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Round Table

Maintaining momentum

Riding the new wave of landscape appreciation 

Moderated by Glyn Bowerman


Ken Yee Chew, is a recently-elected Guelph City Councillor for Ward 6. He is an urban designer with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph who has worked in the planning department at the City of Brampton. Ken is an associate member of the OALA.

Eha Naylor, OALA, FCSLA, is a Partner Emerita in Dillon Consulting Limited’s national landscape architecture and community planning practice. She has earned awards recognizing her expertise in urban and environmental design and advocates for landscape architects, including as past Chair of the OALA Practice Legislation Committee. She was named Fellow of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, selected for the OALA Pinnacle Award for Lifetime Achievement, awarded the CSLA Presidents Award, and received the University of Toronto Arbour Award for volunteer service. Currently, she serves as the President of the Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation and is appointed to the Board of Governors at the University of Toronto.

Mike Tocher, OALA, RPP, is a partner with thinc design (Tocher Heyblom Design Inc), where he co-leads a talented team of landscape architects, planners, and arborists undertaking a diverse range of public and private sector projects from initial concept design through to construction administration. Currently, much of Mike’s work focuses on parks and recreation master plans, park design, waterfronts, and trail projects throughout Ontario.

Glyn Bowerman is the editor of Ground Magazine. He is a Toronto-based journalist who writes primarily about Canadian urban issues and municipal politics. He also hosts the monthly Spacing Radio podcast, and a senior editor with Spacing Magazine.

Community garden concept design developed with Florence Lance neighbourhood. IMAGE/ Mary Anne Young, OALA, CSLA

Glyn Bowerman: During the pandemic, we had a renewed appreciation for landscape, and a lot was said about the “new normal” and how landscape would play a big part in whatever that ultimately was. Now we’re thinking about post-pandemic life, how do we ensure we remember the lessons we’ve learned in the past few years?

Eha Naylor: The lessons learned during the pandemic—the appreciation of public open space, the importance of accessing it to people’s physical and mental health—that kind of awareness hasn’t changed. People still appreciate it. However, one area that is still a real risk is climate change, and landscape architects are very much in the forefront of that and should continue to be and advocate for that. We should take what we’ve learned during the pandemic and apply it to helping our communities understand what we can do to improve the quality of their life and to improve the physical environment we all share.

Eramosa Park. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the City of Guelph, ON

GB: Ken, I imagine you are either in the process of or just finished your first budget process at the City of Guelph. In those conversations, was there talk of keeping the momentum around public space and landscape in your community?

Ken Yee Chew: If I can just reflect on my election, everything I talked about in my platform was prefaced on improving quality of life and seeing how we can talk about design more holistically. Working for a municipality over the last three years, oftentimes it’s easy for us to work in silos. But the pandemic’s shown us we need to broaden our approach for how we define open spaces and we create value and justify funding capital projects—parks projects, for example. Speaking of the budget, City staff did put in funding for new parks and open space. At a micro-scale, there is a community garden we’re proposing at Eramosa River Park, and it’s the kind of small intervention we’re able to advocate for more easily, without having the public question it, because the pandemic took place. There’s an intrinsic appreciation and value for our open spaces and the microcosms it creates in our environments, stuff we’ve been advocating for in our profession time and again, but it’s really cool to see how the public’s taken interest in projects like these.

New planting by Silvercreek Trail, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

Michael Tocher: In our day-to-day work, not much has changed. But, as Ken mentioned, it’s not as difficult now to convince certain members of the public why landscape is important. There has always been a group wondering why you’re spending so much money—on consultants, projects, or initiatives—and now there’s more acceptance that this is as important as roads, or other concerns. Now they understand.

The Dairy Bush, University of Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

GB: On the flip side, though, what are the current issues Ontario and the profession are facing, and how will these issues influence design and landscape architecture thinking?

EN: One of the issues that’s currently top of mind for everyone is the perception that, in order to have more homes, you have to somehow give up your green space. And what’s really interesting is that the public and a number of the stakeholders are quite unhappy with that choice. Why do we have to give up public lands to meet our housing needs? There are other ways of doing it, why aren’t those being explored? And why is this option being explored when other governments have set these lands aside for public use, or public benefit. That doesn’t seem to be a provincial government priority at the moment. So the value of having a greenbelt and what it takes to protect that is certainly top of mind for a lot of people right now because it’s being eroded. The conversation is a much louder and more informed one than it might have been in the past.

But thats always the risk. We think we’ve been able to move forward with the kind of policies and guidelines that will benefit the broader population, but they are at risk. We now all recognize that new housing is required. The question is what we, as a community, as a province, are going give up in order to achieve that? And is it just more homes or better communities that we’re really after? I haven’t seen that explained in a way that I think the public agrees with.

Highway 401 in the Greenbelt. IMAGE/ Wikimedia Commons

MT: This could be an unpopular comment, but I do feel like the development process is broken and there needs to be improvements. But it’s possible to make overcorrections, like with the greenbelt, that confuses the situation. When I read through the legislation and I try to understand what it’s saying, I see some corrections that may be based on feedback from developers, or even municipalities, who are trying to fix things so the development process isn’t so costly and time consuming. But I do feel it is an overcorrection, and it’s probably a ‘too much, too soon’ sort of thing. I can appreciate some of it may be a good idea, but it clouds the whole discussion by throwing everything together in one piece of legislation. And then it also raises the questions, what else is attached to this if you want to build homes faster? Who’s actually going to build the homes? Are there actually enough contractors and builders out there to do what the province wants to do? Or is it just going to be a bunch of land that’s approved and we’ll sit around waiting for someone to show up to move some earth around?

It has to be more comprehensive, and it shouldn’t be all on the development process to fix the problem. But there definitely are some issues there when it takes years and years to get some things approved, or they never get approved. We all know sites that should have had homes long ago, they sit on top of transit stations and it’s been vacant for almost 20 years, only because a developer couldn’t get a couple of extra stories on top to make it work financially. But whether or not this current legislation actually solves that problem, it’s hard to say. It’s not a perfect system by any means and it does need fixing, but this is really messy.

Opponents of Bill 23 and expansion into the Greenbelt. IMAGE/ Leah Gerber, The Woolwich Observer

KYC: Also maybe an unpopular opinion, but a silver lining to Bill 23 and Bill 109 impacts that we’re seeing is there’s a real opportunity for us to talk about what really matters and what’s really important. I think, oftentimes, policy does need to be refreshed. And just being in urban design and planning and landscape architecture, it’s easy to be cynical and get frustrated because there’s been a lot of work that’s been put in over the years by planners and policy makers to craft the greenbelt the way it’s been. But, at the same time, we have an opportunity to talk about what really matters to us. And I think there are facets in the development review process that can be improved and done better.

Obviously, it seems like there’s been a reactionary approach from the province and one could think it’s shortsighted as well just given that a lot of municipalities across the province haven’t been consulted. When Bill 23 came out, the day after the Guelph election took place, we were slammed with these proposals, and now we’re not quite sure what to make of planning at the moment. We kind of have our hands tied, just waiting to see what the impacts are going to be. The real crux of the matter is how do we actually address housing without compromising quality of life and the quality of our open spaces? That’s always been an issue in Ontario when we have these kind of planning conversations. Compared to B.C., in Ontario we have a very dispersed land base. The broader public doesn’t necessarily have an understanding of what a wetland is, compared to prime agricultural farmland, or a farmland that’s in a holding pattern for development. It all seems the same to most people. So I think there’s a public education component that the OALA can continue to advocate for and be a leader for a lot of these issues. There’s an opportunity, as well, for us to simply preface the conversation a bit differently, to funnel public sentiment and distrust into something more productive. We have an opportunity here to do that with the OALA.

Diverse groups collaborate to create a sustainable future as part of the Accelerate Collaborating for Sustainability Conference in Guelph. IMAGE/ Courtesy of The Natural Step Canada 

GB: Do landscape architects need to develop new skills and knowledge, or build certain relationships, to be better positioned to address these kind of issues in the future?

EN: Yes, absolutely. What we’ve learned through our practice legislation pursuits over the last decade is that, 10 years ago, most people, particularly those in government, didn’t know we existed, other than to do kind of ancillary residential work. That was the impression people had. They didn’t really understand the full value that our education and experience brings to improving, not only our natural environment, but our cultural heritage—all of those things. And it’s work. Our community of landscape architects has to do a better job of advocating for themselves. Our colleagues have incredible knowledge. They’ve gone through an extensive education. In many cases, they have unique abilities and special skills, and that has to be presented in a bolder and more evident way. So we do have to talk about these issues. We do have to speak out. We have to advocate for ourselves about our knowledge and really grow a voice and a backbone. It’s time that landscape architects actually did step out and help. We have, in the last four or five years, provided advice to this provincial government, whether it was about highways, or signage... there’s been a lot of things landscape architects have been more vocal about and have been at the table with other professionals. That’s something that needs to continue with the next generation of landscape architects, when Mike and I are no longer here, people need to be able to step up and talk about what it is we do that’s valuable, and how we can help. Because there’s no point complaining. You have to find a positive and constructive way to help this government to move forward. It is incredibly important that we do take our seat at the table and we are able to encourage the government to understand our perspective and why what we can do will be helpful, generally.

Tree being moved in downtown Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

MT: From my company’s perspective, we’re always looking for people with different talents, and not just a repeat of the same, which can be a big ask sometimes. As we grow, we’re trying to branch out and become more multidisciplinary. We do planning and landscape architecture. Our planning is mostly parks and rec master planning. But more and more we’re dealing with policy planning, and we don’t have that skill necessarily in house. We’d like to have a policy planner on the team to add that layer. And you can’t always just go outside and hire that consultant, because that’ll cost you a lot more than it would be to have that person internally. It’s the same with environmental engineering. We have people on our team that have experience in naturalization and restoration on staff, and those are people we didn’t have five, six years ago. Because we’re being asked to do so much more. We get what would’ve been a simple proposal or RFP to respond to and write a proposal; 10 years ago, as a landscape architect, you could have just done it yourself, and now they layer in things about climate change or current legislation changes, and then there’s always a bit of engineering in there. So a firm has to be a jack of all trades, though you don’t necessarily have to be an expert in all those things. We always hear that we’re good at a lot of different things and not necessarily an expert in anything. I think that’s more true now than ever just because of how complex and interconnected everything is. That’s why continuing education is so important: to keep you up to speed on that.

Transit station, University of Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

KYC: We really have to take on a multidisciplinary approach when we think about design, and even how we can shape our profession from that perspective. I’m still relatively new to the profession. I only graduated three years ago from my BLA, and I found that, at the end of the day, we’re really just communicators and we need to be able to speak to different stakeholders, whether it’s members of the public, clients, development partners, or people within planning that speak policy. It’s important for us to just be that jack of all trades and also hone in your skillset. That’s something I’m continuously trying to get better at. I didn’t expect to go back to school so quickly, but I found it adds value if you can speak policy to folks that come from that kind of mindset, in order to get to an outcome.

It’s becoming harder nowadays, compared to my parents’ generation. My dad is a building designer and he does everything by pen and paper. Now you need a whole bunch of different consultants in order to actually get a project through the door. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just shows how holistic our society’s becoming, how complex we are, and how intentional we are when it comes to getting a product out the door.

Condo development construction, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

EN: Urban design is a place landscape architects need to be. We share that realm with architects on one end, sometimes urban planners on the other. But landscape architects are really important in the whole process of evolving our urban environments. And urban design is a place that landscape architects need to look at more closely.

GB: Are there new designs, processes, approaches, or best practices you feel will be most responsive in solving the issues we’re currently facing?

KYC: To expand on the skillset landscape architecture practitioners provide. Being able to practice urban design is extremely important these days. Being able to use 3D visualization skills is extremely valuable. From my time in Brampton, I found if you’re able to draw out or model out something to a big group, it can cut the meeting time virtually in half, because a picture’s worth a thousand words, and oftentimes we want to be able to see the end results before we commit to an outcome. I found that to be extremely useful, and part of the evolution of our practice. We have to be able to pick up these new skills and branch off, and also model how intentional we are to different design disciplines, whether they’re engineers, traffic planners, or policy people. Everyone likes to see how they’re contributing to the end product.

New tree plantings by Silvercreek Trail, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

MT: One thing the pandemic did for us is advance the willingness of the general public to embrace the technology that allows for virtual meetings, where you can get a bunch of stakeholders together without being in one room, they can do it from the comfort of their own home. In terms of engagement, you don’t just have to have your regular public meeting, you can engage the public from different angles. That is becoming a best practice: when we do respond to an RFP, we’re approaching it from multiple angles and trying to get as many people involved as possible. People always talked about it and tried to do that before 2020, but it’s a lot easier now. And there’s technology out there that is more accessible for everybody to use. You don’t have to be a big municipality with a fancy platform. You can rent the platform for the duration of your project, post it on there, work with the community, and wrap it up when the project’s over.

Tree Planting Initiative sign, Guelph. IMAGE/Ryan De Jong

EN: The difference of pre- versus post-COVID is the general ability of everyone to be able to try different things. It’s really important to come together again, but there are some segments of our work, some parts of a design process, that you can actually do more effectively. I personally like the ability to, for example, connect with a client much more frequently for 10 or 15 minutes, to be able to have an ongoing dialogue instead of waiting for a meeting with 30 people sitting around a table to try to explain where you’ve been moving. The ability to do that more effectively, more frequently, and more successfully is something we’ve learned how to do.

It wasn’t like that three years ago, it was awkward. It was having to get in your car and drive to Kingston or wherever, and you’d have the whole day to sit down with somebody for an hour and a half, and now you can sit down with three people at least on a call in that same period of time. That efficiency is good, but I don’t think it should entirely replace face-to-face engagement. Because, as Ken described, if you can be in a room and show someone on a screen and help them understand how design evolves, it’s incredibly powerful.

Preservation Park, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

GB: In terms of maintaining the relevance and importance landscape gained in the pandemic, and ensuring landscape architects are still a big part of the conversation going forward, what are questions they need to ask of themselves in the profession?

KYC: I’m constantly asking myself how I can add value with my education, background, and my experience. The truth is it’s much harder to describe what landscape architecture is to most folks than it is to describe what engineering is. We still need to be able to demonstrate how our value is being added to most members of the public. There’s still an opportunity with our development partners to be able to educate and guide folks from the beginning of the design process to the end. We just have to be creative and evolve.

Beaumont Park, Toronto. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

EN: We have to rise to the challenge. It’s not helpful to do the same things we’ve always done. The assignments are more complex and interdisciplinary. The lines between what one profession and another does can be blurry at times. We shouldn’t be afraid to take a leadership position in those types of assignments. So to move forward, we have to show our metal, our ability and knowledge, and how we can be inclusive and integrative. These are skills we’ve all learned, whether it’s in university, a design studio, or in the working world. We just have to keep doing it really well. You have to take some measured risks, be collaborative, and take the lead when you see the need.

Highway 6, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

MT: We lead a lot of projects. When you’re the project lead, it gets pretty exhausting. I’ve almost fantasized at times just providing landscape architecture services. But that’s such a small part of what we do. And it can be hard to say to an engineer, “Hey, this is important. You should be listening to me even though I’m not an engineer, but this is what I think we should do.” But maybe that’s where we really have to make change.

I don’t have to worry about that as much because usually when I hire an engineer, their scope is pretty defined and they’re happy to stay within those bounds. But very often we’ll get into work that is bordering on engineering and we don’t have an engineer on the team and we’ll have to finesse our way around it so we can do what’s right, and it’s safe, and we’re not negatively impacting the environment. But it’s still landscape architecture—just at the edges of engineering or whatever other discipline we’re working with.

Preservation Park, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

EN: It really requires you to stay on your game. You have to work with some intensity, you have to have integrity, and you have to try to find the best possible solution. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding when that happens. And it’s important to at least strive to do the best you can, and deliver good quality work. There’s discipline required. I really like working on a big, collaborative, interdisciplinary project because I learn so much. One of the nice things about being a landscape architect is you have conversations with other professionals and it’s a huge learning curve you can apply to other things. There are some projects where we can make an unbelievable difference to the outcome, and others where it’s really hard to influence where things go, but we should never stop trying.

Speed River, Guelph. IMAGE/ Ryan De Jong

Thanks to Sarah MacLean and Helene Iardas, OALA for coordinating this round table.