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Round Table

What makes a great neighbourhood

Moderated by Nadia Galati, OALA

Brendan Stewart, OALA, is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph where he teaches community design studios and a professional practice seminar. His current research and creative work focus on the adaptation of under-utilized and overlooked landscapes through community led processes, informed by a cultural landscape approach. With Daniel Rotsztain, he is the co-lead of plazaPOPS, a SSHRC and FedDEV-funded community-lead project to create public gathering places in Toronto’s inner suburban strip mall parking lots.

Chiyi Tam is an urban planner and anti-displacement organizer in Tkaronto’s Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood. She is the executive director of the Kensington Market Community Land Trust, and serves as a director of the Toronto Chinatown Land Trust and the Union Cooperative Initiative. She frequently works with groups exploring community ownership and wealth building as an anti-displacement strategy for racial and economic justice.

Leo DeSorcy is an urban designer and instructor with 38 years experience in the public and private sectors, and Honorary Member of the OALA. His career has focused on a “Landscape First” approach to policy writing, infrastructure design, large site redevelopment and site plan design and review.

Sabina Ali is the Executive Director of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, and one of its founding members. She manages food, art, fitness, markets, and garden programs. She is the recipient of the 2011 Elizabeth Coke award for excellence in leadership, the 2014 Jane Jacobs Prize for her dedication to community development, and the 2014 Phenomenal Woman Award, the 2017 award for Excellence in Civic Action, and the MP’s Sesquicentennial Citizenship Award.

Nadia Galati, Principal at PROCESS, is an urban planner and designer with expertise in planning, art, and design. They are passionate about applying innovative methods to address urban and policy challenges through sound analysis, action, and recommendations for decision makers in government, and the private and nonprofit sectors.

A handwritten room for rent sign outside the Poon Yue Society of Ontario building in Chinatown, in stark contrast a newly redeveloped single family home now abuts the building’s east side. IMAGE/ Chiyi Tam

Nadia Galati: Neighbourhoods are made up of people with different lived experiences. What does it mean to be a great neighbourhood, relative to all the different people within it? What does that mean downtown, versus inner suburbs, or outside the city center? And what are different challenges facing our communities?

Sabina Ali: When talking about the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, a predominantly South Asian community, the way the neighbourhood has been designed, with all the tall towers facing the Don Valley, and then the median size towers, and the small park in between, there are different pathways from the various buildings that connect the park, and then the park that leads to the town centre. It’s a 2.2 kilometers-area which is densely populated, which used to be farmland and a racetrack. The way people are living there, the way it has been designed, is the key for keeping people together. There are connections from the buildings to the green space, to the mall, the school library, the mosque, and stores at a walking distance that keeps people connected together.

But I will give you an example of the recently redesigned R.V. Burgess Park. We all know how much we struggle with the community consultations the City organizes. You don’t get people at that particular time, and it’s an immigrant community, people are busy with their lives, their jobs, the children. And then you have a selected working group that provides ideas for the park, and you also have to identify if that group represents the people who actually use the park.

Sita Ganesan (U of G MLA 2020) discussing studio design work at an open house at The Wexford Residence seniors community in spring 2019, part of the process that created plazaPOPS’ 2019 pilot. IMAGE/ WexPOPS

For me, I go the other way: a very informal method of consultations, like how our Women’s Committee did in 2008 and ‘09. When our group got involved in the revitalization, we ran a campaign for the missing playground equipment in 2009 that came to the park last year, 2021, after many years of struggle. And I really felt like the City could have made a simple decision of just going to the park and talking to park users: what they would like to see in the park? Collect those ideas, and develop some kind of design. Not just talking to the people who don’t even visit the park, different stakeholders or the organizations who have no clue when the park is mostly used, or at what time. Our organization has been involved for the past 14 years, and we spend a lot of time in the park. We have a park café which is a social enterprise running out of the park. The café supports newcomer women without employment experience, who face multiple barriers to employment. We provide that kind of opportunity and training, so it acts as an incubation where they spend some time, and then move forward.

We are actually the main stewards of the park. When City consultations happen, and people are not able to participate, people ask me to tell the City we need a washroom in the park. That was one of the latest examples where I felt, when the designers or the architects try to bring beneficial things to the community, they need to involve the people actually using the space, and ask them what they want.

Members and residents of the Cambodian Chinese Association of Ontario sitting on the stoop of their collectively owned association building. IMAGE/ Chiyi Tam

Just in front of the café, we had a big space assigned for bread baking. After a prolonged meetings, City staff gave us the green light. Then they said ‘this is not a safe space to put the tandoor oven, because it involves fire.’

From 2013 to 2021, what changed in that space? That, in redesigning, they have to move the oven, and place it beside the café, which is actually the market path. Park users are saying, ‘No, that was the central space for the tandoor oven, where people from all the tall buildings can actually see what is happening in the park.’ They can even keep an eye on the oven to keep it from getting vandalized. But now it’s pushed to the side of the café, which blocks the pathway for the market, and the smoke from the oven gets into the merchandise. A lot of women have complained to me.

It was Women’s Committee and the other park users’ space. We designed the park. We have animated R.V. Burgess Park, which is recognized now because of the work and hours we put into it for years. And we wanted it to be an inclusive space where everybody gets an opportunity to use it equally.

R.V. Burgess Park. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the City of Toronto.

View north of Spadina and Dundas from Skydragon Mall, street vendors animate the corners of the intersection. IMAGE/ Chiyi Tam

Brendan Stewart: The framework I find helpful in my community design work, is to understand the places we work in as living cultural landscapes—recognizing we need first to understand how a place is used and valued, and creating design and planning interventions that work with these existing patterns.

With the example of Thorncliffe Park and the tandoor oven and all the work the Women’s Committee did to build this community, to me, I would understand that as a vibrant cultural landscape. Of course physical space matters, but the network of care that Sabina helped create, while less visible, is really important. I think about the greatness of communities primarily in this way. What are the less tangible cultural and social systems at play? Is there a lot of community life happening and how can it be supported or enhanced? That’s what we’re trying to achieve through our community design work: creating richer community life, more connection, more support, healthier communities.

When we’re operating in existing places, the first thing we need to do is try as best we can to understand the good stuff that’s already happening. And, of course, so much of that can be invisible when you’re an outsider. So the framework of thinking about places as cultural landscapes suggests tools for trying to understand those things, observe and map them, have lots of conversations, have informal processes for getting to know who the local leaders are, who the knowledge keepers are, which places are sacred? They may not be (and likely aren’t) obvious to an outsider, but you shouldn’t be working in a community and proposing changes if you don’t deeply understand those things.

Max Gatta and Sima Kuhail (U of G MLA 2020) participating in a community design workshop in the basement of Precious Blood Catholic Church in December 2018, part of the process that created plazaPOPS’ 2019 pilot. IMAGE/ WexPOPS

NG: What do good neighbourhoods mean, relative to land and housing?

Chiyi Tam: That’s something that came up when we were working at Process together: you’ve never heard of a professional practice that is planning in consultation and design that’s professionally in charge of negotiating the democratic process. There’s no other profession in charge of this wild negotiation of space.

My thesis statement is we should be so lucky to be in neighbourhood conflict, to be in substantive, generative, sometimes very frustrating neighbourhood arguments with each other. The amazing thing is that these arguments actually lead to concrete decision making over the outcome of the design project. For Chinatown, I worry whether or not an urbanist intervention, usually some kind of sanitizing public space redesign, is going to violently displace the unlicensed street vendors who are a key health indicator for Chinatown.

When we went on a listening tour to find the feasibility of doing a community ownership project in Chinatown, we went around and talked to a whole bunch of different Chinatown folks, and the thing that kept on coming up was the vegetable grannies who sell produce from their yard on Spadina Ave. and Dundas St. A healthy version of Chinatown in 50 years is one where they still get to do this on the street corner, unbothered by bylaw officers, or the BIA who thinks that they’re making Chinatown look disgusting and weird, or by property owners who would really prefer not to have to clean up the storefront in a certain way.

It just keeps on coming back to governance, decision making, all of those fun things, and also social indebtedness. When we think about neighbourhoods, and how healthy they are, something we don’t talk a lot about is how interwoven those relationships are. How heavily dependent we are in a relational way to each other. To have that level of social indebtedness takes time. It takes having conflicts with people over the price of their apples in the corner store. It takes people witnessing you being pregnant, and then not pregnant. All of these things that are only possible if your housing, your job, or that corner store’s lease is secure. And we don’t have this kind of security because of gentrification.

This is the reality we’re planning, designing, and organizing under, which makes all of the skills that drew us into this space and pulled us towards architecture school seem totally irrelevant. I learned all of these GIS skills, and how to use Illustrator to create amazing visuals... for what? For who? The two things are increasingly divergent, and that’s deeply frustrating for the majority of people in practice right now.

Thorncliffe Park Community Garden. IMAGE/ Sikander Iqbal, Wikimedia Commons.

NG: Is there a role for bigger planning and landscape architecture departments at the City and less of folks like myself in consulting worlds? Can public policy be as active and live in terms of relationships on the ground?

Leo DeSorcy: I don’t want to sound like a bureaucrat, and maybe it was because I worked 32 years for the City in the planning department, but as an urban designer, the neighbourhood character is determined by an underlying legal framework of public streets, public parks, public buildings like schools, and a lot of private development, and that structural DNA is given. When transforming a neighbourhood, there are processes which govern establishing new DNA. When you’re laying out a new neighbourhood, there are processes to do that.

There are also very difficult processes for transforming areas where people already live, and have an image of where they’re living, and a pattern for living their life. The city is under tremendous pressure to grow. People keep saying there’s a million more people coming here, there’s more people going to work here. How do we get around? Where do we work? Where do we shop? Where do the kids go to school? Am I going to be able to walk the dog? Everything is structured around this DNA.

What’s interesting for me is, during my career with the City, I saw an increasing role for landscape architects in the transformation of the public pieces of that DNA.

Sima Kuhail (U of G MLA 2020) discussing studio design work at an open house at the Arab Community Centre of Toronto in spring 2019, part of the process that created plazaPOPS’ 2019 pilot. IMAGE/ WexPOPS

NG: That DNA is law. People wrote it, which means it can change. People made choices to create those policies. We could be activists, and we can put pressure on our public representatives to change those laws, but what about incremental pressures and activism within our own practice? What should
we be demanding of our practice and our professions?

BS: I grapple with this all the time, because, with the challenges we’re facing, to do things we feel good about ethically, to grapple with reconciliation, spatial inequity issues, affordability, gentrification, all these things, my sense is that the emerging practitioners we’re training in design and planning school are entering into a much more complex field of work than previous generations. 

I’m trying to bring some of this complexity into the classroom, and it’s definitely a struggle because there’s obviously a foundation of technical skills students need to learn, and there’s only so much time. When you think about what should be in a curriculum and the skills we should be focusing on, and how we teach those within a world of limited resources and time, it’s hard.

For me, the main vehicle is my community design studios. I’ve shifted away from an approach where students look at designing a new neighbourhood on a greenfield or brownfield site—a place where people don’t presently live—to working in existing places that are evolving, and exploring sociological concepts like third places, social infrastructure and social capital, and how spatial form can enable healthy community life.

I think it’s really important that students learn to grapple with proposing change within existing neighbourhoods, and trying to understand the complexity of everyday places that might otherwise be invisible to them. And to start thinking about techniques and methods we can use to understand these places, co-design with community, and how to evaluate good design against social and cultural criteria, in addition to ecological and economic.

In the best-case scenarios, I’ve been able to integrate an actual project into a studio, but I’ve found that can take years to set in motion. Take, for example, the plazaPOPS project that Daniel Rotsztain and I have been working on. It’s grant-funded and part of my research program, so when the timing aligns with a studio, I’m able to integrate student learning into a real community design process involving real people, real places, and a real budget. We did this in 2019, and will do it again this winter semester in a studio course I’m teaching at the University of Guelph and a seminar that Daniel is teaching at U of T, but you can’t do that every year unless you have a whole operation behind you.

I would love it if our schools moved more in this direction, as I think this kind of real-world experiential learning helps build awareness and the types of sophisticated soft skills that students will need. I would direct readers to the LAF-funded work that Jeffrey Hou from the University of Washington led called “Educating Design Activists in Landscape Architecture.” He summarizes interesting models around the world for integrating this type of community based work into design education.

Quinn Howard (U of G MLA 2020) discussing studio design work at an open house at The Wexford Residence seniors community in spring 2019, part of the process that created plazaPOPS’ 2019 pilot. IMAGE/ WexPOPS

CT: I will respond from the position of someone who just graduated planning school recently and is now teaching in design school at a graduate level. I agree, and I think it’s very palpable to us as a graduating class of the last, say, five years. The students I’m teaching now are the same age as me, and the shift that has happened is we now work from the base assumption that planning and design are not neutral. There is no such thing as neutral knowledge, and planning and design have been constructed within the Western and white knowledge system and methodology, and hold up a private property system as a fundamental core design function.

We’re being told this truth, but nobody has figured out what to do about it. We’re on the brink of a conversation about what it would look like to imagine, to do dream work, to do community relational work, with a bias towards being able to communicate, strategically vision, and visually represent.

This is where the hope for me in planning and design education still is. Even if we get rid of and abolish the words “planning,” and “design,” and “architecture,” there are still individual human beings who were called into this practice because they loved to draw, to imagine, because they had an incredible personal capacity for a specific kind of joy and skill that brought them into a community, and made them want to build real, tangible things on land. That is what they will still have, even after planning and design doesn’t exist and we destroy it because it may be necessary in the future to realize a transformative and just future. That is deeply hopeful, because we will still have those skills regardless. And it makes it less scary to imagine a future where the private property system is abolished, but there’s still a role for us as individuals, even if our profession doesn’t exist. That still gives me hope. Besides the classroom, it doesn’t feel like there are many spaces where there’s enough privilege and indulgence to be able to do that dreaming work.

The Kensignton Market Garden Car. IMAGE/ Brianne, courtesy of Flickr.

NG: What do we want to say to the landscape architecture community with respect to creating just, equitable, great neighbourhoods, and what is the role of the landscape architecture student, professional, or academic, to see themselves in this work?

LD: There’s always been a difficulty with who writes the program for design, how to evaluate it, and who pays after the design is finished to go back and find out if it was successful or not. The people who inhabit the office, and can’t find the washroom, or the people who find it inconvenient to get to the bus stop because the neighbourhood wasn’t laid out properly, or the bus stop’s in the wrong location. The people who use the bike lane, but don’t like the street because it’s too windy and the buildings are too tall. Decisions get made, and then, unfortunately, there’s nobody in the room who’s going to pay to go back and evaluate. The bicycle people do that. They’ll find out how many bicycles were on Bloor Street before the bike lanes went on, and then go back and measure it. But was it a rainy Tuesday? Maybe it was a special day? But it’s hard to find a good process to evaluate the outcomes.

One of the things I fear a lot about the current political climate is the issue of affordability emerging as something that will trump everything. And local planning decisions, development charges, funding, formal concerns, processes...

All of our processes are currently under that. I see that as the biggest challenge, and it’s important that we take our broader design issues of climate change, social equity, etc., and attach those to affordability. If affordability is the boat that’s going to catch the tide, we have to ensure those other issues aren’t left at the bottom of the bay.

We need to find a way as landscape architects to build alliances with other issues, in our public and private practices, and our activism. We need to build our issues into affordability. My friends from London told me five years ago to be aware that affordability was going to do this to the process. There are people in England who would tear down Buckingham Palace and pave over St. James Park if they thought they’d find apartments teachers could rent. Everything is at stake right now, and, as a profession, we need to grapple with that. If we don’t, landscape architects are going to be back to their old role of putting a little parsley around the pig, and not leading processes.

The iconic Kensington Market Neighbourhood, Toronto. IMAGE/ Thomas Jordan, courtesy of Flickr.

SA: We, as people in the community who are actively involved in placemaking, are looking for just and equitable systems. The approach is always there, but these words have just become fancy in today’s world. I want people to really understand what that means in real life.

Thanks to Mark Hillmer, OALA, for coordinating this round table.