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2007 03 08
Can Designers Save Our Cities?

Request For Proposal

by Arlene Gould, for Corporate Knights Magazine, Urbanization and Investment issue.

Can designers save our cities? Building and landscape architects, along with industrial, interior, and graphic designers and artists can all play a pivotal role.

Most of the 91,000 designers in Canada, including architects, landscape architects, industrial, interior, graphic and fashion designers, live and work in cities. With 25,000, Toronto is third in North America (behind New York and Boston) in the number of designers the city employs [DIAC Design Industry Study, 2004]. With so much creative brainpower at their disposal, you would expect Canadian cities to be at the forefront of urban innovation. Yes they have LEED-certified buildings and iconic architecture—but is that all it takes? Are designers really making an impact on sustainable city-building when it comes to economic competitiveness, social equality, public safety, an aging population, and reducing environmental impacts?

Most of our cities are led by utilitarian bureaucrats rather than design thinkers. We can also lay some of the blame at the feet of a design community whose members have failed to deliver a consolidated protest against the lack of representation of their profession at city hall, or the mean-spirited RFPs that don’t allow the scope, time or money designers need to deliver breakthrough results.

Design works on a grand scale, but its most profound benefits are experienced on a human level: beauty, accessibility, functionality and cohesiveness, to name a few. Our cities are missing design-led innovation in the public realm. A growing number of Canadian buildings are energy-efficient and environmentally designed. But when it comes to public space, we are still design-deprived. Most of our major cities lack the infrastructure and master plans that would inspire and enable design-led change at every level.

In a humble attempt to fill the void, here are five relatively low-cost ways we can use design to enrich the fabric of our cities.


Sidewalks are the cornerstones of city building. Urban visionaries from Jane Jacobs to Kevin Lynch have extolled the virtues of the sidewalk as an instrument of civic engagement and safety; a place for play, economic enterprise and social convergence. Well-designed streetscapes can even help reduce violent crime. But tragically, our sidewalks are being debased and ignored.

Industrial and lighting designers could define our urban walkways with customized, user-friendly street furniture and theatrical lighting to establish touch points with residents. Seasoned Quebec designer Michel Dallaire provides a good model with his multiple awarding-winning urban furniture scheme for the Montreal International District (Quartier International), the vast urban development between the central business district and Old Montreal, which was designed by Daoust Lestage Architects and completed in 2003. Working with aluminum as the base material, Dallaire used advanced technological processes to fashion street and park benches, tandem lighting fixtures and posts, bicycle stands and garbage receptacles. The furniture and fixtures help extend the vision of the architects’ master plan to the street.

Stories and Spaces

Half of the 40,000 designers in Ontario specialize in graphic arts or visual communications. The corporate world relies on their ability to engage, inform and persuade, but they are underutilized by the public sector, particularly in public city spaces.

Graphic designers combine typography, colours, symbols and pictographs to produce signage systems and environmental graphics that improve spatial orientation. These elements can also be used to characterize and brand public space, and to deliver key messages about the history and culture of specific geographic locations. Our cities could use graphic designers to create cognitive maps that would connect with various target audiences, and illustrate our cities’ unique personalities.

Urban Ecology

Designers and landscape architects can mend a city’s severed connection with nature by nurturing urban forests, and introducing waterways and green roofs as part of integrated water and waste management.

The second phase of the Dockside Green development project in Victoria, B.C. will include a vertical green wall cascading down the side of one of its buildings—a green roof turned on its end. Interior designers will install plant walls inside buildings as well, providing aesthetic interest and clean air in the commercial and residential spaces.

Alan Darlington, a scientist with Guelph University in Ontario, has perfected the indoor ‘biowall’ technology and turned his research into a successful company called Air Quality Solutions (AQS). Darlington can regularly be seen promoting the AQS biowall at interior design shows. [Corporate Knights breathes the clean, tropical air from our biowall every day—we think it makes us smarter.]

Improve Accessibility

What if Toronto, Halifax or Victoria were to become known as the world’s most accessible city? With their large populations of aging baby boomers, branding these cities as accessible could improve the quality of life for residents, attract older tourists and possibly even boost their real-estate markets.

Designers are trained to address a wide range of user needs, yet the average city (like the typical consumer product) is designed for an able-bodied 20-year-old. Accessibility legislation covers new buildings, but older buildings and public space operate under more relaxed rules.

In 1998, Winnipeg contracted the Universal Design Institute at the University of Manitoba to conduct an accessibility audit of its downtown district. The process could provide a model for other Canadian cities.

Design for the Arts

Some cities are truly urbane, while others are merely urban. The difference can be seen in the ways some promote their arts and culture. Canadian cities have vibrant arts and design communities, but these two sectors don’t often engage in dynamic collaborations like they do in London or New York.

Blurring the boundaries between art and design can lead to a kind of creative disruption that will bring the world to your door. Think of London’s Tate Modern, or the award-winning theatre and gallery posters commissioned by London Transport, or the New 42nd Street (Rehearsal) Studios in New York designed by Charles Platt, with its façade covered in coloured lights that put on their own show every night.

Our arts communities could mine the talents of designers to energize their spaces and promote their work. Currently, artistic outfits often treat designers like second-class suppliers due to budget constraints, and designers end up offering their services pro bono or for a cut price due to budget constraints.

In June 2007, Toronto will host an international Festival of Arts and Creativity called Luminato. This is the perfect time to establish a cross-disciplinary task force of artists and designers to rethink the branding and marketing of the arts in the city’s culturally rich region.

Designers in the Public Realm: Call to Action

In 2004, DIAC developed an Action Plan to help Ontario use the talents of its design workforce at a higher level. In its final report, DIAC observed that government is a major purchaser of design services and could become a model client. “By working more closely with designers on urban challenges, our cities can achieve the ultimate benefit: the creation of a unique and compelling personality and city brand.”

The archival audio project Murmur was established in Kensington Market in Toronto in 2003. The concept is groundbreaking, but the execution of the concept is rather tame. Each location where there are stories to be told is marked by a green ear displaying a telephone number and location code. Ears on the street… a fine idea that has now caught on in Montreal, Vancouver and San Jose. But, why not kick that idea up a notch? With a little help from a cross-disciplinary art and design team, those ears could become compelling landmarks in their own right.

In the November 2006 issue of Toronto Life magazine, Doug Saunders makes an interesting observation about the world’s major cities being museums of the past. “The second largest industry in [Manhattan and London],” Saunders writes, “is tourism, and both spend huge sums of money trying to resemble what they once were.”

Canadian cities are too young to have this kind of hallowed past. They should be looking to create unique personalities in more spontaneous ways. And they have an advantage. Our urban design workforce is the perfect antidote to the squelchers.

Arlene Gould is a co-coordinator for Design and Sustainability.
[email this story] Posted by Editor on 03/08 at 03:30 PM

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