Two years ago, Peter Ellis New Cities merged with international architecture and design powerhouse Cannon Design to form an office devoted to conceptualizing and enacting positive change in urban environments. Known as Cannon’s City Design Group, Chicago is the new headquarters for their far-reaching projects.

With Peter Ellis New Cities, Eric Zachrison and Tim Swanson were intimately involved in the design of Jaypee Sports City 30 miles outside of Delhi, India—a from-scratch hyper dense urban colony for nearly one million residents built along a new highway on rural lands. As a major employment center, its daytime population will soar to 1.2 million.

Nothing of this scale can or will sprout from the new group’s Chicago practice, but they are applying lessons from this utopian scheme halfway around the world. I sat down last month to talk about the group's plans with Eric, vice president at City Design Group, and Tim, associate vice president of urban strategy, at Cannon Design’s Michigan Avenue offices.

Since joining up with Cannon Design two years ago, what has been the focus of the City Design Group in Chicago?

Tim: We’ve been partnering a lot with educational institutions. Virginia Tech has a program called Chicago Studio. It’s a one-semester intensive where four to five students leave the comfy confines of Blacksburg for a semester in Chicago. We host them, and part of the process is getting them ingrained in local conditions and community projects.

Eric: Most recently the focus has been on the Uptown Community. There used to be a repair yard at Wilson Station, and the CTA’s $150 million rebuild of the station will push the tracks together and create two long slits of land and a big parking lot. The CTA is not in the business of sitting on vacant properties. So, what can you do with urban infill at this site? We explored reuses for this land.

Tim: The first group came up with the idea of an urban anaerobic digester, but using some of the land as public space and for education. The second group came in and took that idea and developed it further, meeting with the City’s sustainability director and the planning department. Then another group of students from the University of Utah applied business concerns to the project.

Eric: We’ve taken one of these projects and asked ‘how real can this be’ if we find a development partner. Last fall, we formerly sent in a proposal. By this point it had morphed into a micro-loft building. We’re also seeing what other ideas are out there as well as placeholders for the space that work with the arts and community uses like farmers markets. What’s coming from community stakeholders to help determine what’s right for these very strange lots?

Tim: Our attitude as a firm is that we can’t separate education from work. There aren’t two different buckets for these parts of a firm. The educational component can be leveraged to foster better ideas and push the bounds more and more.

What’s your feeling on the urban policy climate in Chicago? Could the mayor be doing a lot more?

Eric: Maybe. There are nuances. It’s especially tricky to make moves in the current climate, whether it’s the school closings or trying to realign Cook County health care for the new affordable care act. Those big systems at a city scale this big are so complicated. We’re just now nicking away at what that means—how you can be more tactile and chip away from both ends.

Can you talk about some of the lessons you learned in creating entirely new cities, like in India with Jaypee Sports City?

Eric: Working in India was interesting. It was like working in a laboratory where you could literally create anything. We had 5,000 acres of rice patties. We idealized a social, cultural, and physical infrastructure. We were just far enough from Delhi that almost no one lived there.

Chicago has so much of a legacy, so much baggage of infrastructure that people aren’t willing or ready to give up on—and they shouldn’t in a lot of cases. But how do they envision a future city and make those difficult conceptual leaps?

How much is infrastructure an obstacle to ground-up urban design? It’s obviously easier to build fresh without burdensome obsolete infrastructure.

Tim: In India you could put a subway in wherever you wanted. In Chicago, there’s actual infrastructure and the perception of how that infrastructure should continue to work. We learned from India that you can take massive systems and unitize them so they’re more resilient and district-based.

With things like the citywide deep tunnel system in Chicago, it’s a band-aid atop a dysfunctional storm sewer system. Why does water that hits the street run into a drain and to the storm sewer when you have fantastic plantings right next to that drain? Let’s rethink how plantings actually work so we can drain into them more efficiently. You have to slowly short circuit the status quo instead of tackling bigger infrastructure changes head-on.

In India, why did you build a luxury new city? Was it a preemptive response to that country’s rapid urbanization?

Tim: The main reason the developer needed to develop that space is the urbanization question. So many people are moving to the Delhi area. The city is 18 million and will eventually grow to 40 million, by some projections. Jaypee is going to be engulfed by the megacity pretty quickly; rapid transit lines already come within a couple miles. Delhi is very high density low-rise. You could keep much of the same density while replacing some of the low-rise with high-rise, thus providing larger, more modern residential units. Even though Jaypee was built for a middle class wanting respite from the chaotic center city, it works well toward that physical reshaping.

Delhi is growing organically. This was an effort to say ‘if we keep cobbling on development we’re going to eat up the land without providing viable solutions.’

What do you think of really big utopian redesigns in existing urban fabric?

Tim: I’ve been to some of these spaces, like Brasilia for instance. Most of them are not successful. They seem to ignore the way people actually live in order to envision a new kind of person and place.

In Copenhagen, bike lanes were rolled out over decades, not years. Their bike and open space plan was not about getting people on bikes but shifting your perspective. It had to be a long game. Today, more than half of their population bikes to work; parking lots became fantastic pocket parks. Fifty years ago, Copenhagen didn’t have parks, because in their mind, it was cold—so what was the point?

Concepts like Jeanne Gang’s South Branch are phenomenal because they spark that shift. But if they’re not concurrently working with societal changes, the new fabric won’t fit. Talk about the population. Where do you want them to go and where are they willing to go?

Where have you applied a bold rethinking of existing space in Chicago that also responds to a community’s needs and demands?

Tim: Our group designed the new Malcolm X College on the West Side, working with the City Colleges of Chicago to determine what field most needed a skilled workforce. The biggest need was found in health care—every aspect of it. We looked at the entire pedagogy of the school and began to understand how to transform it from an unfocused two-year program to an incredibly focused program. Students have to work and mix together at the new building. They’ll be going out into the world of health care equipped for a cooperative environment.

Eric: I just keep thinking about how much the City Colleges were planning for the future of health care. They knew that while 75% of their health care students go to work in hospitals or clinics today, in just five years 75% of them will have to provide some form of in-home treatment because of the aging population. The new school’s going to add a virtual hospital, but they’re also going to build an apartment for in-home training purposes.

Are there any other Chicago projects you can talk about?

Eric: The biggest projects we’re doing in Chicago are not ready for public consumption just yet. Stay tuned.