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City building: How to use place-making to get intensification right

Urban resurgence and intensification aren’t just for big cities

By Michael Votruba, Urban Planner, Toronto, Ontario

Urban resurgence and densification are normally associated with major metropolitan centers, but many small to mid-sized cities are undergoing their own urban renaissance. Regardless of population, place-making remains critical to creating a vibrant community—and the many ingredients of place-making remain consistent regardless of location.

While the City of Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are better known internationally for their urban growth and intensification, the mid-sized city of London, Ontario is enjoying its own urban resurgence. Intensification has become the focus of that city’s renewal policy that will support a focus on urban living. The City of London has adopted the London Plan that will reinforce growing inward and upward which will in effect place more importance on good urban design. Growing inward, will encourage London’s housing market to become increasingly driven by multi-residential infill, like condominiums, take for example Azure, winner of the 2016 Ontario Home Builder Award of Distinction for Outstanding High-rise Development. This 29-storey tower was carefully crafted to be a context sensitive place-making project despite being built using an economical material palette. Recognizing that urban design is about making the right moves for scale, massing, and context are vital to creating a successful place-making project.

Featured project: Azure Condominiums

Scale: Setting an appropriate scale for a project that does not dominate its surroundings is accomplished by grounding a building with pedestrian-focused active uses. For example, Azure’s lobby at the corner of Talbot and Dufferin streets makes a strong impact at street level. When complete new shops and cafes will activate the streetscape along Talbot Street and create a welcoming pedestrian environment. We also ensured that the height of Azure’s podium would match the height of the neighbouring Talbot Street Church, a designated heritage structure that has two broad polygonal stair towers and intricate façade detailing. 

Massing: Sculpting a building so that it defines public space and integrates well with its surroundings is another important place-making move. Azure’s heritage courtyard, carved by cutting back the north part of the podium, will serve as a place of reflection adjacent to the Talbot Street Church and feature heritage plaques, gardens, and street furniture for sitting and congregating. The form of the tower is intentionally vertical and setback from the podium to improve the pedestrian microclimate and open up the views of the sky for pedestrians on Dufferin and Talbot Streets.

Context: Successful, harmonious, place-making projects are created with design that is sensitive to the context. Azure, clad mostly in lightly toned precast concrete, has distinct masonry bays that characterize its podium and conceal an above-grade parking structure. The bays pay homage to the context of Talbot Street, creating a rhythm that reflects the historic residential street to the north.

Our approach to place-making always comprises a suite of distinct but intentional moves that set our projects in harmony with their surroundings. Making a strong contribution to a city’s urban fabric is made possible through deliberate urban design moves – scale, massing, and context. It is vital to get the place-making right in a mid-sized community like London since urban renewal is about more than intensification. It is about ensuring that new residents move in and love their new community.

Also from Michael: Making a case for density

When he’s working on city building projects, Michael always embeds the principles of placemaking. He creates unique opportunities for public spaces and amenities within the projects that he creates. As a leader for sustainable, urban-focused city-building projects, Michael brings over a decade of architecture, urban design, and planning experience to our Urban Places Group in downtown Toronto.

Recognizing that urban design is about making the right moves for scale, massing, and context are vital to creating a successful place-making project

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