Every urban design project has a story – with a history, an arc and a varied cast of characters – as shown through the exercises in the public space design course at Concordia University, in Montreal.
"You have to build a storyline to understand and internalize what's going on with a site before you decide its potential," says Carmela Cucuzzella, a professor of Design and University Research Chair in Integrated Design Ecology and Sustainability at Concordia.
Students work on turning marginalized sites into public space in concert with colleagues in departments across the university, from engineering to geography. Before putting pencil to paper, they carry out research, document the area in photos and video, record multi-layered histories and seek community involvement.
Much the same tale plays out on a larger scale with the projects that urban designer Ken Greenberg works on as he reimagines and transforms derelict industrial spaces in cities around the world.
"The key to success is the extent to which you engage people," notes Greenberg.
Prof. Cucuzzella and Greenberg will participate in "Urban Futures: The City Designed," the first session of Concordia's 2017 Thinking Out Loud series, held in partnership with The Globe and Mail. Their conversation, which takes place on February 2, focuses on cities, design and urban future.
Prof. Cucuzzella was born and raised in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood.
"There is so much energy and creativity in cities like Montreal, which are diverse on many levels," she says.
"Cities are perpetually unfinished, and every generation gets to have a kick at the can, which will mean constant changes in the urban landscape"
- Ken Greenberg
Her academic background includes computer science, design and complexity, as well as architecture and sustainability, the focus of her PhD, which analyzed how environmental assessment methods used to determine the level of 'greenness' of a building impacted the overall quality in architecture projects.
Her research areas currently include the development of a methodology to more comprehensively appraise contemporary sustainable practices in architecture design and a project with her PhD students, called CoLLaboratoire, to redevelop abandoned public spaces in a way that can raise awareness of climate change. The first project this past year was an international student competition to redesign a bus shelter on Concordia's Loyola Campus using solar energy.
Greenberg — who was born in Brooklyn and moved to Toronto in 1968 — is an urban designer, a principal of Toronto-based Greenberg Consultants Inc. and author of Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, which details his passion for rejuvenating neglected cities.
As Toronto's director of urban design and architecture and then a private consultant, he worked with others such as urban activist Jane Jacobs to bring life back to the downtown core, a collaborative principle he repeated in numerous projects, from Montreal to Edmonton, Boston and Minneapolis-Saint Paul. He is co-founder and a visiting scholar of the City Building Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Urban design today increasingly embraces the "organized complexity" that Jacobs envisioned, Greenberg says – for example, bringing together architects, engineers, economists, ecologists and people dealing with social issues, arts and culture.
"As you pull on the strings, more and more people are sitting around the table," he explains. "The only way to do things now is to embrace complexity and work with it."
Among Greenberg's current projects (with the Landscape firm Public Work) is The Bentway, a philanthropic partnership that promises to turn a 10-acre public space underneath Toronto's elevated Gardiner Expressway into a network of pathways and spaces for public gatherings, markets and performances.
His team's involvement in Toronto's massive Lower Don Lands redevelopment project bundled together a vast array of issues, ranging from flooding and sewers to transportation, parkland, site cleanup and development opportunities.
"In the old days, we would have done each of these tasks at a time, in silos," he says. "Now the hierarchy has flattened; good ideas can come from any part of the team."
Sustainability is critical and has been taken out of the "technology silo," he notes. "We use it as a lens for every decision that is made. Sustainability is at the heart of everything I work at now."
Work in progress
Concordia University design prof Carmela Cucuzzella and Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg agree: Cities are never finished
What is most important about city design?
Ken Greenberg: When I started doing this stuff decades ago, urban design was seen as “insider baseball”; it was only for the technical experts. It’s now become a great shared conversation, what the French call a projet de société. It’s something that belongs to everybody.
Carmela Cucuzzella: The engagement of the public is of utmost importance. We have to move the community back into cities and make them a magnet for people, where they want to live as opposed to just work. We need areas where people can get together and talk and connect.
Greenberg: The city is a great enabler; it enables people to do all sorts of things they would otherwise not do. Design either lowers or raises the threshold of difficulty to do things. I look at making the city something that solves basic needs and does it in a way that is more satisfying than dealing with one issue at a time.
What city do you particularly like and why?
Cucuzzella: I have many favourites for many different reasons. It is possible to introduce minimal design interventions that will make a city great. For example, Barcelona’s famous cut off corners of city blocks become potential public spaces for lingering and enjoying the city. This simple design principle can result in great urban places.
Greenberg: I fall in love with every city I work in, I get so deeply involved in it. I’m certainly very, very high on Toronto, I have to say, and on Canadian cities generally. I think they have a particular role to play in the world today, demonstrating that it’s possible to live in a heterogeneous society and benefit from it enormously.
What is our urban future?
Greenberg: I’ll turn the question on its head by saying the future is urban. In Canada, 80 per cent of our population lives in urban regions. The great issues of our time – climate change, income disparity, food production, all of the survival issues – can only be solved in cities. That’s the imperative.
Cucuzzella: Not only is our future urban, our future has to be smart and reflective. It is important to embrace technology for simplifying and connecting people’s lives in the city, but it must be done with respect to people’s privacy and civic life. For example, it is important to have a real-time bus schedule, but it may not be necessary for everyone on the bus to know my name, even if this may be technologically possible.
Is a city ever finished?
Cucuzzella: Never. If the city is finished, then it dies. There’s going to be constant renewal all of the time through because of changing social structures, economic conditions and governance changing times. There has to be will very likely be ongoing change and modifications, reflecting the shifting cultural values of the people living there.
Greenberg: When I was going to school, we would draw plans – phase 1, 2, 3 done. That was an illusion. Nothing is further from the truth. If the city were ever finished, it would be extremely boring and static and possibly failing.
Prof. Cucuzzella says that building sustainably raises complex questions. For example, green certifications for new construction can be misleading, with developers "ticking off the boxes" but not considering other issues, like the project's cultural capital.
"If you're designing a building that has no windows, is covered in foliage, with technology added onto the envelope to make it as energy efficient as possible, there is a clear compromise between great design and green design. Such a building can't be sustainable because no one will want to live or work in it. Designing sustainably requires a careful consideration and integration of many aspects, including social and aesthetic qualities."
Her courses on public space design have taken her classes each year to Detroit to propose plans for redeveloping marginalized places. For 2017 the focus has shifted to Montreal, where the students are working on projects as part of the city's 375th anniversary.
Montreal has taken important initiatives in reusing older buildings, notes Greenberg. He recently participated in a conference on public health and urban planning in the city, which profiled neighbourhood centres where young people can get training in various fields, such as recycling computers or running catering businesses.
Today's architecture and design students must face the world of complexity head-on, according to Greenberg, although he's concerned that rather than working on varied topics together, academics may be encouraged by the tenure track system to become experts within a narrow range. "It's a struggle," he points out.
Concordia encourages project-
based collaboration on design issues across the university.
"It's really exciting," Prof. Cucuzzella enthuses. She's part of the Laboratoire l'étude de l'architecture potentielle (LEAP), a diverse inter-university research group that studies architecture and contemporary design practices.
"How else will our cities take shape in a context of climate change, income polarization and ubiquitous technology, at a time where they are laden with post-industrial urban remnants?" she asks.
Greenberg has learned, through working in many cities around the world, that time is a critical element – what he calls "the fourth dimension" – in urban design.
"I have a long-term relationship with these cities… To see the evolution is incredibly gratifying," he says, conceding, however, that there are more changes to come.
"Cities are perpetually unfinished, and every generation gets to have a kick at the can, which will mean constant changes in the urban landscape.
"There isn't a beginning and an end. It's getting on a train that's moving."
|THINKING OUT LOUD|
Thinking Out Loud features live events and podcasts, sharing big ideas with the public. Join us for a live event in Montreal (Ken Greenberg February 2, Emily Nussbaum February 9 and more) or listen to clips from past events – find out more at www.concordia.ca/tol.
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in it's creation.