New thinking in designing cities

N2: George Dark.

George Dark, partner at Toronto-based urban design consultancy Urban Strategies and head of Ottawa’s Downtown Urban Design Strategy, decodes how civilizations change over time and plans the future of cities for their future citizens. 

“You have to get out front of creating your city, you can’t simply stay behind it and do the criticism,” he says, “We’re currently doing a plan for Ottawa’s Centretown and we’re trying to figure out where it’s going at all different kinds of layers: What’s the housing like? What’s open space like?”

Urban Capital Annual, 2011, Trends in Design

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N2mark

“What’s really interesting, you don’t have a clue what that person is going to want to do inside a city,” the urban designer explains pointing at the youngest line at the bottom of a demographic chart on a slide during his presentation, the second of our Trends in Design speaker series. “You can bet that he or she is not going to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow.”

“Is the city created in 1948 actually what you need for what you are doing today? Are we doing the same things?” the self-proclaimed Baby Boomer asks. “The post-war period’s suburbs were highly formulaic. They involved a lot of speed and were very market driven. Uniformity was very important, like rolling out carpets, eradicating farm fields and forest for the most simplistic city one could imagine.”

Dark loathes the era of suburbanization that occurred on the Greatest Generation’s watch. In retrospect it was half-baked hubris and sheer folly and this fills him with a form of Boomer Guilt which in turn fueled his entertaining, hour-long screed in favour of reinvented, layered, mixed-use and historic cities, and against unrecoverable, inefficient, sprawling, suburban communities.

Unbeknownst to the urban planners that preceded him, the post-war, middle-class, bedroom communities turned out to be municipal infrastructure time bombs. “The suburbs require massive amounts of public resources after they’re built. When it comes time to replace the infrastructure, the cost is staggering,” he says. “There isn’t a prize at the end of the day for having created the largest suburban community. They’re interlaced with pipes, gas, electricity and they’re really never going to be recapitalized into anything.”

The wheels of change are already in motion: “Never underestimate people riding bikes, not because they have to but because they want to,” says Dark, talking about a new, emerging breed of urbanites who are disciples of the downtown, pedestrian lifestyle. In his 80-person office forty-two of his colleagues don’t own cars. “You could give any of these people the keys to a five-bedroom house in the suburbs. They would sell it, go for a vacation in Africa, come back, buy a condo and work out of it.”

“Maybe mobility should mean closer proximity, as opposed to even trying to figure out how to move people over ever larger distances.” Yet, he notes, “Intensification is still a dirty word in most cities, including Ottawa.”

“Some cities are really good about discussing it in public, others a little bit less so. Here in Ottawa there has to be a lot more discussion.” Dark says. “But there’s an interesting and remarkable sense of place here. So I have lots of hope.”

George Dark
Partner, Urban Strategies
Head, Ottawa’s Downtown Urban Design Strategy George Dark began practice as a landscape architect in the late 1970s and is today one of Canada’s most visible landscape architects and urban designers. He has worked throughout North America and the Caribbean, focusing over the past 15 years on the quality of urban environments. George is a fellow of both the Canadian and American Societies of Landscape Architects, one of only twenty people to have held joint fellowships since 1889.

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