Robbert van Nouhuys is director for international projects at ACLA, a member of Hyder Consulting and a leader in the field of landscape architecture, regional planning and urban design. ACLA is now working on the Greening Master Plan for Hong Kong. After graduating in urban design and landscape architecture, van Nouhuys left his native Netherlands in search of broader horizons. He worked in the Middle East - Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - for six years before moving to Malaysia and, eventually, Hong Kong. He says he is committed to delivering sustainable urban development projects for the benefit of future generations. The burden of great responsibility, along with the almost 24-hour work cycle in bringing a project to fruition, is offset by deep personal satisfaction, he adds. “Nothing is more satisfying than walking around a project you've conceived. I can recommend it to everybody. I can't see anything bigger than that.” He talks to Liana Cafolla
What are the big issues in urban planning today?
There’s a huge push towards urbanization. Projections state that by the end of the 21st century, 85% of the world’s population will be living in cities. We think there’s a need to rethink our cities and make them suitable for the 21st century. So what you will see is that cities will become very much resource independent. A good example is Singapore in this respect.
What about urban planning in Hong Kong and the region?
We think there’s a huge opportunity for new cities, particularly in China as well as Vietnam and Malaysia, the whole Asia region. There’s a great opportunity to actually develop new cities, with a higher efficiency in terms of transport, efficiency in terms of energy, resource minimization, quality of life – all improved. We see, and it’s already happening, cities are competing with each other for top talent and top businesses, so what would attract the top talent or a top business? They would be looking at the quality of life, transport efficiency or the efficiency in terms of building performance or urban performance. That will be the trend for the 21st century.
How will the cities of the future look?
One of the things we could see is that cities become much more compact and much more dense, so you can actually walk from one side to the other side in maybe less than 10 minutes. So you promote not vehicular transport but pedestrian transport. I think buildings will be much taller – particularly in the second half of the century – than we can imagine. At the moment, we’re doing five of the six tallest buildings in the world, and some of them will be pretty tall – more than a kilometre.
What attracted you to urban planning and landscape architecture?
When I was growing up [in the Netherlands], I thought there was very little attention given to open space and developing livable cities. There was a huge rush to harness the urban population and developments were just sent out of the ground like nobody's business, like suburban areas which all became very impersonal. Why isn't anybody saying anything about it? That's what actually got me to become an urban planner and a landscape architect.
What are the first things to be resolved when you are faced with a new project?
It's important to understand the client's expectations and, secondly, to see how you can match the client's expectations with the project's opportunities. That's what we're good at. Normally, the client has a preconceived idea based on what he has done and maybe doesn't fully understand the opportunities if you think more laterally or innovatively.
Who do you work with?
We have been communicating a lot with third-tier cities on the mainland because they have been growing quickly. We think they should be looking at new solutions and be relevant to the 21st century not by copying what was done before but finding new ways to do things better. They understand that if they want people to move out of first-tier cities into third-tier cities, they have to give something totally different.
What's your biggest job headache?
My biggest headache is not spending enough time with the family. Today, I came to the office about 7.30am and I'll probably leave about 9pm. It sometimes involves extensive travelling. It's extended hours but, again, it's a creative business. You never stop thinking and running scenarios in your head and there's always something going on. We always say this type of business - architecture or urban planning - is not a job, it's a way of life. And you have to take that seriously.
How do you identify key talent in your business?
The word “talent” is overrated sometimes because in business, talent is not so much being gifted in one aspect. We see talent more as the readiness to take on extended responsibility, give it your best and have the ability to overcome failure. To us, that's much more important than excelling in one aspect.
How do you maintain a shared vision within your team?
You have to walk the walk and talk the talk. You have to be a full member of the team. You cannot be in an ivory tower, saying, ‘this is the vision, now you guys follow it’. No, you have to get in there and push it, until people automatically start sharing it and pushing in the same direction. I think everybody within the organisation understands that they can help to contribute to a better way of living. Not for us, but for future generations, and I think that’s what we’re all about.
How do you develop your employees?
If you provide, as an organization, the opportunity and prospects for people to grow with you, and they understand that the biggest effort you try to make is to grow the organisation longer term, I think that’s where you can find a lot of talent actually coming to fruition. We have this very quality-conscious culture within the organisation, and that’s whatever you do. We don’t expect people to be highly gifted, we expect people just to give their best and just try new things. So driving that I think is giving people the confidence that they should take on broader responsibility. You don’t work within your job description only because that won’t get you anywhere.
The fact that we have been around since 1978 and still growing in this part of the world, I think that means that we must be doing something right.
Easy collaboration means cities offer the best opportunities for ambitious people.
In the future, food, water and energy will be sourced from your own city - or even your own building.
Everything changes: “You can't be stagnant. The markets change so you also have to change as a city.”