Out of Office: Gunnar Hand

A city planner reflects on what makes work meaningful.

Gunnar Hand takes in the view at Fort Baker, on the San Francisco Bay.

Gunnar Hand leads SOM’s City Design Practice in Los Angeles. Named by Next City as one of the top urban innovators under the age of 40, Gunnar focuses on major challenges that cities will face in the future — ​from planning for the arrival of high-speed rail to rethinking environmentally responsible development. Here, he fields our questions for Out of Office, a series about the people behind SOM’s global practice.

What made you want to become an urban designer?
I grew up watching my hometown’s City Planning and Transportation Committees on public-access television. Once I realized that there were people who actually designed and made decisions about the built environment, I was hooked. When I was twelve, I dressed up as a “planner” for Halloween — so my interest runs deep.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?
The most important aspect of urban design is community engagement. We so often forget about the people who use the space as we design the place itself. Communities often feel that changes in the built environment happen to them, instead of being a part of its creation. It is incredibly important that we listen and address issues of access and equity to create real, meaningful, and positive change in every part of the work we do.

If you hadn’t become a designer, what would you be doing?
If I had all the money in the world, I would be a developer. Urban designers and planners think about cities in a unique, comprehensive, and compassionate way. As such, I’ve always said planners would make the best developers — or politicians.

I believe that everyone who self-selected city planning and urban design genuinely wants to make a difference.

What advice do you have for students?
What I love most about this new generation of graduates is that they want to do work with meaning and purpose. I believe that everyone who self-selected city planning and urban design genuinely wants to make a difference. We are certainly not in it for the money. My advice is that half the battle is being there, and the other half is learning how to best be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

Name three books you think anyone should read in their lifetime.
Dune is easily the most expansive and carefully crafted fictional universe ever imagined.

Atlas Shrugged, because deep down we are all John Galt.

War and Peace, for its intricate weaving of personal story lines with historical events.

What’s your favorite app?
Spotify is where I go for those fleeting moments between family time and work time where I can collect my thoughts. It’s also a lifesaver for road trips with a two- and four-year-old.

What experiences are on your bucket list?
I love to travel, and most everything on my bucket list revolves around a specific location. Destinations still to be discovered include India and Bhutan, Spain and Morocco, Brazil and Argentina, Japan and Korea, and Greece and Croatia, among others.

You’re showing visitors your city. Where’s the first place you take them?
I have had the pleasure of living in many cities, so I have many answers to this question. In Los Angeles, I always start at the Griffith Observatory to help frame the sheer enormity and diversity of the L.A. basin. It’s great to then point out all the sights and create an itinerary.

What is the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is by far one of the most memorable places I have ever been. The sheer scale of the space and its iconography is immense. I am not particularly religious, but that space made me feel unapologetically small.

What keeps you up at night?
Zombies. I do not trust them.​

When you think about the future, what excites you? 
Elon Musk’s vision of a carbon-free economy is easily the most relatable description of a future I think many of us in the design profession have been working towards, through our sustainability (net-zero-energy), resiliency, and now, regenerative (net-positive) projects.

Photo courtesy Gunnar Hand

What is most important in design right now?
City planning, and the design profession more broadly, is at the brink of a paradigm shift with the emergence of smart cities. The ability to access and analyze real-time data to make informed, data-driven decisions will radically change our understanding of civic systems, and thereby the methodology by which we approach our work. Much of what we are trying to do in our Los Angeles City Design Practice is to identify, pursue, and create these new best practices.

Who is someone you admire?
I say this in all honesty, as she will most likely never see this interview, but I admire my wife. Great wife, mom, person, small-business owner, and all that stuff. She also happens to be one of the leading voices of the smart city movement in the world, and I am so honored and proud to learn from her through osmosis.

What is the most important quality for an urban designer to have?
The power of observation, which is also an urban designer’s most important tool.

Define good leadership…
Knowing when to say no.

Define good design…
Design is a form of communication — ​so, good design clearly, concisely, and immediately conveys an idea.