that have some great amenities in it. The Highline runs through it. There are some good things that are happening there. Underground, you’ve got some great hospitality and retail amenities. The residential and corporate towers hit that plaza very heavily and they are giant corporatized foyers. There’s a lack of character that happens there on the ground that has made the plaza relatively unsuccessful.

That feeling comes through with some of these live-work-play developments as well because it essentially feels like you’re arriving at a mall or it feels like you’re arriving at a strip mall. There’s no character and you don’t feel like you’re in a space that is mixed-use the same way that it could be. That’s where the failing has occurred.

I’m wondering if it is a design problem or a strategy issue. If it’s a good strategy but poorly executed, then that’s one thing. If it’s just a terrible strategy, no amount of design will make it work.

At this point, it’s a terrible strategy because, at the same time, we have the death of retail occurring where people are shopping on Amazon more than they’re going into a shop. Now you’re trying to bring people to a space that you’re even having a hard time filling with a business that will stay there because they fail in their first year or two.

There’s a global structural issue with retail. I sat on a panel for Bisnow where I had some retail brokers on stage. They were talking about the decline of retail. They were talking about it as if it was going to all come back. It was the decline of retail, “It’s just a cycle. It’s all coming back.” I say it’s one hell of a cycle. This is a total structural change in how people consume and what they’re looking for. There’s a reason that Toys “R” Us went broke because no consumer wants to walk down aisles of plastic crap and feel good about that. Young families are looking at all that going, “This is just a landfill with a box around it.”

There’s a socially conscious consumer that is coming to the fore that’s holding these big corporations accountable. Things like crappy malls that have no design, that are only there for consumption only to make money, fail. Whereas you can go to Ala Moana in Hawaii, its highest price per square foot retail leasing and it’s packed day in and day out. This is a small little island with a very low population. When you say retail’s dead, retail that has no insight into what consumers or people want or gives them a great experience is dead.

There are some examples in my local area of spaces that have remained vacant like this portion was built for business and there’s no business there. The homes are occupied, but the intention didn’t follow through because they didn’t plan appropriately.

The issue is that they didn’t spend time designing what is fundamentally a great community space for a place to be. Talk about retail being dead, I can still go to The Grove, which is a retail mall at its core. It’s absolutely in high demand. The car park is full, and the retail stores are all doing well. Retail’s not broken. Certainly, retail is not dead. What’s dead is lazy development. If you build a lazy mall that has no thought around the consumer, what the consumer needs are, which are comfort, shading, hospitality, and the idea of play, the idea you can go there and not buy anything important, it’s not just a place of consumption.

CMBB 152 | Regenerative Cities
Regenerative Cities: Retail is not broke and certainly not dead. What is dead is the lazy development of urban buildings.

Go and enjoy a nice lunch in a cafe.

Exactly. Enjoy yourself. It’s a beautiful place to be. It’s not a crappy mall. What’s dead is just crappy design and crappy malls. Thank God that’s finished.

I have another extreme example. Have you been to Milton Keynes?

Yes. In London, England?

Outside of London.

Bit of outside, yes.

After three weeks of traveling England, Ireland, and Scotland, my husband and I decided to go to Milton Keynes. The primary reason was he wanted to see where the enigma machine was essentially built to break the code in World War II because he’s a bit of a history buff. At the time that we were doing this trip, it was 2005. In every town that we visited, we had our TomTom device, which was something you used to navigate with the maps as opposed to smartphones. This was before smartphones were as beautiful and wonderful as they are now. We had an almanac like, “Look at the city and figure out where you were.”

This is before we got married and I’m introducing him to my mother by taking my mom and him on an international trip to where much of our heritage is from. We had been traveling all over this area, and every time you’d turn to a page in the almanac, you would see that there’d be parking here and parking there. Often, it was circuitous roads, circle cities, not a lot of grid pattern, anything. We are arriving in Milton Keynes, you open the page, and there’s nothing but parking everywhere.

I essentially arrived. I’m the one driving because I’m the driver in the family and I’m driving on the left. This is towards the tail end of our trip. We’re coming back to London to leave. The fact that it looked like I was in Cupertino, California, close to Apple or something like that with this grid pattern environment, I came out of the car park and went to turn to drive on the right side of the road because it looked so much like Cupertino, the grid pattern city. At the center of the city of everything was this mall. I’d ask people where they go for fun, how often they go to London interacting with people who work at the cafes, and things like that.

The resounding response I got was, “I don’t go to London. I stay here.” It got to the point where it felt like people were at the mall all the time. The police station and the city hall are at the mall. I call it a mall just because it looks like a Western construct or, in America, what we would consider a mall to be. There’s a ski slope at the mall. There’s an Olive Garden equivalent at the mall. There are all these restaurants, shops, movies, and everything that you might need or want there.

It’s a terrible, cheap, nasty thing with terrible content.

It wasn’t fun to visit. I felt like I was going to Valley Fair.

There are some amazing malls in America. I went to North Park in Dallas, which is a museum-grade, beautiful design mall. It has Alexander Calder’s artwork in it. It’s beautifully executed and it’s full of life and people. It’s not the death of the mall. It’s the death of the crappy cheap developer mall where no one has paid any attention to what your experience is going to be other than shopping. The public realm is something that’s new to malls.

CMBB 152 | Regenerative Cities
Regenerative Cities: A mall where no one has paid any attention to customer experience other than urging them to shop is a sign of a dying and cheap developer.

This idea of the in-between spaces creates villages where you can go to a center and experience downtown in any other type of dense space where it’s shaded, convenient, air-conditioned, and all the things that make it great indoors and outdoors. I’ve seen some terrible malls in my travels around the globe. The new ones that are being created are not being created as malls. That word is being removed and they are replaced with town centers and downtowns. It’s about creating that retail central amenity.

The best example we have in Silicon Valley is probably Santana Row. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but parts of that area can feel like it’s a party. There’s a margarita or tequila specialist cocktail joint in the middle. That’s like some awnings and heat lamps in the open air.

It’s a pretend high street, but that’s all good. It gets down to knowing your audience, understanding what they want, and asking questions. I was the Chief Marketing Officer at a Seaport District for many years for Howard Hughes Corporation. For many years, we had a Christmas tree lighting, which is a Catholic tree lighting in a very Jewish district. That’s another conversation. It was a tree-lighting ceremony to celebrate the holiday. Every year, about 200 people come. It was a hugely costly tree. It’s a Frankenstein tree, so it’s a few trees to put it together. It had been going on for many years every year.

One year, we changed the tree out and put a sculpture in by symmetry lab, which was on the West Coast did these big glowing interactive orbs and we put some music in. We had about 6,500 people. It was new. It was different. It wasn’t religious. It was bipartisan. It was a celebration of the holiday. The bottom line is it’s gone back to being a tree because the investment, time, and energy it takes to develop new rituals and new types of experiences takes time and money. Sometimes, it’s easier just to go back to doing what you’ve always done, even if it means not a lot of people are turning up.

CMBB 152 | Regenerative Cities
Regenerative Cities: Sometimes, it is easier to just go back to doing what you have always done.

I always think innovation is very hard in retail because it costs money, it’s risky, it can go well, it can go badly and people don’t try to take risks in retail. Seaport was like that, and we did an amazing job down there. We regenerated that whole neighborhood to be more than retail. It became a place. By listening to the community, understanding what they needed, and putting the right content in there, it’s now wildly successful. The guys do a great job of maintaining it. It was a retail space and everyone told us retail was dead. People were down there, and they are hundreds of thousands all the time.

We’ve touched a bit on what the future of cities could look like, but I don’t think we’ve painted a picture. Are people going to essentially live in dormitory-type buildings with shared living spaces within them? What do you envision these younger people living in cities wanting?

Affordability and shared apartments. I was talking to a colleague in the Middle East about the perceived idea of wealth in the Arabic communities. They’re all driving Lamborghinis. There are so many of them. There are nine million people or something in Riyadh. It’s a very dense city. 70% of the population is under 30. How does all this wealth happen to all these people? What someone told me, which was interesting, is that they are very family-oriented. They pull their resources as a family. In one compound, they will have 3 or 4 families living in it and they share. It’s a big industrial shared kitchen. It’s a shared nanny, garden, and pool. You’re not as a family individually buying six pools. You’re getting one pool and you are sharing it.

In Asian culture, you look after your elders. There is a generational looking after of one’s family. It doesn’t happen here. We’re terrible to our aged. We don’t look after them. We are very much a youth culture. We are very individualistic and we don’t share very well. It’s true. What’s going to happen is you’re going to get a generation that is forced into behavior that says, “If I want to have a great life and I can’t afford that, I have to think about doing it a different way.” This whole concept of share and renting communities, which is where a lot of technology’s going and where car share is going is where all the sharing on social is happening. That’s trickling down into real estate. It’s trickling down into cars.

The changing nature of the cities is you won’t own a car, but you’ll share it. You won’t own an apartment, but you’ll share it. You might share it with one other person, but you both might have properties. You both might use the central one and share it. You’ll do it Monday to Wednesday, and they’ll do it Thursday to Friday. It’ll be that economy that will make them vital again where you can have the best of both worlds. You can live in a great beautiful home in the country or just out of the city and share something. That’s where a lot of people are heading.

We already have many common shared workspaces where people rent the office space for the time that they need it. They share communal meeting rooms so that they can host meetings with individuals and have the familiarity of the space where it feels like theirs. Essentially, it’s non-coworker coworkers inhabiting the space alongside you.

It’s going to trickle over into the way you live your life on everything. It might be in working now, but it’s going to trickle into how you might own a car or a holiday home. Fractional ownership is not a new idea. It was always something the rich did, “I’m going to buy my $9 million holiday home and share it with six of my rich friends.” That’s now going to translate into everyday life, and that’s what’s going to happen.

I have a few friends who bought a condo in Lahaina on Maui. They have it rented out as an Airbnb and then they each secure a few weeks a year that they want to go and visit there.

That’s where the world’s heading. Airbnbs had a lot to do with this on how to share your resources. Sharing and rental culture hasn’t yet penetrated the cities in the right way. There are still a lot of cities that are anti-Uber and anti-Airbnb.

My city is anti-Airbnb. They say no to short-term rentals. You have to get a permit to do so, yet there are also new styles of work where you have people coming in and wanting to rent furnished places for 3 to 4 months at a time to be a traveling nurse, for example. That’s one way to get around these short-term Airbnb no-nos. You can do something longer term for somebody that’s professionally based on coming in.

The other thing that is important about cities is that back in the ‘60s when we had urban sprawl, we had a housing shortage. What happened is houses were built in long rows. It was the townhouse housing sprawl that went out. That was all single-use, which is residences. You had the malls over here, then you had the corporate office park over here. That turned into a single-use sprawl that every young generation after us rejected.

They don’t like the idea of suburbia.

They want to be in mixed-use or mixed-up. Everything is mixed and near them. That can happen in rural and country areas. It was just designed badly. Those types of mixed-use experiences can happen out there.

They want to feel more like they’re visiting a small European town than something with culture and feel.

The Europeans get it right, all of their small towns and all up and down. Italy is small little community-oriented. That culture’s missing in America. It’ll come, it has to, for affordability reasons, and it will happen. All of that to say that I don’t think cities are changing their spots dramatically topographically, but their content will regenerate completely and be mixed. They’ll have to think about reuse for things that are empty. That provides huge opportunities for people.

[bctt tweet=”Cities are not dramatically changing their spots topographically, but their content will regenerate completely. They will start reusing empty things to provide huge opportunities for people.” via=”no”]

A rite of passage for children becoming teens and then adults has often been getting their driver’s license. Even in my own community where driving seems to be the norm and there isn’t a lot of public transport, I’m hearing from even the kids of my friends who are 18, 19, and even 20, without getting a driver’s license and living in a relatively less dense area. Where do you think we’re headed there and what does it say about the future?

I don’t think that they can afford a car typically. It’s not that I don’t want a license per se. It’s more about, “If I get the license, I can’t use it anyway.” Until there are options in rural areas or in suburban areas where carpooling and car sharing happen, there’s no need for them to do it. They may as well catch public transport or get what I would call personal mobility. Electric bikes are amazing. What’s happening here is the idea or the utopia of a car to get from A to B is being transformed by electric mobility. You can get around on a bike and the least amount of effort and a little bit of push is good. A little bit of exercise on the way isn’t bad either.

That culture is changing, and that’s a good thing for society because you’ve got fewer cars on the road and a bit more personal mobility. That will make a huge difference to independence for young people. That’s where it’s headed. There’s always going to be a need for a car for long distances if they want to travel on a holiday or go with their friends camping or those things.

You’ll rent one or something.

It’s a rental community thing, but I don’t think they need one. My kids certainly don’t have cars at 25 and 20 and have no interest in getting a car. They live in New York City where you can’t have a car. It’s ridiculous. I catch the train into the city. I much prefer the train than being on the road. There’s a general want to rid the cities of millions of cars we don’t need, which makes for congestion and air quality. I’m happy that’s all changing. I believe it’s about time that’s all changing.

I traveled to San Francisco to see Tori Amos at the Masonic.

How was that?

It was fantastic. I noticed something for the first time. Right next to the Masonic, tucked back was this old San Francisco restaurant called Osso, which is a mixed-use facility, but old-aged. They have housing and some other things happening there too. There was a marvelous dinner right next door. I walked into the Masonic and realize for the first time and all the times I’ve been there, the handles have the Freemasons insignia on them. It was built by the Masons. I’m like, “The Masonic of San Francisco, how come I never made this connection in all these years?” What I will say too is it’s one of the last places standing that continues to sell affordable tickets to concerts I want to visit. Hats off to that, but finding parking in the city is still very hard.

Also, the stupid costs when you finally get it. People invest in car parks like the stock market, “I’ll just slam a $30 charge on every single car.” It’s crazy to think about this. San Francisco’s way ahead on autonomous vehicles too. You can get an autonomous vehicle anywhere now, and that’s going to happen more across the globe. I’m thinking that autonomous vehicles and personal mobility will trump the car and there will be a rental shared idea around.

The scary thing with San Francisco is you can’t necessarily do the eBike even if you want to because theft is such a problem.

If you go to Copenhagen, it’s a biking city and the car is secondary. That’s what the world should be.

We’ll get there. Going to the Netherlands for example, I once saw a t-shirt. It was a stick figure of a pedestrian getting hit by a bicycle saying, F-U-U-U-C-K. I want people to picture it. This is so perfect for this city because there were at least three times that I nearly got hit by a cyclist that was going at breakneck speeds because I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I was crossing a cycling thoroughfare, which, to me, looked like a sidewalk.

I went cycling in Amsterdam. I saw someone have a tram crash with a bike. What I love about that city is that the cycling culture in that city is embedded into everyone’s life.

It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or not. They just throw a jacket on and a scarf.

They’re biking. I saw a fantastic development where they’d done some land reclamation across the water to try and maximize the city and put more housing down. It’s touching ahead of its scale in terms of sustainability and innovation. I was mildly impressed with the city. I haven’t been there for some time, but it was great.

I was very impressed with that particular city myself. As we prepare to wrap this two-episode series with you, I want to provide my audience with a little bit more of a snapshot into the tools and resources that they might find at ERA-co and how they can get involved and even potentially advocate for living spaces that they want to live in their local communities. What would you have to say to them about that particular thing?

The first thing is if you want a voice, you have to get in with your local council and you have to provide that voice. There are a lot of people sitting and judging from their laptops. The only way to get it to get things to change is to get active. You have to get active in the community. Number two, when we work with developers and cities, we make sure we frame placemaking with vision as the central core. Way too many people develop places with zero vision that they become projects that don’t have a very clear direction on what they’re about, where they should be going, what should be in them, and what’s right for humans. I would argue with any developer that we work with or any type of city we work with.

CMBB 152 | Regenerative Cities
Regenerative Cities: Way too many people develop cities with zero vision. This leads to rudderless projects that do not know what is best for humans.

When they work with ERA-co, we are framing placemaking under four key pillars. First one is the spatial analytics, making sure we understand the city and the spaces better than they do and making sure we understand the system of that city better than they do both roads, cycling, and buildings. We have tools that we use to get those analytics together. We then look at positioning. Why I think positioning is important is that differentiation is very important for communities. You need to decide. Do you want to live in Community X or Community Y? You need to make sure that you are clear from the outset what your point of view is.

Having a point of view and a position is what cities get wrong. They don’t do that. You never quite know what you’re buying or what you’re getting yourself into. Experience planning something quite foreign to any city or any architect or potentially any developer, which is you can no longer develop something, carve it up into GFA, and say that’s commercial, residential, or a park.

What does GFA stand for?

Gross Floor Area. It is all the gross realization of the project. What we look at now is every single thing from the content, the retailers, the public spaces, the activations, and the community. We try and show what we want the experience to be when everything is built and we leave and what’s going to be happening after we leave. You have to do that upfront. You can’t just leave it to chance.

That means also planning the rooftop gardens or the community gardens and the green open spaces.

There are two types of activations. We keep talking about this with our clients. If you throw a free hotdog in the street, 5,000 people will turn up, no problem at all. People like free stuff. That doesn’t make a successful community. Successful communities self-generate, and passive activation is where they get together as a community and they find things to do together. That doesn’t cost you anything to make it happen. That’s a successful community where they’re interacting in spaces that you’ve made for them to create moments, to create activation, to create community. Too many people don’t focus on that. They focus on the towers and then leave all the in-between spaces to be dead, terrible, unsafe, poorly lit spaces. We focus on those public experiences.

The last thing is user strategy or the human dimensions. We make sure we understand every aspect of who is going to be there. Their wants, hopes, dreams, and desires, we don’t just put them in a demographic category because that bears no fruit. You have to understand the behavior and the wants of those people, and that helps you shape. They’re the things that we focus on.

Steven, can you help me understand who pays for this? One of the problems is we have a developer come in and say, “I’m building a high-rise, and here’s where it’s going. It’s going to have apartments up top and maybe space for commercial on the bottom.”

Three types of investment, which is the city itself, pooling its resources and employing a place maker like us or getting someone like us involved in community engagement and design and being the bridge between the developer, the community, and the city. We join those things up. The city should pay for that. When it’s a large mixed-use project, the city often makes the developer pay for it as they should because they’re going to get the most out of it.

There’s an issue, the permit, unless.

I don’t like some of that bribery, but it does exist, “You give us this and we’ll give you that.” That happens. That’s deal-making. That’s fine. It’s more about making sure you have a developer who has a social conscience about what happens after he or she leaves. If they have that mindset, you’ve got a very good developer. The relationship between the city and the developers is usually very strong, and we help broker some of that as well.

The last thing is communities. If they pull their resources and want a bit of strategy on what to do with their community, we ultimately will work in any capacity there to help forge a community strategy that might go to the government. We can do those things too. They’re much harder and they’re hard to fund. Typically, we go with the first two, the city and the developer.

One of the things that have me thinking about is there’s a plan in my local community to revamp or introduce a light rail to help people commute from one part of the city to the other, including some mixed-use spaces around it to make it a desirable avenue for people to transport themselves from one part of the county to the next. I’m skeptical that it will ever take off and be built because of how much red tape there is and how much it will cost to produce.

Public infrastructure is being privatized everywhere for that reason. Transport infrastructure is being privatized, and we are making transport-oriented communities. You get developers making the station and getting the value out of the buildings. That’s where cities can get the value from development partnerships where they get their infrastructure and the train station by giving the developer the envelope to play with. Those types of innovations are great because that means that the city gets what it needs. The developer gets what they need and, hopefully, the community gets what they need. Those types of collaborations are important.

The last question I want to ask you before we part ways is what great examples can people look to so that they can get a vision in their own minds about what they should be advocating for?

It depends on what the question is. Ultimately, we are working on multiple projects at the moment around the globe. If you look at the extreme right of how to create a sustainable city, you have Saudi Arabia’s line project, which has got a lot of criticism, but I’m lauding it as a very big innovation because the reality is they could have built anything out there. They have all the money in the world. They have taken what is urban sprawl and densified it into an incredible 200-meter-wide long by 500-meter-high series of sections that runs for 170 kilometers. They are mini-cities within that 170-kilometer distance, which runs from the NEOM airport out to the Gulf of Aqaba. What I love about that project is that’s got innovation all over it.

It hasn’t yet been completely built.

No, it’s underway. I went to the exhibition when I was there in Saudi and I was blown away. They’re doing ecology, agriculture, water harvesting, transport, and electricity. They are building a totally self-sustaining ecosystem. It’s the first of its kind in the world. If you have any interest in seeing innovation, it’s an absolute edge. Go and research that project. It is amazing.

I wasn’t aware that they’d broken ground. I thought it was still a pipe dream.

It gets criticized, too, but I suspect that when it’s done, it will be an exemplar of incredibly sustainable living.

I remember seeing the initial plans and thought this looked like Space Age. I feel like I’m in an episode of Star Trek when they go to some other world.

Ten of the best architects in the world are working on it. It’s something to behold. The placemaker in me wants it to be successful because you have to applaud that level of innovation, that level of dedication to something different and new. It’s tackling a lot of things at once.

Also, being willing to be vastly different. It’s disruptive.

The Crown Prince is redesigning Saudi Arabia from the ground up with incredible innovation. It’s a great thing to watch. It’s polarizing in America because of the Crown Prince and culture, but remove that from the piece and just look at the merit of what that is. It is something. I’d encourage anyone reading this to go and look at the NEOM site and open the debate on the innovation on it because it’s quite amazing.

Thank you so much for that. I love that example. I was thinking about asking people to also take a look at the European cities that you have enjoyed visiting and think about what made you enjoy that space. There’s a commonality there that we lose here in the States because we simply don’t have cities with this depth, breadth, and length of culture.

America’s a young country. We can look at ourselves harshly, but in reality, when you go to Lucca and Rome, it’s 1,000 years old.

City on top of the city.

We don’t have the history and the benefit of time, but hopefully, we can learn from it and create something great.

Thank you so much for joining me, Steven. This has been phenomenal. I appreciate you, your work with ERA-co, and everything you’re doing.

Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

To connect with Steven’s important work at ERA-co, visit I encourage you to visit There you will find links to the items we discussed, including that beautiful Saudi Arabian project. Not only will you find those direct links, but you’ll also find another resource. If you choose to join our newsletter, you’ll receive a five-step guide to help organize your efforts, unleash your potential, and inspire your activism. It could serve as a training guide to help you connect with your community and build a better city, a space that we all want to live and breathe in. I hope you’ll also follow to leave a review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser.

This simple act will help more people to discover the show and it ultimately keeps me motivated to keep on keeping on. Thank you readers now and always for being a part of this show and this community because, together, we can do so much more. We can care more. We can be better. We can even build better spaces and better cities that save us hours of frustration from communing to errand running and shuttling our kids from one spot to the next. We can build spaces that we want to live in, to work in, and to play in that provide a stronger sense of community and connection. Thank you.

Important Links


  • Steven Cornwell

    Steven Cornwell is the Global Director of ERA-co, currently living in NYC. Over the course of 20 years, Steven has garnered an international reputation for developing leading brands from a broad range of sectors including real estate, place, culture, consumer retail, media, transit & infrastructure and professional services. ERA-co is a global place brand specializing in data science, research and insight, user strategy, urban systems and brand experience.

    View all posts

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Rate Show
Join our Newsletter

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Rate Show