Living in a laboratory

Forward-thinking cities offer residents of all ages opportunities to weigh in, get involved in building better communities


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Canadian urban issues are complex, yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, former Winnipegger and current City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay and collaborators look at how different cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/01/2020 (1058 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Canadian urban issues are complex, yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, former Winnipegger and current City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay and collaborators look at how different cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.


‘Tis the season — not only for stringing up lights and flooding local rinks — but for many municipalities, including Winnipeg, to debate budget decisions for the upcoming cycle.

Like diet tips for balancing healthy foods with cakes and cookies, Winnipeggers have different tips for the budget, as well. How to responsibly balance immediate service provision, such as public transit and garbage collection, with long-range municipal planning visions? Where will the money go, and who gets to weigh in?

Just like trying to stay healthy over the holidays, there isn’t one way to approach a complicated issue like the municipal budget. One of the biggest challenges for any municipality is balancing options from diverse public opinions. How can a municipality listen to close to a million residents as it grows?

Writer Jason Syvixay poses in front of Prague’s Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning (CAMP). (Jason Syvixay)

Perhaps the answer is in prioritizing a civic-minded culture that balances the voices of the loudest and quietest people in the city; prioritizes an engagement between builders, developers, architects and impacted residents; and explicitly encourages its decision-makers to respectfully dive into urban issues in ways that find alignment opportunities for the good of the entire city.

Canadian cities such as Edmonton and Calgary, and even far-away Prague and Singapore aim to provoke civic discourse before issues emerge — through the creation of both temporal and permanent spaces that allow people to engage in discussions around municipal budgets, private and public investments and developments and creative strategies to nurture cultural equity.

Why are these spaces important? Because city building is one big experiment: will this work here? Do people want that there? And what if we turned this whole thing upside-down? Creating spaces that foster civic discussion can help us challenge our assumptions, test our ideas, and bring together dissident voices sooner than later to discuss and work towards resolutions to contentious issues.

INTELI, an Innovation Centre for Intelligence in Innovation in Lisbon, describes creative cities as “places that contain the necessary preconditions, in terms of hard and soft infrastructure, to generate a flow of ideas and inventions.”

Creative cities, by creating spaces to actively discuss and engage with residents, may even become more resilient to community backlash and, in turn, transform from places of opposition to places of agency. Winnipeg’s constructed environment, its institutions and support services can help nurture an atmosphere that supports “dynamic thinkers, creators and implementers, strong communication linkages and a general climate of entrepreneurship” (INTELI, 2011) — perhaps the first step is for Winnipeg to open its doors, both literally and figuratively, to community perspectives.

Indeed, cities around the world are beginning to open their doors to the public and are engaging around serious decisions in creative and playful ways.

Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning

A catalogue of urban developments in Prague offers an opportunity to understand context and consider social and economic impacts; while a large digital screen at 1:1 ratio offers a glimpse of projects in actual size. (Jason Syvixay)

In Prague, Czech Republic, the Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning is a city-funded initiative that offers its residents a place to consider and engage in urbanism. As noted in its mandate, the centre (CAMP, for short) is “a place that will adjust depending on the demands of active public — you.” Its exhibits, events and staff aim to provoke questions such as: “Will they (new developments) bring an increased burden on the area, alter transport or civic amenities in the neighbourhood?”

CAMP is a place where residents can learn about city planning, where developers can showcase and solicit feedback about their projects, where planning and design schools and other multi-disciplinary academics can lecture, and where relationships can be forged between unlikely partners.

As advertised, the Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning is a space “that is not a PR tool for convincing the public, but a place where it is possible to discuss and possibly to disagree face to face.” It’s unabashedly unafraid to confront urban issues — both contemporary and future-state.

Self-proclaimed as a “jousting field for stakeholders (the general public, developers, public administration, local government, planners),” CAMP’s upcoming exhibits and discussions feature city farming, age-friendly cities and “fun cities” that weave together work, social interactions and family life.

Singapore City Gallery

The Singapore gallery offers an immersive experience for visitors to learn about city development. (Gabrielle Donoff)

The Singapore City Gallery is well ahead of other municipalities, in terms of providing a space for residents and visitors to learn about urban issues. The gallery houses three immersive exhibits, spread across three floors of the centrally located building.

Visitors are invited to learn about current civic projects in an exhibition space for temporary displays. This semi-permanent area often features redevelopment and planning projects led by the local Urban Redevelopment Authority.

To convey a true understanding of “how things work,” a natural curiosity we all possess, adults and children are immersed in the how-to of city building in the Central Area Discoverer. Interactive displays explain the nuts and bolts of the city from water, energy, and waste systems buried deep underground, to the complex and ever-expanding green and transportation networks. There’s also an opportunity for visitors to express their own visions for future Singapore, and to learn about new neighbourhoods that are currently being developed.

The final, and arguably most impressive gallery, houses the central area models. Built to scale, the models are displayed with undulating edges, allowing the viewer to stand nearly inside the city. Displaying the central area of Singapore, the models display current and proposed buildings across the island.

Even for map nerds who take comfort in detailed topographies and renderings, there’s nothing like the tactile experience of standing within a giant to-scale model of a city. It’s a paradox to feel humbled by a city while hovering Godzilla-like over top of it. For residents and tourists alike, viewing the city in this way provides a unique and rare view of the scale of the metropolitan area and complexity of the built environment.

The best part of the Singapore City Gallery? Admission is free, signalling that city-building is not, and should not be, an exclusive activity. Singapore literally opens its doors wide, revealing the secrets of the city and inviting everyone to learn about their habitat.


Placemaking ideas shared by Edmontonians via postcards, displayed in a vacant window downtown in 2015. (Marco Melfi)

Recently, city builders in Edmonton have been borrowing concepts from another creative industry — business marketing and design. Concepts like “prototyping” and “failing fast” are being incorporated into city-building processes, injecting new ideas quickly to test if they will work for a certain place or space. The idea is that a new concept can be tested in a low-risk way without large investment or disruption. But is the public ready to accept that they live in a laboratory?

In 2016, the City of Edmonton launched its CITYlab initiative, a figurative space for residents to learn more about and to offer their perspectives and feedback on emerging public and private developments and priorities.

“The CITYlab was a project that sought to advance an urban planning conversation,” said Marco Melfi, one of the planners who worked on the CITYlab initiative. “We developed pilot projects to offer residents tangible opportunities to see urbanism up close, and to serve as a place for participation.”

Along with transforming crosswalks into rainbow-coloured statements and revitalizing alleyways into people places, the team initiated a panel series called “Let’s Talk,” which invited Edmontonians to explore topics like design, food access, mental health, infill, heritage, parks, business and public transit.

“These talks contributed to an ongoing city-building conversation with people who love their city, who care about the challenges we face, and who are willing to share their passion and perspectives,” Melfi added. “Along the way, we met and engaged reluctant participants, or those who didn’t see themselves represented in the work we do, and those who hadn’t known how they could be involved in the city’s processes.”

Another initiative, Edmonton’s City Hall School, is a week-long learning laboratory for students from grades 1 through 12 in which they have an opportunity to connect with their city, their curriculum and career pathways. Students (and the accompanying adults) learn from differing perspectives, as well as the complexity and interconnectedness of issues as they meet with city planners, architects, engineers, activists, community members and councillors.

“The city becomes their classroom as they explore and learn that their voice matters and they have an opportunity to be an active citizen, even as a child,” Linda Hut, co-ordinator of City Hall School said. “Their week at City Hall School is a catalyst to an entire year of connecting and belonging.”

One class that met a community standards peace officer and city councillor, began to notice litter issues in the park near their school. Their time at City Hall School prepared them to begin brainstorming solutions.

“They went from asking the peace officer to come and ticket everyone, to having a clean-up campaign to submitting a report to 311 requesting a garbage can be located in the worst area,” added Hut. “When this can was installed, they proudly exclaimed, ‘We changed the world!’”

City Building Design Lab

The City Building Design Lab features space to support digital fabrication, lectures, events and exhibits with a focus to address waste, metropolitan growth and change, inclusivity in cities and downtown revitalization. (Supplied)

Not far from Edmonton is the City Building Design Lab, an initiative of the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, supported by the City of Calgary. The CBDLab, in a strategic location proximal to city hall and the central public library, features tens of thousands of square feet of space to support digital fabrication, lectures, events and exhibits. The CBDLab also aims to support urban research, design, education, training, prototyping and dialogue — with an explicit focus to address waste, metropolitan growth and change, inclusivity in cities and downtown revitalization.

Leading Calgary’s Downtown Strategy is Thom Mahler, manager of urban strategy. Mahler sees the City Building Design Lab as a community hub that can bring diverse perspectives together, and that sends a strong message around the importance of integration and working together. He credits the alignment of priorities between the city and university as especially critical towards making downtown a thriving place.

“Having the CBDLab in our downtown has helped broaden the perspective of our downtown from a corporate office concentration to a more diverse ecosystem that will support the transformation of our downtown into a place for the new economy to flourish,” said Mahler. “Having a place where we can invite the public and stakeholders to have a conversation of how that will happen and what it could look like has been a huge benefit to our community.”

Where are the opportunities for Canadians to learn about and engage in urban life?

Although more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban centres, it can be difficult to learn about the environments where we spend our everyday lives. Winston Churchill is credited with the keen observation that “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This is undoubtedly true, yet even in a democratic country with endless opportunities for civic engagement, the average city dweller is rarely invited to truly participate in the reflection and creation of our own environments.

In Canada, amid growing civic transparency and prioritization of public engagement, it’s still difficult to learn about current redevelopment and planning projects without some prior knowledge of municipal procedures such as public hearings. There’s no central place for citizens to learn about plans and projects.

Our best bet at city building is to treat the city as a lab, testing what works and what does not, and being comfortable with the idea we’re all mini-scientists adding things into the mix. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

We don’t know ourselves or our urban habitats well enough to have city building stick to a plan, exactly. Our brains, bodies and ecosystem are too complex and inter-dependent. That’s why our best bet at city building is to treat the city as a lab, testing what works and what does not, and most importantly, being comfortable with the idea that we’re all mini-scientists adding things into the mix, and some things will form brilliantly while others will bubble over or shoot a few sparks and then fizzle out. Some city-building activities will garner worldwide attention, such as Winnipeg’s river trail warming huts, while others will be the source of constant debate — perhaps a well-known crossroads downtown (let’s just say it requires people to Portage around a certain Main intersection).

The point is, all processes, whether science, art or a combination, go through iterations and testing before we get it right. We expect that, whether creating a new recipe, or rearranging a room, there will be some trial and error. It is expected, and we are indeed surprised if things go perfectly the first time. City building is no different, and yet we expect planners and engineers to know the perfect formula for building spaces and places that everyone will like and that will work perfectly all the time.

There’s no social media campaign, no long-form article, and no punchy tweet that will change the way we think and interact with our cities overnight. This type of change requires a real effort to change the way people think of the cities they live in and visit.

The most universal and oldest way of conveying information is storytelling, and we need to tell the story of our city in a way that people can hear, see, touch and feel like they are a part of something larger than them. What better way than to stick them in the middle of a model of their city? For something so complex, a tactile approach is essential — pick up a building and put it somewhere else. Drag a freeway to the city’s edge. Walk though mock-ups of new bus stop shelters.

If and when Winnipeg explores these types of opportunities, we will be first in line.


Jason Syvixay is an award-winning urban planner and public relations professional currently completing his PhD in urban and regional planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design and, more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.

Gabrielle Donoff is a lifelong Edmontonian with a special place in her heart for Winnipeg, where she completed her master’s of city planning degree. She currently works for the City of Edmonton on The City Plan project as the community grows towards a population of two million people.

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