Placemaking: How to design for better urban living

Craig Applegath is a founding principal of DIALOG and a passionate designer who believes in the power of built form to meaningfully improve the wellbeing of our communities and the environments we all share.

What is placemaking?

Photo Credit: Student Audrey Caron from DIALOG Carleton Studio.

Placemaking is a philosophy and process for designing public spaces that promote and support people’s health, happiness, and wellbeing by leveraging the physical, economic, and ecological assets of a community.

The concepts underpinning placemaking took root in the 1960s when writers Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte put forward groundbreaking ideas on designing cities that accommodate the needs and desires of people over vehicles. Their work focused on creating lively neighbourhoods and inviting, active public spaces. Particularly, Jacobs became famous for her idea of “eyes on the street,” which encouraged the ownership of the streets to be handed over to the people.

Why have these types of projects become increasingly relevant over the last few years, especially in large urban centres like NYC, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary?

Cities around the world are growing in population size and density, with more than half of the people on the planet living in large urban centres. Over the course of the next 25 years, this is expected to increase to almost 85%. In Canada, Toronto and Vancouver are the fastest growing cities and show no signs of slowing in the next decade. Planning and designing people-centered, humane, and ecologically effective public and park spaces with this reality in mind is key to continue providing the standard of livability that is offered, and expected, by a world-class city.

In the case of Rail Deck Park, Toronto’s density increase means increased access to public amenities must follow. The critical lack of green space in Toronto’s downtown core at present, especially in the southwest area of the city, makes Rail Deck Park particularly relevant and necessary right now.

Name and describe key elements teams must consider when undertaking a feasibility study for a large urban infrastructure project?

A number of strategies are developed to make any large urban infrastructure successful. Though most projects tend to be quite unique, this generally comprises making connections and generating power sources while considering natural elements and existing framework.

For instance, and from a primarily feasibility perspective, Rail Deck Park would need to develop the following strategies:

  • Connecting the park to surrounding neighbourhoods and public transportation with ease while working around the physical structural realities of the existing rail corridor
  • Hard and soft landscaping of the park
  • Storm water management system
  • Electrical and mechanical systems, like the important rail corridor venting
  • Renewable energy sources, like wind and photovoltaics

Photo Credit: Student Jenny Leung from DIALOG Carleton Studio

With a project like the Rail Deck Park, instead of building up, part of the challenge is that one must build over a structure that currently exists, and connect things that were never designed to connect – what kind of challenges does this pose for architects and designers?

There are a number of challenges to consider when designing and engineering Rail Deck Park. Specifically, these two challenges are critical to overcome:

  1. Structural: locating positions to support a vertical structure within a crowded rail-bed while accommodating varied road elevations on either side of the rail corridor.
  2. Landscape: providing the necessary depth of growing zone to support various sizes of plants and trees while connecting deck and street levels.

As a champion of green infrastructure projects, how do you convey to stakeholders that sustainable projects are worth the investment?

The investment and implementation of Rail Deck Park will produce a number of key returns for individuals, government, and business. Specifically, and most importantly, the increased public wellbeing the park will bring would lead to happier and healthier communities, which means a reduction in public healthcare costs. Further to this, the park will facilitate the city’s ability to accommodate a growing population while driving tourism and attracting future residents. From a pure economic standpoint, Rail Deck Park will increase the neighbourhood’s real estate value for private and commercial properties and assist local businesses in attracting customers.

How do you design for ‘everyone’? How do you create a space that people will travel to get to?

Photo Credit: Student Tamanna Arora from DIALOG Carleton Studio

There are a number of constituencies Rail Deck Park needs to appeal to in order to be successful. This includes surrounding apartment and condo dwellers, adjacent neighbourhoods, and citizens of the City of Toronto. To create a space that will enable these groups to want to spend time here, the land will need to provide a park space that can be enjoyed in all seasons; Toronto has many months when the ground is frozen and covered in snow, so providing indoor green space will benefit everyone.

Designing an all-season park space will give more individuals and families opportunities to experience green space for recreation and leisure. This means Rail Deck Park would need to provide a park space for various sport and physical activity, community gardening, and safe areas to walk, run, and picnic. Rail Deck Park can significantly increase the natural capital of the city by serving as a reservoir for indigenous tree and plant species both indoor and outdoor, breathing new life into the city for all, quite literally!

Interest(s): Date: July 21, 2017