Introducing our Urban Design and Campus Planning Practice Area Leader: Janne Corneil
Janne grew up surrounded by architects and urbanists, who taught her to understand the influence of the built environment on people’s lives. Today, she translates those lessons and her keen aptitude for design thinking into plans for cities and higher education institutions across North America.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE JOINING U3 ADVISORS?
I’m trained as an architect and as an urban designer. I was a partner at Sasaki Associates for 10 years in San Francisco and Boston. Sasaki was doing quite a bit of work for the University of Pennsylvania in the 2000’s and that’s where the relationship with Omar got started. I think the first project we collaborated on was the Auraria Higher Education Center in Denver, Colorado. Later, we worked together at the University of Calgary on the West Campus development plan. I’ve known U3 from the very get go.
When I opened my own practice in 2012, I started contracting with U3 regularly. We worked together in Detroit, and Memphis, and a host of other cities for many years. Our values are so aligned, and our collaboration very rewarding so when Omar suggested I join U3 as a full-time senior advisor, it was a no brainer. I started January 1 last year [2021[, and I am thrilled to be able to bring my expertise and experience envisioning the future of university campuses, innovation districts, cities, mixed use developments – a whole spectrum of planning and urban design efforts – to U3 Advisors.
WHAT INITIALLY LED YOU TO URBAN DESIGN?
I come from a family of architects, builders, and teachers. Growing up, we were constantly enlisted to build projects, make models and do drawings for competitions. I fell naturally into architecture as a profession and studied in Toronto, Denmark and Norway. Eventually, my passion for the complexity and dynamic of cities drew me to urban design. To plan and design in cities, you have to think about layers – political, social, physical, economic. In architecture, sometimes, you get pigeonholed and end up with a much narrower focus. I love the layers of complexity.
DO YOU THINK CLIENT NEEDS ARE CHANGING?
Yes. More than ever, our clients need someone who can think in an integrated way across multiple parts of their operation. It is quite common for a client to come to us with the expectation that only a master plan will help them address their physical or programmatic challenges and issues. Often, they need targeted strategy and design thinking, not full-blown master planning services. We focus on the most impactful transformations and help them tell stories of people, program, and place. We empower leadership and uncover latent ingenuity – our clients gain momentum with our help. Other than that, the urgency to address climate change and social equity is paramount now, more so than ever before.
Perhaps the biggest reason I love working at U3 Advisors is the chance I have to contribute, real time, design-thinking to the range of work – real estate strategy, economic and community development. I can’t tell you how many beautiful master plan reports end up gathering dust on a shelf. At U3, I get to see our design strategies unfold as implementation happens. We engage in an integrated process to explore urban design solutions while we are simultaneously advising our clients on property acquisition. It’s kind of a dream job for someone who likes to see positive change happen.
WHAT WILL YOUR SUSTAINABILITY PRACTICE LOOK LIKE FOR CLIENTS?
U3 has been working to lower carbon emissions for years through local initiatives strategy, adaptive reuse projects, and a focus on dense, mixed use, walkable campus edges. It is my hope that through the urban design and campus planning practice, we can better articulate and championing our clients’ sustainability goals. I think there are three big agenda items for us. The first is educating and empowering advisors to make changes personally. The second is a more systemic approach to measuring the CO2 emissions of our operations and of the travel associated with our work so we can be intentional about our path forward as a firm that cares about the future of our children and the planet we have.
The third and most exciting for me, is the efforts of our practice leaders to develop methods for measuring the environmental and equity impact of the work, and where we can grow. How do we understand better the impact of our work on the climate and in people’s lives?
For example, the Live, Buy, Hire Local work, creates opportunities for anchors to drastically lower the CO2e of their goods and services, while creating economic opportunity for the underserved communities nearby.
WHAT ARE THE PROJECTS THAT EXCITE YOU THE MOST?
I have had the privilege of working with the University of Pittsburgh over the last couple of years. The campus was originally sited on a steep slope overlooking Oakland, but in the early to mid-20th Century, the campus expanded by acquiring 19th and early 20th Century civic buildings and clubs that were built during the height of Pittsburgh industrial heyday. As a result, the campus is incredibly complex, with many different urban and campus conditions. It’s hard to navigate, and even harder to plan. The university has an official master plan, and the City of Oakland has a plan as well, but neither plan brought clarity to the challenge of tying the campus in the city together through real estate investment, program strategy, and public realm improvements. The campus master plan is inwardly focused and didn’t adequately address the complexity of all the “frayed” edges of the campus. I am attracted to these “in-between” zones and love the challenge of finding a compelling and simple story about an endlessly complex urban condition. So interesting.
We’re also wrapping up a public realm vision and strategy for Tulane University’s downtown campus. I think it’s a pretty amazing example of the power of an integrated design, real estate and placemaking strategy, where change is occurring, even before the ink is dry on the drawings.
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU DO – AND WHAT U3 DOES – TO OTHERS?
I’m always trying to explain what differentiates this urban design and campus planning practice from the big firms. The way I would describe it is that we don’t get hired to work on one specific problem. We are not hired to do a certain service or prepare a particular deliverable. We get hired because a client has a problem that they don’t know how to solve. Sometimes they don’t know what their priorities are, and they’re sort of lost in their own possibilities and challenges. We help them sort that out.
The beauty of U3 is that there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone won’t try to do. The range of things that we get ourselves into is pretty mindblowing. We’re only 25 people but we have such a breadth of expertise and depth of experience. We’re able to corral all the practice areas together around the priorities of the institutions we’re working with. There’s not a lot of firms that work at all levels with such versatility. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a firm!