When you think about who builds cities, nurses, sociologists and historians probably don’t immediately come to mind. More likely, one envisions urban planners, architects and engineers at the table. But a unique initiative at Toronto’s Ryerson University is bringing these and other diverse professions as well as leading academics together to holistically address urban planning challenges.
“As an urban university, Ryerson has long had a connection to the community in which it sits,” says Pamela Robinson, director of the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson. “We’re a city and a community university in a rapidly growing complicated region.”
The university’s innovative solution: City Building Ryerson, an effort that brings together Ryerson’s diverse expertise to advance the school’s urban design leadership.
Dr. Robinson says Ryerson researchers from the humanities are making significant contributions to city-building. Historian Art Blake’s research is on the history of sound, for example.
“As Toronto invests in significant infrastructure upgrades, sound takes on a new meaning,” she says. “We have historians, poets, social workers, nurses in public health. People in occupational public health are doing things around road safety. The work of the traditional city builders is really important, but at Ryerson, we’re hoping to pitch a bigger tent and expand the voices of those who have important things to say about city-building, particularly though the lenses of inclusion and sustainability.”
Cheryl Teelucksingh is a professor of sociology whose research has focused on examining the relationship between environmental justice and concerns for social inequality. She is now looking at such things through the lens of Black Lives Matter. She’s uncovered “structural and spatial forms of racism in racialized lower-income communities,” including less green space, fewer healthy food options, less affordable housing and less convenient access to public transit.
The work of the traditional city builders is really important, but at Ryerson, we’re hoping to pitch a bigger tent and expand the voices of those who have important things to say about city-building, particularly though the lenses of inclusion and sustainability.— Pamela Robinson, Director of the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University
“Undesirable things – like waste disposal sites – are more likely to be naturally located within lower-income communities,” Dr. Teelucksingh says. “And then something that is desirable, like park space, is less likely in particular neighbourhoods.”
Dr. Teelucksingh’s approach to city-building focuses on social inclusion, and she has been working with community groups to advocate for participation in decision-making that impacts their urban environments. She sees potential in community-benefits agreements and also in green social enterprises as mechanisms for achieving sustainability and equity.
City Building Ryerson also has more conventional collaborators. Dr. Robinson herself is an urban planner, and Bala Venkatesh is the founding academic director and head of the Centre for Urban Energy. He studies clean energy, with a focus on renewables, electric cars and energy storage.
“We work with utilities around the globe,” he says. “We are the Centre for Urban Energy, so for us, city-building is at the core of what we do. Cities host around 80 per cent of the population in Canada. They are a hub for innovation and development in society at large, and cities consume the majority of the energy required by society.”
He says researchers in his centre can learn from others within the initiative. For example, understanding what it means to have a democratic electric supply is something colleagues have brought forward.
“When we develop solutions for energy, we are serving people in those buildings, not the buildings,” Dr. Venkatesh says. “If we ensure our systems are democratic, we are serving everyone. We learn from them and then supply and deliver what they seek from us.” He says learning about the repercussions of renewable energy systems is also important, noting that putting a wind turbine in a residential neighbourhood probably wouldn’t go over well.
Dr. Robinson says city-building, ultimately, requires a diverse set of skills and minds.
“For the last 20 years, what we’re seeing more and more is that the challenges we’re all trying to tackle at the community and the city scale are bigger than any one profession,” she says. “So we have these complex emergent challenges, like climate change, like affordable housing, that require all hands on deck. We need everybody working at their highest potential to make progress.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.