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Architecture as an instrument for civility

Ryerson University Department of Architectural Science Associate Professor George Kapelos, centre, helps students during a collaborative design exercise at Ryerson University in Toronto on Wed. January 9, 2013.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

George Kapelos is an observer. But he doesn't always like what he sees.

During his daily 45-minute walks to work, the professor of architectural science at Ryerson University likes to take a closer look at his city and how the people within it behave. Some people don't shovel their sidewalks. Sometimes cars zoom by and splash him with slush from the road. Busy Torontonians talk loudly into their cellphones.

People can be "indifferent to the impact their behaviour may have on others," Mr. Kapelos said. So an idea was born out of what Mr. Kapelos knows best: Perhaps architecture can change the way we act.

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Imagine a world where sidewalks came equipped with charging stations in case your phone died. A world where you didn't have to buy a cup of coffee to use a washroom at a café. A world where umbrellas were waiting outside of subway stations, in case you forgot yours at home.

This is the kind of world that Mr. Kapelos is asking his students to create during a collaborative project that brings undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members together. The exercise has happened every winter semester for the past six years, but this is the most complex version of it yet. Rather than examining specific sites in the city as they have in the past, this year's aspiring architects have to incorporate a concept into their designs: civility.

"[Civility is] not just so much about playing nice with each other," said graduate student David Campell, 24. "It's really all about how we work together and what kind of city we want and how that becomes imprinted into our public spaces."

The timing for the project couldn't be better: After all, the City of Toronto has announced that it, too, is seeking to introduce public facilities and provide civic amenities to the population of the city. For this year's exercise, 400 undergraduate students were divided into 16 groups. From there, they're assigned one of 20 sites in Toronto, and must create a facility that responds to the basic needs of life: comfort, safety, refuge, security, and social connectivity. Ryerson's graduate students act as the "community voices" in the project – the people whose needs tend to be neglected, architecturally speaking. Their job is to conduct extensive research about minority populations in Canada, and remind the students to accommodate them in their designs. Keeping these voices in mind, the students become one step closer to creating a judgment-free, virtual society that is mindful of a variety of interests and perspectives, Mr. Kapelos said.

For images, click here.

Follow the project at The exhibit is on view until Jan. 31 at Ryerson's Department of Architectural Science, 325 Church St.

The High Park family hangout

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The challenge: To turn a small venue into a hangout place for families and a stage for musicians, while also adding additional, accessible seating for locals to enjoy live performances.

The plan:  Located by the High Park Chess Club, the plans include a large-scale chessboard at the site for families and Torontonians to play with outdoors, giving the site a "playground-type feel," said student Dorothy Johns.

At night, the chess boards could act as stage sunken into the ground, providing opportunities for musical performances or demonstrations.

In addition, the High Park designs include a new gateway and adding bike racks, water fountains, newspaper stands, WiFi hot spots, and cellphone charging stations for pedestrians.

In keeping with the Architecture of Civility theme, the new seating places would ensure that disabled people – and other pedestrians – could have a place to sit if they choose to watch the events that occur at the site. The stage also allows for the inclusion of other groups that can be marginalized, like protestors or demonstrators.

The plans also involve adding an interactive display screen with information on current events, which can be read in several languages.

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Christie subway station: a safe haven and neighbourhood guide

The challenge: To transform a dark, unwelcoming area into one where people feel safe and secure.

The plan: This group wanted to give commuters access to information about how to navigate the city after exiting the subway.

They added a touchscreen map just outside Christie Station, giving visitors additional information about the neighbourhood – where they can go to eat or find a public washroom.

The students' plans also include adding creative light fixtures at the site.

"We have small little canopies and each one of them has its own light feature, and the energy on our site is powered by solar panels that are on the canopy," said student Krystyna Ng. The light fixtures – one of the major focuses of the group's plans – help the site become a safe haven within the community.

"There have been a lot of crimes or instances that happen at the intersection of Christie and Bloor that have happened in the past where people have been assaulted," she said. Illuminating the area would help to create a "bright space within the community so people would feel more safe coming there and wouldn't be so afraid."

In keeping with the theme, the group proposed using different textures of pavement to differentiate between the street and sidewalk, rather than curbs. The result: a flat, wheelchair-friendly space.

St. Patrick subway station

The challenge: To take a loud, unused space and turn it into a place where both commuters' needs can be met, and where people can be given a place to sit and relax.

The plan: If St. Patrick station got a makeover, these students would provide locals with a place where all of their transportation needs could be met.

The site would include storage areas for bikes, rental bikes, bicycle locks, servicing stations, and lockers for commuters. And pedestrians would have access to public telephones, water fountains, and cellphone charging stations.

To give the site something that would make it stand out, and encourage people to relax there, the students added a large water fountain that could spritz water up from the ground during the day and light up at night.

"It's actually not a terrible site the way it is, but people aren't being drawn to it at all," said third-year student Jessica Walker, 20.

The fountain would also help to drown out the noise of cars driving by since the site is situated between two busy lanes of traffic.

Since the district of their site contains more middle-aged citizens than younger ones, according to Ms. Walker, most of the features are meant to meet the needs of that specific group, including a WiFi hot spot and benches.

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