Our Next Generation Holistic Spaces

This talk was originally presented at:
- World Design Summitt 2017 in Montreal. 
- YIMBY festival workshops in Toronto.

Listen to this talk or watch it animated here.

I am a strong believer in the fluidity of creativity and problem-solving across our lives. If it wasn’t for drawing parallels and unlikely experimental juxtapositions, our “aha” moments would not come to fruition. It is these sparks and intuitions that drive my energy and passion for all design fields. Let me start off by confessing I am not a trained architect or an urban planner. I’m originally a graphic designer with formal education from OCAD University.

Do you see this sign? We call this a typographic crime — rivers of white created by loose words spacing and proportionately tight leading. What does this do for the reader? We don’t know which word to read next.

Yes, I can let the graphic designer/typography expert in me ramble on, however, as an interdisciplinary problem-solver, who challenges definitions of design, I cannot just focus on this minuscule issue. I’m a big enthusiast of urban spaces, just like many downtown-dwellers invested in their communities. What another trained graphic designer would be up here speaking to you about our next-generation holistic urban spaces?

Furthermore, I did have a diverse career before starting my own design company, which led me to work on physical experiences, spatial planning, interior and mural projects. One of the key aspects of interdisciplinary design is the unification in a strategic way — telling a story and deepening it through every aspect of the experience. This empathetic, detail-oriented process is often done through branding. Of equal importance, I believe that in a world of interconnected ideas our communal spaces deserve to be treated with the same amount of care and attention.

Growing up in Eastern Europe public spaces were our backyards. This is where you could meet up with friends, bump into strangers, where you could spend an hour or a full day. The only limit of what you could do was your imagination. At the moment there’s an affordability crisis sweeping across our urban hubs. High-rise living has become a norm and increasingly densifying cities are in dire need of unique memorable animated public spaces, to engage people of all ages.
Furthermore, public parks are, just like decades ago in Eastern Europe, once again our communal backyards. They should be treated with the community’s interest in mind.

We want to believe we’re a design-driven society, and when it comes to some visual areas, we are — illustrative crafts, handmade graphics, color combinations, products — many of us sure seem to have an eye for appreciating design and even exploring it some more.

But what happened to creativity and imagination in these aspects of our lives? We sure don’t seem to be design-driven when thinking about these public spaces. We are purpose driven -maybe, cost-conscious — probably, but are these spaces attracting us, bringing us joy, drawing us in? Such spaces shape our every day, and this is rather uninspiring. This is why I want to invite you to see our neighborhoods as if you were a child again.

Play should not be a practiced concept for children only but adults and seniors alike. Full engagement will help us reach a whole new level of inclusion. Public spaces should inspire us, bring us a sense of play, drive exploration, encourage a change of social perspective. I believe this is the ultimate way to build stronger communities and promote healthier lifestyles.

To spark my interest, I read the Toronto Tower Renewal Report from 2012. I know that municipal reports aren’t known for being too exciting — you know one of those 10-point type, dense paragraphs, some documentary-style shots, but this one hit a 10 out of 10 excitement level for me. I was enthusiastic to learn what has been said about Toronto’s priorities and plans to improve our communal spaces. I then wanted to explore an analyze some of the examples of outdoor public spaces around the world which inspire me, ones that I want to live next to, be part of, and spend time in. I looked to formulate how we can learn from them and what elements are there lightening up our curiosity and excitement in life.

I came up with five main factors and categories which, I think, define our next generation holistic urban spaces.

FACTOR 1: Unique Landmark

Creating a unique looking space as a landmark is not only visually pleasing for all passers-by, but the space also integrates itself into our minds and we start referring to it with names. Although such monumental sculptures often have the secondary purpose of denoting history and giving back to the city, I think some hold an extra special value when the creator stops short of specifying the name, oftentimes people make one up. Such moments of delight give people a chance to experiment and interpret. For example, the little circular yellow seats by a fountain in the main square of Plovdiv, Bulgaria were dubbed cheesies. Everyone knows where you’re meeting when you hear this unofficial moniker.

FACTOR 2: Interactive Environment

Creating an artistic, sculptural landmark is one thing, but it is also important to ensure that it appeals to more than just one sense — adding another level of connection. Seating is an easy one to go to as many objects are quickly adapted by humans for this purpose, but the flow created around the space adds a whole new dynamic and it could invite strangers to partake in a social setting and try a different activity. Playgrounds have swings, slides, climbing bars, etc. Sitting should not be the staple activity for adults!

One of the keystone projects to kick-start my passion for urban spaces was Valencia’s Gulliver playground where teenagers and adults alongside kids explore the body of a fallen giant. By inviting people to try a new activity, this attraction shifts the perspective, changes attitudes and opens up the mind. It removes people from their reality for a moment by allowing them to act in a new way — even if for a few seconds, it is enlightening and refreshing.

FACTOR 3: Engaging Natural Elements

When a space engages us with various natural elements, it connects with us on a deeper, raw, natural level. Hilling landscapes, water trickling, green canopies, light wind chimes, blooming cherries aided by birds singing — these subtle elements connect and awaken us. Perhaps it is a primal instinct of being in greenery and branches that can give us a sense of comfort and relaxation. Many people find the sound of flowing water and light wind to be therapeutic as well.

When I’m back in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, a city hidden between mountains, there is nothing more exciting and adventure-inspiring than seeing the gorgeous landscape in the background of the city streets. It evokes a sense of safety as if mythical giants are overseeing and keeping us from danger. Although not all cities are lucky to be situated on diverse landscapes, I know that for many of us, seeing flat blue water is calming and inspiring. The Toronto water revitalization development has plenty to offer by embracing our natural element, the lake, and many man-made environments can evoke these feelings in us all the same.

FACTOR 4: Inclusivity

Next, I must talk about inclusivity. Many of our public spaces are children-centric and some go as far as banning any unaccompanied adults. If you end up at a playground, it appears that the most exciting thing to do, for an adult, is to occupy a bench. Such assumptions sure don’t encourage active lifestyles, community building or the joy of random encounters. My grandma, for example, has difficulty getting around and has nothing to look forward on her walks. The most exciting parts of her daily stroll are a few intricate porches and one well landscaped front lawn on the way.

I know that there is an energy in unity which comes when there’s a stimulating place for everyone to enjoy. I was lucky to stumble upon the Luxembourg Gardens on my first day visiting Paris. There was music in the sunbathing areas, cafes, lawn balling, mini boat races in the water with historical sculptures and artifacts to discover all around. There were, of course, playgrounds for children of all ages as well. It is a beautiful feeling for everyone to be welcomed; for families to be able to do activities together, split up, meet again later on. It is wonderful when no one is bored or feels unwanted.

FACTOR 5: Community Belonging

By building on the need for inclusivity and engaging everyone, one of the results is creating a sense of community and belonging. By connecting people, we build stronger, safer neighborhoods and cities. People feel invested in where they live and that changes the way they act. By creating unordinary experiences which draw people of all ages by being a landmark, encouraging interactions, and touching people on an emotional level, the sense of togetherness and communal spirit is born.

I also think we should encourage vendors to help animate the spaces. Cafes and shops provide that excuse to enjoy the spaces. We meet up for ice cream or coffee or perhaps we stop to enjoy a favorite fountain, and so we end up partaking in the public sphere. Furthermore, I should note that a big part here is programming and culture, which has evolved around the spaces. Tai chi classes, musical performances, favorite food stands — other people are sometimes the main reason to come back to a place.

There is strength in each of these factors but when the 5 of them come together to interplay, I believe, something magical happens. This experience touches us on another level and has the power to change our perspective, open up our minds, wake up that five-year-old in us.

I was looking for ways to apply my theory and so I wanted to share with you what I’ve come up with.

My love for Toronto, plus a lifelong professional passion for typography inspired me to create this concept. Have you ever wondered away from reading a boring book and just enjoyed looking at the letters? What if these letters came out from the pages and switch scare with us?

Big and small are two words I used here to create an inclusive space for adults and kids alike. As I kept on seeing adults and parents sitting on the sidelines while their kids partake in the social scene. I realized that they should be given the opportunity to be active, and engage with others.

The graphic designer in me was further intrigued as I saw this opportunity to make a connection with visual identity and branding. I decided to take action and create a concept for public spaces by picking priority neighborhoods in the City of Toronto. For the most part, these are areas which have high crime rates, cheaper rent, and fenced up uninviting spaces all around the apartment buildings.

Although my focus here was to almost brand the neighborhood and create a lively hub, these could be taglines just the same. I have yet to engage companies like IKEA, Adobe or Google with this idea as their brand values might fit with such a concept for public spaces seamlessly.

Speaking of Ikea one more concept I created came from a conversation with a friend and fellow designer with whom we spoke about the need for public spaces to be able to adapt and change not only to diverse demographics and interests but also events and seasons. I was excited about the challenge, as Toronto has hot summers and icy winters. This modular approach, with loose a letters theme, was another one I was kicking around for some time.

With the growth of urban areas and real estate prices off the hook, the few urban social spaces we have should be top-notch and engaging on all levels. There is no opportunity for mediocrity left. 
Some of you may say that it’s not in our culture to have such liberal, wild, spaces but is it not through environments that culture evolves?
Isn’t social change in norms driven by encouraged behaviors? 
Do we not want spaces which inspire us, shift our perspectives? Or do we want ones with just basic activities that define our everyday enthusiasm about life?

We should think of outdoor spaces, gardens, parkettes, holistically and strategically as they are playgrounds for everyone — catalyzers for relationships and behaviors, ecosystems made for us to exist, to flourish, to bloom in.