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The future is urban

Researchers at the Institute for Urban Futures take a multifaceted approach to studying the complex world of cities.
April 30, 2018
By Damon van der Linde

Many actors play a role in the evolution of cities — yet each brings a distinct view.

An artist can look at a public square through a different lens than an urban planner. A community activist might not view a neighbourhood from the same perspective as a property developer.

Given this reality, there are few platforms for interdisciplinary collaboration where individuals can bring a unique interpretation of space, purpose and vision to a shared future.

Concordia’s Institute for Urban Futures (IUF) was created to do just that — explore the connections between often separated fields such as urban planning, theatre and health. The institute unites professors, students and researchers from the university’s four faculties and also brings into the conversation property developers, policymakers, activists and community members. It’s also part of Concordia’s Smart Cities hub (see the sidebar).

The future is urban

If this appears to be a complex endeavour, it is intentional. “That complexity is necessary to effectively engage the city,” says Paul Holmquist, the institute’s project manager. “The mandate of the IUF is broad enough that it could cover many areas, but at the same time it never exhausts itself.”

This work takes place both in the classroom and in communities themselves — to support and promote adaptive techniques for urban living, artistic activist practice and approaches to social engagement.

Many of the institute’s activities po- sition cities not as isolated entities but as part of a global ecosystem. For the rest of 2018, for example, the institute will host a political party in residence from Denmark. Led by Uffe Elbaek, the Alternative is focused on creating a new political culture focused on sustainability and participatory democracy. The year-long residency — entitled “Making Art. Making Politics.” — will bring together members of the municipal government with students, faculty and the greater Concordia community.

“What is exciting about the IUF is the capacity it has as a research- and project-driven hub to host and connect a diverse range of urban actors and interests,” said Shauna Janssen, BFA 94, MA 09, PhD 14, who was appointed the Institute for Urban Futures’ director in January 2018. She is also an assistant professor in the departments of Theatre in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Geography, Planning and Environment in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Shauna Janssen, BFA 94, MA 09, PhD 14 Shauna Janssen was named director of the institute for urban futures in January 2018

“What has been set in motion is extraordinary and I am looking forward to building on the IUF’s strengths and activities,” she says.

In contrast to most university research institutes, the Institute for Urban Futures grew out of a consultative process. The Faculty of Fine Arts, in developing its direction for the coming years, looked for opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. The faculty put forth a number of “strategic speculations” and consulted with more than 50 people across departments at Concordia, as well as students and alumni.

“One very strong thread that connected many ideas was the urban,” says Rebecca Duclos, dean of Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts and professor in the Department of Art History.

What emerged from these findings was an institute that could link research platforms and innovation at the university to communities and individuals who will be using these new systems.

“The IUF is a seedbed for people to come together and grow research proj- ects, courses, activist practices and embedded initiatives,” says Duclos. She sees the institute — which launched in 2015 — as an arena for the meeting of research, teaching, storytelling, activism, collaboration and speculation. The institute highlights the university’s growing research profile in the area of cities.

“The strength of the IUF rests in its capacity to enable interdisciplinary, multifaceted approaches to researching the city, blending art, politics, planning and the science behind renewable energy sources,” says André Roy, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.

The following is a sample of the various research projects, courses and initiatives that fall under the institute’s umbrella.

Speed dating with history

Steven High Steven High, professor of history, is one of four faculty involved in the neighbourhood-based course Right to the City, which brings together art history, art education, history and theatre.

To help students understand how a city’s history is created by both the built environment and the people who live there, Steven High, professor in the Department of History, takes his classes into the heart of Montreal neighbourhoods.

Right to the City began in 2012 as a teaching initiative through the collaboration of Concordia professors from four disciplines: Cynthia Hammond, MA 96, PhD 03, in art history; Kathleen Vaughan, MFA 98, in art education; Ted Little in theatre; and Steven High in history. Using dozens of interviews recorded with residents of Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood — one of the most economically disadvantaged in Montreal — High and his colleagues designed a class exercise called “speed dating with history.”

Students would be assigned to watch an interview with one of these people and internalize their story. “Students were able to become experts in someone’s life story in order to see the neighbourhood through another person’s eyes, and that was really powerful,” says High. Each student would then introduce him- or herself to the rest of the class, taking on the persona of the interviewee. High says this is a powerful tool in thinking about how to represent another person and engage with the neighbourhood where they live.

“When you actually have to perform as someone, you’re so aware of all the issues of appropriation. Maybe this person is a different race, class, gender, and this is what we wanted the students to think about,” says High. “We’re making assumptions about people’s lives all the time anyway, but we’re not thinking enough about it.”

More recently, Right to the City held a course about the Little Burgundy neighbourhood, the historical centre of Montreal’s English-speaking Black community. The Negro Community Centre was the hub of this neighbourhood for many years until it closed in 1992, and the building was abandoned soon after. A few years later, Concordia and members of the Negro Community Centre salvaged more than 100 boxes of historical material from the site, placing them in storage at the university.

In 2016, these materials were given to Concordia Library Special Collections branch. With the assistance of archivist Alexandra Mills, BFA 08, MA 10, High’s students spent a term delving into these boxes to create research-creation projects from the material, which returned these stories to the community. The course culminated in an event that brought out more than 200 people to the Universal Negro Improvement Association Hall in Little Burgundy. At the event, those who grew up with the Negro Community Centre shared treasured memories, while students shared what they had learned from the archives.

“Students learn not just how to engage with the community but are also becoming accountable because they’re going public with their research. We’re aware that the community is part of the audience,” says High. “Right to the City is about engaging with our changing city from the bottom up and making students central to that by reducing the division between teaching and research.”

High says Right to the City has been a natural fit with the Institute for Urban Futures and has received funding to continue this work. “The institute is in its early days. It’s a sign of this larger commitment to think about the changing city not only in terms of a critique but also how it might influence its future development,” he says.

Buildings for people before profit

Natalie Voland Natalie Voland, president of the Quo Vadis property management company in Montreal, helped support the urban futures: developing conscientious competition proposals course competition.

On the surface, social work and real estate have little in common. Yet when social worker Natalie Voland stepped up to run the family real-estate development business after her father became ill, she found there was a deep and natural connection.

“If you start integrating humans into buildings, you realize that buildings should serve people as opposed to serving profit,” says Voland, president of the Quo Vadis property management company in Montreal. She discovered that building beautiful environments where people will live, work and play better doesn’t preclude turning a profit.

When it comes to creating mixed-use developments that combine residential and commercial space, Voland says the concept often won’t work without considering how people use the space. For example, someone living in the building might use the development’s public space to spend time with family in the evenings and on weekends, while an office worker might only be there to eat lunch during the day. Voland admits designing an ideal space for everyone can be a challenge.

“Art can be the connector piece between people,” she says. “Art is a common language. It’s a language of how things make you feel.”

When Quo Vadis began planning a 27,000-square-metre, mixed-use redevelopment project in Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood, the company launched a public art competition in collaboration with the Institute for Urban Futures and the Faculty of Fine Arts. The building project, called Legado, is guided by sustainable socio-cultural, economic and environmental principles.

What makes the Legado art project stand out is that it flips the usual development process on its head by creating the public art before the actual buildings have been designed.

“Usually art is something you would bring in at the end to decorate and make it prettier,” says Voland. “We’re using the context of public art to set the stage and create the dialogue between the buildings’ uses so it makes more sense.” The competition called for proposals to create public art that brings people together in a world that is often disconnected.

To further the collaboration between students and real urban development projects like this, Concordia held an intensive for-credit course called Urban Futures: Developing Conscientious Competition Proposals in summer 2017. The course was open to senior undergraduate and graduate students from all faculties looking to learn about the aspects involved in putting together a proposal to access funding.

The course was taught by Mouna Andraos, BA 00, part-time faculty member in the Department of Design and Computation Arts, and Melissa Mongiat, who, with Andraos, co-founded the Daily tous les jours design studio. The course brought in professors from different faculties to teach everything from conceptualization, project parameters, local material sourcing and strategies for partnering with technical experts, to the value and use of storytelling when entering design competitions.

“These fields are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary,” says Andraos. “Public art is becoming something that is no longer reserved to visual artists proposing sculptures for public spaces, but can become part of a conversation about how we live in cities together.”

In March 2018, students Annabelle Daoust and Fany Rodrigue won the competition, worth $5,000, for their artwork Misty Valley. Although the summer course was not a requirement for entering the competition, Voland sees it as an example of Concordia’s dedication to preparing students for success beyond their studies.

“It’s great to learn the theory, but when you graduate from Concordia, you hit the ground running,” she says. “Concordia gives so many experiences to students that they can start to work right away. I find that very different than other schools and think it’s more valuable today than ever before.”

Mobile phones as learning tools

Juan Carlos Castro Juan Carlos Castro, associate professor of art education, researches how smart devices can help engage students and let them understand themselves, their peers and their communities better.

Nearly 73 per cent of teens have access to a smartphone — often seen by parents, teachers and principals as a distraction in high school classrooms. Concordia’s Juan Carlos Castro, associate professor in the Department of Art Education, is exploring how the devices can be applied to engage students in their education as well as used for tools to better understand themselves, their peers and their communities.

His research project MonCoin investigates how to teach and learn using smartphones, tablets and social media in the visual arts classroom. In 2012, Castro and other researchers began designing and testing a curriculum in collaboration with secondary school art educators and more than 300 high school students in four French- and English-language programs during or after school.

“The participants are able to learn through each other in ways that are not readily available in traditional classrooms,” says Castro. 

The MonCoin researchers are still analyzing the project’s full impact. Yet Castro already sees a growing trend of resources being dedicated to exploring how technology can be incorporated into the learning process, instead of asking students to turn off their phones in class. “It points to understanding the importance of the social nature of learning and how educators need to keep this in mind,” he says. “Learning involves classroom management, understanding complex topics and remembering that learning is not an individual endeavour, it’s a collective endeavour.”

Urban futurists in residence

The Urban Futurist in Residence program, launched in 2016, provides professionals a space at Concordia to explore ideas about the city in depth and develop project collaborations, symposiums and partnerships that support those working for positive change in their communities and the natural environment.

The inaugural Futurists in Residence were members of Entremise, a non-profit startup dedicated to facilitating the temporary use of vacant buildings in Montreal while fostering urban regeneration, social and economic responsibility, radical inclusivity and living heritage.

Dawn Danby and David McConville began their residency in October 2017. They are the co-founders of Spherical, an Oakland, Calif.-based studio that provides integrative research and design strategies for government and corporate clients. At the IUF, their research goal is to look at how technology can be used to look beyond individual environmental concerns such as carbon emissions, water quality and land use, to examine the entire urban ecosystem.

“The opportunity at Concordia is to think about cities and their relationships to the world,” says Danby, who began her career as an industrial designer focused on ecology and spent a decade leading sustainable design initiatives at Autodesk, a multinational software company.

Danby and McConville also explore how cities can be sustainable as well as designed to actually regenerate the health and integrity of Earth’s living systems. “We can’t only stop extracting, we need to play a role in exercising the extraordinary agency that we have to regenerate these ecosystems,” says McConville, who co-chairs the Buckminster Fuller Institute in San Francisco, which aims to solve global problems through design, and was the director of Integrative Arts at Montreal’s Société des Arts Technologiques.

“Regenerative process is about the co-evolutionary partnership that we have with the planet. It’s about designing and catalyzing mutually beneficial relationships and transformations.”

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