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Want to Build a Successful Community Hub? Design With — Not For — Residents

Why the main ingredient of a thriving public place is community engagement

Published on May 07, 2021

A city-building case study is taking place in Toronto, as global developers prepare to submit their vision for a new community hub along the city’s waterfront. 

The 12 acres of undeveloped land, otherwise known as the Quayside, represent a unique opportunity to create a community hub in the city’s downtown core. 

The stated vision for the development site is to reflect “the confident, welcoming and imaginative civic spirt of [Toronto].” At Evergreen, we know that a successful community hub is one that meets and serves the needs of local residents.

That’s why our advice for building a community hub is simple: look to residents to guide the design.

The importance of community engagement

This means making human-scale activity a priority, leaving room for experimentation and letting the space evolve side-by-side with how we use it. 

A measure of success for Quayside, and others that will follow afterwards, will extend well beyond the glossy master plan cover, featuring two-dimensional happy couples strolling hand-in-hand. It will be the first Sunday of spring — before the onslaught of tourists — when Torontonians venture out to gather. And it will be a pristine winter day in February, when the waterfront’s only visitors are the locals. Will Quayside be their destination?

As a national organization working with cities across Canada on issues ranging from climate change and resilience to affordable housing and policy innovation, our ideas are rooted in experience. 

Evergreen Brick Works is its own 12-acre site, open to the public, built around a brick-making factory located in the Don Valley, just up river from the Quayside project. In non-pandemic times, we host hundreds of events annually like our Saturday farmers’ market, family skating lessons, nature summer camps, one-of-a-kind weddings, and countless spontaneous gatherings for nearly half a million visitors a year. 

As much as heritage buildings and the natural landscape define our space, it is our visitors whose exploration and discovery and co-creation have made it what it is today — a genuine community gathering place. 

We know the main ingredient of a thriving public place is community engagement. Even before we officially opened the site ten years ago, art projects, kids’ camps, and our fledgling farmer’s market started us off. Visitors signaled what they needed and what didn’t really matter. We listened them and we continue to listen. 

What does a successful hub look like?

Future cities need to be less about optimizing and more about engaging, less about the latest technology and more about real meaning, and rooted in the landscape, our people and our history. 

As dedicated city builders, we are inspired by examples worldwide where residents’ needs have translated into the design of public place.

Barcelona’s new mayor empowered residents with the urban planning tools to improve their surroundings. A hyper-local participatory process eventually coalesced into a call to “fill the streets with life!” The result is a “superblock” plan to transform neighbourhoods into car-free enclaves. 

Seattle Center, a former World’s Fair site, was meant to be torn down. Instead, its visionary leader led over 180 workshops as the launch of a major renaissance of the space. The result is a site that now welcomes over 11 million visitors annually, hosting a children’s museum that sits alongside an opera house, a podcast hub, and a Dale Chihuly outdoor park.

The City of Chicago sought the input of its residents to determine the city’s destiny as a cultural destination. Three thousand interviews later, Chicago envisioned a ground-up strategy for culture, where the unique offerings of its 50 neighbourhoods could be the draw for tourists and residents alike.

A hub built for residents

We applaud Waterfront Toronto’s focus on the city’s residents — a gloriously diverse, dynamic, ever-changing and passionate population. And yet, as Toronto witnessed in the previous design of Quayside, community buy-in is as integral to the success of a plan as the right mix of housing, retail, green space, and economic development.   

Before departing unceremoniously, Google’s city design arm, Sidewalk Labs, unveiled a decidedly top-down approach to city building. For sure, the program was lofty in its urban-tech ideals; so lofty, in fact, it floated above the interest of residents who would be living and playing and working in the space itself. 

This site’s natural context is perhaps a fitting place to start. Perched on the edge of Lake Ontario, Toronto is a city defined by dozens of unique neighbourhoods, woven into the landscape of a 45,000-acre ravine system. Consider Quayside’s location at the mouth of one of Canada’s great urban watershed, and integrate this landscape into design and programming. After all, future cities must be motivated by the future but inspired by their past.

From our experience, the following principles are critical to developing spaces into places: Offer a place to see and be seen as well as shady benches for grandparents and water bowls for sweaty dogs. Invite people to please walk on the grass. Get past glass and steel and opt for softer edges and spaces that comfort. Integrate nature and history into the design. Celebrate messiness. Cluster activities in close proximity. Give users agency with interactive public art and moveable furniture and DIY opportunities like community gardens. Design landscape and buildings as the film set where regular people are the stars. Elevate play and fun and whimsy. Offer surprise to be discovered within. Leave some of the drawing uncoloured and let Toronto fill in the rest. 

Waterfronts and similar civic shared spaces are more than a postcard printed for tourists. They are the centre for community-building for residents who live there all year round. The key to unlocking them – and a city’s potential world-class city builder - is to listen and observe. Design with — not for — its residents.