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From the Design Quarterly: How are we designing for livable cities today?

June 19, 2019

By Nancy MacDonald

Ask an expert: Nancy MacDonald, Stantec vice president for Urban Places, on the big issues facing cities today and her love of urban placemaking

Nancy MacDonald thrives within multidisciplinary teams. Now, with her background in planning, she takes on the director role of Stantec’s Urban Places team, who shape the development of large projects that fuse diverse talent and expertise from Stantec to public and private sector clients.

Nancy loves the ability to apply the value of Stantec’s integrated approach and expertise to cities, which are multilayered and complex. Nancy sat down with John Dugan, editor of the Stantec Design Quarterly, to talk about where cities are headed and how we can design to make them vibrant, inviting places.

What are the big issues facing cities now? Cities are so desirable right now, but the demand for living in the city is exposing these aspects of cities we could improve.

Nancy: Exactly. If we look at the population across North America, we see two strong generational changes. Boomers are aging and moving out of their current homes. At the same time, millennials are looking for a different type of experience than their parents did at their age.

We have two groups, a significant part of the population, looking for the same sort of way of living at different points in their life cycle. Both are more focused on an experience than an acquisition. Boomers are looking to downsize and divest themselves of some of their assets. They want a smaller place and be able to travel, be a bit more mobile. That population shift has changed how people are living in the city—especially in second-tier cities—where this is having a dramatic impact.

A lot of the investment that was going to the suburbs for decades is moving back into the city core. Businesses are looking for talent, and the creative class wants to live in an urban environment. So, you have generational change, cultural change, and mobility that pulls this together.

Multi-purpose, active, and engaging public-space design enlivens urban and suburban settings.

How does mobility fit in?

Nancy: Mobility is dramatically changing. Infrastructure is aging and needs to be replaced. We have an aging population. And a population that isn’t going to own cars. How are they getting around? Mobility is becoming a service industry, that’s a big shift. You don’t have to have a car anymore. You can use a car-share program or call an Uber. And we’ll see a move to autonomous vehicles (AV). But AVs are only part of the mobility solution. There’s going to be more investment in public infrastructure, in solutions like electric buses and streetcars. The other side of it is climate change and getting ourselves off an oil-dependent culture.

Affordability is a part of mobility, too. If you don’t have to invest in a car, that’s a big difference in how you can live. It has a big impact on the city for the good. More people can live in a more concentrated area. And places in the public realm aren’t going to be dominated by cars as much. And good transport options make it possible to live farther from the places we work.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 05 | Smart & Livable Cities

How important is density for quality of life and for tax base? Do you see cities planning for that?

Nancy: In Canada, our suburban areas are quite dense. The outer suburbs are built around a town center, which often relates to public-transit node. But many recent policy changes in North America are focused on increasing density.

In Bangkok, Thailand, there are a lot of parks that are built for adults. They’re built as outdoor gyms, and that’s where people exercise. You’ll see people working out on the bars. It’s an interesting approach to thinking about who is using the park space.

Again, transportation is a big issue. These outer suburbs are a series of nodes that sort of run together but aren’t necessarily linked in terms of public transportation. Transportation options in the core must be improved, but we also must improve transport on the external part of the city. Not everyone is going to live in core areas. But we must be able to move people around more effectively than we do.

There’s an affordability issue around cities, too. Land value is so high. Not everyone can afford to live near employment areas within the downtown core. That’s a big problem in Toronto or New York, where people commute a couple hours to work, affecting their quality of life.

Thus, density is important from an affordability perspective, it’s important from a critical mass for infrastructure. If we are going to invest in transit, we need to invest in places where we can achieve density.

Now you have lots of families that want to live in the city, but the actual design for the city doesn’t necessarily have the amenities that families or kids want. What can we do about that?

Nancy: That’s a good point, the focus on users is changing, so more urban parks are being designed while thinking about the end users. There might be kids in the area, or the elderly—or both! Programming was very prescriptive before, with things like teeter-totters. You’ll see less and less of those parks. Park spaces are still evolving as an attractor in some places. There’s not enough of them yet. As more people move in, then demand gets higher and higher.

In Bangkok, Thailand, there are a lot of parks that are built for adults. They’re built as outdoor gyms, and that’s where people exercise. You’ll see people working out on the bars. It’s an interesting approach to thinking about who is using the park space. Find out who your users are and design that park around it.

There are more requirements when you’re designing a community. Who are the users? How are you designing for children? What are the components of the park that promote play? How are you dealing with play in that context? Play doesn’t have to be a structured process or piece of equipment.

Another thing. When we design neighborhoods with park spaces everything is green, beautiful and lush. But in much of North America, that’s only part of the year. Our focus needs to include winter design principles. How do you design those spaces for use in all seasons? How can you block wind and use color to enhance vibrancy? How can light extend the use of space?

River Crossing in Edmonton, Alberta. "There is a fantastic opportunity here for 'placemaking,'" says Nancy MacDonald.

What projects are you excited about right now?

Nancy: River Crossing in Edmonton. We are working with the City of Edmonton on this exciting project. It’s in the historical center of the city, the indigenous center of the community, the former trading center. It’s the history of the city going way back.

There is a fantastic opportunity here for “placemaking”—there’s an historic generating station, there’s a new iconic bridge that’s just been built, there’s a park component, prefabrication, speeding up the construction process too. It opens a whole new realm.

Now, it’s a matter of dreaming up what’s next. I like sharing this technology with others. It’s great to see people’s expressions when they see this. They fall off their chairs. Then, you see the wheels start to turn. They start thinking of new ways to use it.

And to me, when your imagination is your only limitation, that’s exciting.

  • Nancy MacDonald

    Nancy is our regional business lead for infrastructure in the UK and Ireland—she’s focused on supporting our Community Development and Transportation teams as they drive research and development.

    Contact Nancy
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