Expert Opinion

An Interview with Chris Choa

Chris Choa is Founder and Director of OUTCOMIST. He leads complex urban projects, assembles extraordinary teams, builds consensus, and creates comparative advantages for a broad range of public and private stakeholders. OUTCOMIST strategies are based on the ‘Theory of Change’; they define long-term virtues and then work backwards to identify measurable outcomes and actions. 

Chris Choa

Chris is an active board member for organisations related to real-estate, urban mobility, energy, and digital arts. Previously, he led AECOM’s Cities Consulting practice and was an appointed advisor to the Mayor of London.

In this interview, Chris, who describes himself as a “psychotherapist for cities” gives his views on the current state of urban planning, the short and long-term challenges faced by the sector, and how he sees the future of urbanisation unfolding.

How would you describe what you do?

I suppose I’m like a psychotherapist for cities. As an urban strategist I focus on how cities and people relate to each other. Cities are ultimately about people, and the body politic of a city is similar to the character of a person; you can address the challenges of a city in the same way that you can understand the needs of a person.

Can you offer a quick snapshot of what ‘good’ looks like – it’s intriguing to think that the city is like a person – what are the handful of things to get right?

We are social creatures, and we focus on our social needs, and it’s reasonable to think that cities work in the same way.  People are not attracted to beautiful buildings, nice trees, or well-designed sidewalks on their own. People are attracted to other people; that’s the secret of cities. Architects and urban planners are trained to think about the built environment. But ‘good’ is not fundamentally about the character of the building or the expanse of the trees; it starts with the identities and mix of the people who are already there.  If we want to make cities engaging, who else should be there? Can we define our identity so that it attracts other people to come to us?  And how do we then introduce the improvements to the physical environment?

How did you get started in urban planning?

I am a first generation American, the son of immigrants.  My father was Chinese and my mother French but raised in Mexico. I lived most of my early life outside the US in the Philippines and Hong Kong. I wanted to become a designer as a schoolboy after stumbling across some beautiful books in a library. I studied design and fine arts at Yale and got my architecture degree at Harvard. Eventually, as a senior partner in a large New York architecture firm, I moved to Shanghai to run our design office in China. Shanghai in the early 2000s was an amazing place for an architect; buildings were going up like weeds. But soon enough, I was designing so many buildings that they weren’t that engaging anymore. What became more interesting were the spaces at ground level. A high-rise can be easily replicated as a commodity – but look at how people use the spaces between the buildings! These experiences are unique and culturally rich. And that’s when I started to focus on the system of the city rather than how any particular buildings worked.  

What are some of your project and career highlights?

Every young architect dreams of mastering a project from the beginning to the end. Early in my career, I was lucky to have this experience with the Osaka Aquarium. Over eighteen glorious months, as the project designer, I worked eighty-hour weeks in Boston, imagining every millimetre of that huge, complex building as if in a fever-dream. And within a couple of years, I was living in Japan, only 200 metres away from the construction site of this big thing I had designed from scratch; every day on supervision rounds was like walking inside my own head! And by the time I left Osaka, I had the extraordinary satisfaction of seeing thousands of families streaming through the building and its exhibits. 

More recently, a very different experience: I led the multi-disciplinary economic-development team that produced ‘Connected Gaza’, a Palestinian private-sector initiative prepared in close consultation with over 300 local and international stakeholders in Gaza and the West Bank. It was the first time in the region that a spatial plan also prioritised a comprehensive list of catalytic projects. The key here was to define outcomes that served the mutual interests of groups that normally opposed each other. ‘Connected Gaza’ is still used as a template for many international agencies and policymakers, so it feels a bit like seeing those families going through the aquarium in Japan. Gaza has unique characteristics, but I regularly apply the strategy of reconciling opposites to other challenges. 

How would you describe your Theory of Change which is core to your working philosophy?

It’s related to a very old idea from the Stoics; define virtues we want to achieve, and then work backwards to identify all the interim outcomes that need to be in place in order to achieve the virtues.  Without a long-term objective in mind, it’s vexatiously hard to know what to do tomorrow. But with the objective clearly understood, it is easier to imagine tomorrow’s first step and its purpose, and eventually the relationship between that step and all of the other steps to follow.

I think a lot about subjective long-term political objectives like ‘Make Society More Inclusive’; these goals are hard to measure and may not be realised for generations, so it’s important to break them down. Define objectively measurable steps that can be reasonably achieved over shorter periods. Group the steps together so that they will all contribute to the long-term goals. Some of these steps are accomplished with the master planning of physical environments. Many others will relate more to investment, governance, and communication. 

Any current projects you’re working on that you would like to highlight? 

We are currently working on something in Norway, far north of the Arctic Circle. The core of the project is developing private-sector polar-orbit launch capability for commercial satellites. But the real question is: what is the future character of this very remote northern region? How can we bring new life to a place that has lost industry and population over generations? What other kinds of jobs and settlements can we create around catalytic launch activities that will bring in new partners and productive industries? How will this benefit the broader territory and the nation?

We are planning the regeneration of a major brownfield railway site in Milan into a mixed-use area that includes a new public park, homes, student housing, offices, hotels, and the Athletes Village for the 2026 Winter Olympics. We’re also producing the master plan of a comprehensive expansion area in Belgrade. Many cities in Eastern Europe are fascinating at this moment – they may sit on the fringes of the EU and NATO and seem very European, but they look eastward for their inspiration and support – to the Gulf regions and China. 

How would you characterise the state of urban planning today?  

We expect a lot from our cities, but sometimes we can’t get what we need; if we deny our helplessness, we lash out. Many people feel cities are not working to their advantage, so it’s natural for them to be pessimistic about urban planning.

If we’re not careful there can be negative outcomes.  In many western economies during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and in many emerging economies more recently, centralised authorities defined what we needed and had enormous powers to remake cities, often to advance ideas that were progressive for their time; creating stronger connections between cities and separating homes from adverse industries were good intentions, but we now know that tearing down neighbourhoods for motorways and recategorising cities for single-use zoning had unintended consequences.  We didn’t understand the external effects of very big changes or take the time to socialise some of the big ideas in the first place.

But I think we are beginning a golden age of planning. We are getting better at understanding how an overall urban system performs. With sensors and machine intelligence we can measure how people engage with public spaces and buildings; if we can’t measure directly, we can develop proxies that can anticipate outcomes even before we build new infrastructure or regenerate communities.  The real challenge is identifying common objectives, and that is where the Theory of Change comes in. We can work backwards from shared objectives, and define interim outcomes, but we need the right paradigms to begin with. We are thinking more carefully about what we want from our lives; if we can’t rely on existing institutions, we are defining better ways to get what we need. We are developing new kinds of public-private partnerships, for example, initiatives incentivised by value-capture, redefining our goals so that they might benefit others. We are more introspective, and this humility gives us more time to socialise big ideas. We’ve never debated the roles and potentials of the city more than we have now; this is a good sign.

What do you think are good examples of urban planning?

The regeneration of the Lower Lea Valley in London is an extraordinary example of good planning. This was once one of the most derelict and deprived areas in the UK, a tangle of contaminated post-industrial land, polluted waterways, low employment, and poor health outcomes. Planners defined a valuable goal – productive new life for the east of London – and developed clear interim outcomes, one of which was the London 2012 Olympics. The city chose to stage the Games on that difficult site because the mega-event would catalyse the long-term legacy.

Amsterdam/Schiphol is a global air hub that animates all of the Netherlands. While London is still struggling to get its third runway, Schiphol has six, to accommodate variable wind patterns and thread air traffic in ways that minimise impacts on built-up areas. Schiphol is also one of the busiest train stations in the country, with rapid links to the rest of the Netherlands. You can comfortably cycle to the airport, and many people do. All of this connectivity creates a valuable and specialised urban territory; you can easily fly into Schiphol, walk from the gate to the business district at the airport without ever having to drive around the city. The amazing air, rail, road, and cycling connectivity underpins the growth corridor for the broader Amsterdam region.

Bridges make friends of their two ends, and at a more intimate scale the High Line in New York is a great example of commando-style bottom-up planning; it transformed an abandoned elevated railway deck and turned it into public realm that is now one of the most loved parts of New York. Anything that encourages people to walk, to engage with each other and with nature is a good thing. The Garden Bridge in London was a top-down version of the same idea. But the project suffered because there was misalignment over who was paying for it, who was financing it, and who was benefitting from it. Political opposition killed it, but I still think it’s a great idea and hope we can make it happen.

Has Covid ushered in a perfect storm of change for real estate? It seems like there has been fundamental change in every sector – retail, offices, residential, infrastructure.

Real estate is going through a massive change because of Covid. We have the opportunity to consider a very simple question: if we could change anything, would we go back to exactly the way everything was before? And the answer is almost always: no. Work had already left the office building. Shopping had already started to leave the store. We had already been reconsidering the way we worked and lived even before Covid; the pandemic only accelerated changes that were already happening or were latent. Even pre-Covid we were meeting on the move, in coffee shops and other public places; we intuitively understood the value of adapting informal spaces for other purposes. Today, the idea of commuting for hours to a fixed office in order to compose our emails seems strange. Covid has given us the opportunity to reconsider how we work, shop, what we want out of our homes and local neighborhoods, where we meet new friends. Everything is up for grabs and everything is being remade.

What is the impact of working from home on the nature of our homes?

We seem to be settling on about two to three days per week of self-directed work from home. But we are limited by our own imagination. We don’t learn from what we already know; we also need the intensity of other people and shared experiences. Face-to-face exchanges generate insights and define the identities we need as humans to evolve.  Can we create this kind of useful randomness closer to home? Technology platforms like Zoom allow us to bring people from anywhere in the world into our homes. New coffee shops and localised co-working spaces cater to groups working from home. These new social circles in turn induce more people to move to the neighborhood. We are re-creating mini versions of central cities, pockets of globalised activity close to home. We can call this the Neo-Urban.

Are you worried about the ‘zombification’ of central business districts?

Some central business districts remain shuttered and other places that used to be outliers are booming. But it’s all about the time frame; in the short term you might say that is the death of the traditional core – but doesn’t that create an opportunity in the longer term?  If highly connected parts of the city are currently maladapted and undervalued, don’t we also have the opportunity to reconsider these areas and try something that would have been otherwise unaffordable? Can we convert an isolated mono-functional office building into a live/work community? Can we mix advanced manufacturing with conventional work and be able to live nearby? I think we’re going to see all sorts of transformations, but they won’t necessarily be replicas of what we had before. If people are pessimistic about the traditional central business district and want to unload their assets, I would be most willing to take it off their hands; I still believe in the city and its agglomerating powers. The opportunity is not to design new assets but rather to reframe the potential of existing ones.

Do you feel heartened by the current preoccupation with ESG investing or do you see it as a box-ticking exercise for most real estate firms?

There is genuine interest in the industry for environmental, social and governance issues. This is partly the real-estate sector looking for new sources of value when they can’t generate yields in core areas. But the expectations of a younger generation are also driving ESG. The real estate industry revolves around return and risk, but now we are also thinking about purpose; it’s a new set of values being driven by young people.  We are seeing the rise of impact investment in the capital markets, made with the intention of generating positive and measurable social and environmental outcomes.  And of course the Stoics would understand this, although they might use the word ‘virtue’ instead of ‘impact’.

What intersection do you see between place-making and real estate – do you feel real estate is becoming more holistic in its approach?

In many ways real estate is still a traditionally siloed activity, slow to adopt more holistic approaches to creating value. Consider for a moment: what are the big real estate brands out there and what do they represent? It’s hard to name them because we don’t really think of real estate as brands.  And yet in every other part of our life we identify strongly with certain brands because they integrate a wide range of values and experiences – that’s ‘placemaking’. Hotel operators, retailers, airlines, and many other sectors work really hard at their placemaking. By comparison, real estate is in the dark ages. Designers talk a lot about placemaking, but we have the opportunity to recreate our urban areas and the real-estate industry to create value over a wide range of activities and experiences, not just by generating rents and property sales.

How do you see 2022 unfolding? Do you think we will put Covid behind us?

In the long term, we’ll see the pandemic period as a relatively minor little ripple. We are confronting far more important and transformative issues: urbanisation, climate change, demographic change, and the rise of machine learning.  Within this century, previously unsettled areas in the Arctic will become inhabitable, and other areas like heavily populated coastal areas in Southeast and Far East Asia will become too difficult or too expensive to live in. Billions of people will be migrating because of economic, climatic, and demographic factors; where will they go? What do we want to achieve and how will we begin to adapt for this kind of change? Covid-like pandemics will look like child’s play.

But Covid is a pioneer signal, and I’ll be betting on places that have been affected earliest. Pandemics are a proxy for connectivity and internationalism, which are in turn leading indicators of future opportunity. I want to go to second-tier places hit hard by Covid in the early waves, because to me this says that something really interesting is going on: these places have globalised populations that interact closely with each other, they are near airports with long-haul connectivity; they have universities that attract young people.  I’ll be spending 2022 looking closely at these characteristics because they point to the future of the city, the future of humanity, and that’s a good thing.

And one wish for 2022?

To meet people I haven’t met before.