​Montreal subway cars get new life and revitalize public space

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*Lead image from the Société de transport de Montréal: stm.info

Crafty placemaking with Brussels-based Urban Foxes

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This is second in our Placemaker Profile series. Read Part 1, an interview with Victoria Dickenson, here.

We first heard of Urban Foxes, a Brussels-based collective, when one of its founders reached out to us, sharing their “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” project. We found this to be an unassuming yet impactful approach to bringing people together around a common space that was previously underused. After doing further investigations, we learned that we share a name with Urban Foxes’ placemaking labs, as well as common interests in playful and participatory approaches to animating urban spaces. Two elements struck us: 1) a method of placemaking that is rooted in understanding a community’s assets and needs, and 2) an attention to inclusion, especially in the face of re/development that often puts private interests first. Keen to learn more about their background, approach, and on-the-ground projects, we asked Urban Foxes member Bram DeWolfs to answer a few questions.

All photos are courtesy of Urban Foxes.


  1. Can you describe Urban Foxes' approach to placemaking?

As a fairly young collective with no structural funding nor employees, we have chosen to focus on relatively smaller actions in our city, Brussels. Most of the time we target enhancing urban wellbeing by using creative and playful interventions. We don’t differentiate between age groups or cultures. Everybody can play or participate, and we always make sure that activities are free of charge. When it’s more than a [small] intervention, e.g. like Canal Park BXL where we crowdfunded a small part of an urban wasteland (thanks to that pressure, now a large park of four hectares is being “installed” by the government), we aim to involve all stakeholders. We also organize annual placemaking city labs called “Cities for People”, funded by the Erasmus+ program, where 30 participants from all over Europe are immersed for eight days in the world of placemaking. During this time, participants visit places showing good practices, analyze public spaces, communicate with locals, take part in theoretical and practical workshops and in the end come up with their own ways to improve urban wellbeing.

For our last project “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” we involved locals, restaurant owners, the local youth theatre, the three youth centers and a retirement home from a few blocks away. We tried to facilitate the process of starting up a common project, of which every stakeholder would be a part and where ideas could be proposed.

  1. How is placemaking around water different than on land? What are the benefits and obstacles to transforming water-scapes rather than landscapes?

At times with nice weather, the basins of the old harbour attract people looking for tranquility and relaxation. We wanted to preserve this sensation but we believed we could get more out of the unused space, which is approximately 3000 square meters, on the water. The water brings a natural feeling of poetry and triggers feelings and memories linked to the sea and water. It gives us something to look at, like the glistering and the movement of the water, but also the people around it. The obstacle of the water is that you cannot bring the people on that exact spot, like you would do on an empty market place or old parking lot, but you need to gather them around the water. But we used this disadvantage to our advantage. In order to facilitate encounter around the water, we opted for sailing boats that are controlled by the wind instead of radio-controlled. The wind took the boats across the water, which encouraged people to walk around, interact, and play, asking each other to “send” the boat back. Remote-controlled boats might have kept the people in their own private world, as happens a lot in our smartphone age.


  1. With your Saint-Cath-Sur-Mer project, you refer to "Transforming the Fish Market into a place of wonder, playfulness and encounter." How did you go from their vision to a concrete action plan?

After the terrorist attacks and with the increasing acts of urban neoliberalism by the municipality, the people of Brussels needed playfulness and poetry more than ever. We had a vision of people of different social classes and origins would come together around the water. We wanted to facilitate encounters regardless of age or background. By winning the local competition make.brussels, an open-call to improve the image of Brussels and the wellbeing of their inhabitants, we won the necessary funds to buy the miniature sailing boats, construct the bike trailer and compensate the “vulnerable” youngsters that helped us with logistics (e.g. distributing the boats, maintenance, transporting the trailer, etc). We created a financial plan, a communication strategy, and a participatory process involving residents, local schools, youth centers, local businesses, neighbourhood committees and a retirement home. We bundled the ideas and concerns and came up with an action plan with ideas and proposals. After this process we launched the opening event were we invited all the stakeholders, and where everybody could enjoy the boats, a drink, and a jazz concert. We wanted a mobile and minimal intervention respecting the surroundings and [neighbourhood] identity, and involve all the stakeholders.

  1. The photos of your public space animations clearly show the potential of play to activate and encourage gathering around a public space. What other forms of play would you like to see in public spaces?

It is our dream that there would be an abundance of playing/sporting possibilities for all ages in the Brussels. One important thing that is missing in our municipality is a (soft) running track, but we would also love to see more public benches, parks, playgrounds, pétanque lanes, permanent ping-pong tables (on the newly pedestrianized Anspach boulevard, reclaimed by disobedient interventions of Picnic The Street, from which Urban Foxes sprouted) and of course fewer cars so we are able to breathe clean air.


  1. You mention the importance of free programming in public space (for example, providing residents with small sailboats, free of charge). What tensions do you perceive around financial access to public space (e.g. patios that are only available to paying patrons), and how do you see you work addressing these exclusions?

Currently we are dealing with local policy makers who focus on attracting tourists and increasing consumption by allowing restaurant holders to expand their patios, thereby sacrificing public space and benches. Several protests have been held, with some success, to reclaim the public space that was temporarily lost. We think it’s crucial that the City act as a smart and ethical buffer between the private sector and the city [as public space]. [We need to] keep in mind that the city should be for everyone, not only for those who consume. This is why that we will stay vigilant for matters dealing with public space and we will continue to strive for activities that are free of charge and thereby aiming at inclusiveness (like our mobile pétanque, mobile cinema/fablab). We believe that a city that is good for its people is good enough for tourists as well.

Placemaker profile: Victoria Dickenson

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This is the first in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we've had with leaders in Canadian cities - from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities that make up our cities. For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Victoria Dickenson: City Conversations (from the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, BC, September 2016)

As part of a panel discussion on understanding and designing cities on a human scale at the Placemaking Leadership Forum, Victoria Dickenson shared her work organizing and facilitating in-depth, cross-Canada ‘City Conversations’. These semi-structured conversations surfaced city-dwellers’ values, hopes, and concerns about the place in which they spend time, from smaller, coastal communities like St. John’s, Newfoundland, to bustling cities like Toronto, Ontario which along with opportunities come a host of challenges, namely economic and social inequalities. 

We had the chance to chat with Victoria after her session about her learnings when it comes to seeking out, listening to, and sharing diverse perspectives about cities.

One of the aspects of placemaking that came up in your overview of the City Conversations you hosted was hearing about people’s immediate, visceral reactions to place. What are some of the strategies you use to surface those personal meanings and connections [that may not be heard or given undue attention in public consultations) so that they can be made more widely known? 

VD: [In my work as a curator] I was originally working in a museum in a beautiful, wooded site. When people came they would say: “This place is so beautiful; it feels so good!”. One day I had some Anishinaabe elders from Winnipeg visiting and I asked them: “What do you think about this place?”. They said: “There’s a real sense here that you’re on territory”. And it really struck me that we don’t spend half enough time exploring what it means to feel good in place. I went and looked at the literature, and  almost all of the authors - the geographers, the anthropologists, the historians, the architects - they all said that [feeling good in place] is indefinable, we don’t know how to describe it - but we feel it.

It’s the whole issue of respecting feelings. In Montreal, the conversations [touched on] when you’re talking about place, it’s not just a photograph - it’s a sensory experience...you can feel it in your body. So to get at that - what are these places - you have to listen to people tell you about the places that are important to them.

What might this process of surfacing these personal meanings and attachments to place look like?

First, they identify places...then you pull back and ask: Why this place? What is about it about this place...Is it a memory? Is it because you grew up there? In what way is it important to you personally?...Do you feel the significance of geological features [like two tectonic plates coming together]? Yi-fu Tuan, a humanistic geographer, talks about how the Grand Tetons of landscape don’t need interpretation...but other sites need to be [brought to the surface]. In literature or in the way that artists work, you find that they identify significant places...there’s a Newfoundland photographer, Ned Pratt, who takes photographs that make place happen in the spots he takes them in..


Photo of the Grand Tetons from www.popphoto.com


Portrait by Ned Pratt, www.nedpratt.com/portraiture


Proposed M T L iconography atop Mount Royal in the heart of the city - a form of placemaking for the texting generation? Photo: www.montrealgazette.com

Listening to people’s memories of what makes a place significant, understanding traditional communities and why they are where they are...many communities are resistant to giving up their sense of place. They say: “No you can’t change this - we want it to stay the same”. Well, why? We need to get at that Looking at how artists communicate place - whether it’s visual artists, authors, poets, songwriters - they identify places that are significant. Stan Rogers, a folksinger and songwriter in Atlantic Canada, sang about bays and harbours, the small places along the coast, and influenced a whole generation of Maritimers to celebrate their place.

You have to listen and look at how people have used literature, art, and [other means of creative communication] and their lived experience in place to identify those significant places. I think one of the questions, now that we’re such a globalized society, is: do we all recognize the same place? Do we have to [agree on significant places]? And what’s the role of place - if certain places have power, which is what Aboriginal people [might say], when we’re all together in that place, does it inform who we are as a people? Does the narrative come from the ground?

From a land-use planning perspective, I don’t think these personal explorations of place are taken enough into consideration, or even considered at all.

If you don’t think of place when you start a [planning process], and you only see the ground as either commercial value or a groundscape - and you don’t ask “What are the characteristics of this place?” before thinking about [how you might intervene]...the meanings are lost. That’s one of the goals of these [City Conversations]: to get place as a category of analysis.


Dr. Victoria Dickenson is an independent scholar and museum consultant. Her experience in museums - very special places - and her interest in cultural landscapes, have led her to develop the Conversations about Place project. She lives in, and has written about, Montreal, a city whose peculiar geography ensures that the past is always present; in summer, she lives in Newfoundland, where people belong to the place, not the other way round. She presented highlights from conversations held in St. John's, Montreal, and Toronto in a breakout session on The Human Scale at the Placemaking Leadership Forum. In the new year, she will host conversations in Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Ottawa.

Students bring their talents and skills to community projects through Vancouver’s LEDlab

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Cities for People + getting to collective impact

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Read the original article, Ten Key Ingredients for Collective Impact: Powering Town Halls for Societal Change, by Indy Johar, Imandeep Kaur, and Orestes Chouchoulas on Dark Matter Laboratories.

One of the goals set out by the Cities for People initiative during its inception over three years ago was to shake up the ways in which we work in cities. How? By approaching big issues from a thematic, collaborative, multi-sectoral angle, rather than on a project-by-project (setting out objectives and following a linear timeline to tackle one facet at a time) basis. The ‘experiment’ laid out in the first phase of Cities for People, which wrapped up in summer 2015, was to see how taking a thematic approach would enable us to identify ways to scale up, out, and deep – on the kind of ‘wicked problems’ cities are faced with, from inequality to housing to public spaces. Underpinning this effort was the belief that lasting change comes from individuals and organizations, often in different sectors (public, private, nonprofit), working deeply together to drawing out commonalities and symbioses that lead to breakthrough moments. This concept is easy to agree upon, but can be difficult to put into practice: how do we actually work in this way to transcend traditional partnerships that quickly become removed from the problem with which they’re trying to address? This article lays out ten essential pieces of the collective impact puzzle necessary to develop a practice of deep collaboration.



Apollo 10 Mission Control. Photo by NASA.

The energy behind collective action (referred to variably as Collective Impact, Collective Innovation, and Collective Change) is fundamentally rooted in the understanding that meaningful change is increasingly not in the hands of any single organisation. No single actor is able to bring about structural impact in terms of addressing life outcomes, health outcomes, alleviating poverty, or even creating new connected products and services. Whether seen from an interventional perspective or a political and organisational legitimacy perspective, the complex interdependencies at the heart of our largest challenges are not addressable by agents acting in isolation. It is increasingly recognised that impact at these scales requires us to build open, large, diverse, multi-sector coalitions committed to a shared mission, common accountability, allied political intent (small “p” politics), and change at a systems level. These open movements seek to work beyond individual agendas, missions, and activity to leverage our collective capacity for organised and coordinated agency but also to manage and moderate the “unintended aggregative consequences” of our siloed individual decisions.

When many citizens and organisations band together in pursuit of common objectives they generate new kinds of power, agency, and innovation.

Some see Collective Impact as nothing new — just partnerships rebadged and rebranded. We would argue that this misses the point. Collective Impact is not about partnerships between a handful of key institutions sitting in a closed board room but rather about a new architecture for movements of citizens and organisations numbering in the hundreds. Collective Impact is a fundamentally different social scaling theory that changes everything. Collective impact represents a different politics of change that transcends partnerships between a sample of stakeholders and looks to all-embracing movements.

Therefore, inevitably Collective Impact requires new models of planning, organising, and financing. While we continue to invent them, we have identified a few key ingredients:

1. An authentic invitation to a shared challenge

The core momentum behind mobilisation en masse comes from a genuine and authentic invitation to address a shared challenge that many of us face consistently. There is beauty and great potential in the energy generated by individually motivated participants joining forces.

2. A love for the outcome, not the attribution

The people this authentic invitation attracts are most often interested in the outcomes, the mission, and the higher purpose. They care less about being recognised for their individual contribution and measure their own success by the collective progress . Attaining the shared goal trumps any thought of individual status.

3. Open whiteboarding, open planning

The words “collaboration”, “co-design”, co-anything are too often thrown around these days. But truly unlocking the potential of collective wisdom starts with openly planning and whiteboarding the challenge. Asking people to share their thoughts and insights and collaboratively testing, prototyping, and learning engages participants with the process, giving them a sense of ownership, responsibility, and authorship of the shared narrative.

4. Invest in collective capacity and shared learning

Abundance is a core value for Collective Impact. Whether it is being generous with your time or contacts, growing the collective capability, or even imagining the possible requires an abundance mindset. That means understanding that ideas, agency, and impact grow richer and deeper the more widely they are shared. This moves beyond the idea of a sharing economy and towards an economy of collective abundance empowering moonshots — an economy where the more each gives the more we all have.

5. Many-to-many accountability

Accountability is too often thought of as a checking process, betraying an underlying power hierarchy tasked with ensuring that things progress as planned. A many-to-many model reframes accountability into a relational, reputational, and educational process. It retains the structure of a movement for change whilst adding the capacity to learn from the collective strategic agency and peer-to-peer interventions.

6. Mission goals

Shared goals are essential for social change. Collective Impact calls for measurable (even if by proxy) shared goals—be it the well-being of citizens, educational attainment, local economic multipliers, or the long-term GDP growth of the city.

Mission goals create the accountability framework for multiple organisations and institutions, allowing them to respect, align, collaborate, and hold each other mutually responsible. In addition, they provide the extrinsic framework to align internal metrics and incentives and to consciously organise supply chains to act as collective impact multipliers.

In order to be effective and structural shared goals in a data-driven age must be open, machine-readable, measurable, institutionally hardwired (embedded into the Articles of Incorporation), and socially and reputationally networked (part of an annual citizen reporting cycle).

7. “Brand” the mission, not your organisation

In a Collective Impact mindset the brand for the movement is not attached to the organisation but the shared mission. It is a #hashtag, not an @attribution. It is an open framework for enquiry, conversation, and contribution — not an asset.

8. Open data

Uniting multiple actors under the banner of a common mission removes the incentives to protect and conceal proprietary information. Collective Impact benefits from a shared data landscape, where all actors offer their collected data and intellectual property openly to the commons. This kind of data freedom upgrades the value of everyone’s metrics and predictive models, helping prevent the “unintended aggregative consequences” of dissociated activity. An open data landscape, interpreted with the help of emerging artificial intelligence techniques, can provide the evidence base for collective action.

9. New models of financing

Collective Impact also requires third generation Impact Investment models which build upon the ideas explored by Social Impact Bonds. They allow investing in the preventative economy whilst recognising the structural need to connect multi-actor efforts and steer collective investments for social change into collaborative efforts led by outcome-driven strategies.

These third generation investment models recognise that there are no silver bullet solutions for sustainable impact and therefore go beyond startup and intervention financing.

This new generation of impact investment recognises that the most challenging social issues (like poverty, social exclusion, inequality in health outcomes) and global challenges (such as ageing, climate change, welfare systems sustainability) are systemically interdependent. This class of “wicked challenges” cannot be addressed in isolation or by selecting single points of intervention. There is no single intervention or investment that can effectively address these complex and social issues. In response, the new financing models must drive synthetic value creation.

For instance, if we want to increase educational attainment, the question is not simply one of whether more funding should be allocated to public or to private schools. It is necessary to simultaneously work in multiple domains affecting education in the area.These might include investing in prenatal nutrition, establishing breakfast clubs, setting up reading clubs to mentor pupils, mums’ associations to support young mothers, youth circles to provide peer support, and developing new technology to facilitate communication between parents and teachers.

Or take healthy ageing in a neighbourhood. Rather than focusing on the quality of nursing homes or starting a “befriending service” to reduce loneliness, healthy ageing may depend on creating opportunities for intergenerational contact in schools and in the public realm; on reducing fear of falling through early morning snow clearing; on a support network to assist older people with household chores, repairs, and navigating the digital age; on new forms of collective housing or skills-sharing programmes; and on maintaining and reinventing affordable social gathering places like libraries and cafés.

Importantly, this also means that change can no longer be the responsibility or within the remit of a single actor, organisation, institution, or enterprise. In the example of ageing, the involvement of the snow-clearing company (whether public or private) is as important as that of the residential developer. Involving networks of energetic creative young people is as vital as involving schools.

This type of investment is can be thought of as funding movements for change. Another way to think of them is as structuring Impact Derivatives — contracts based on the performance of investment contracts — working together and virtuously for Collective Impact. Allied movements of actors on both the supply and demand side of innovation are required to address these sticky challenges.

10. New organisational infrastructures

While it is sexy to focus on the human part of the Collective Impact story (the relationship building, the love, the empathy, the collaboration) we need to recognise that Collective Impact is really an organisational theory. It is a platform for empowering hundreds of actors with a shared mission, powered by the near-zero marginal cost of digital administration. This needs us to fundamentally reimagine contracts, embracing smart contracting for its ability to openly and asynchronously enable agreements for massively multi-actor movements. Open contracting driven by realtime data can achieve this in a viable way, without introducing unmanageable overheads.

While we continue our work in these fields we would like to invite you to participate in what is an urgent and necessary mission: to reimagine, build, and test the new institutional infrastructures to empower Collective Impact.

Written by Indy Johar, Imandeep Kaur, and Orestes Chouchoulas.


Digital technology as one pathway to social inclusion in placemaking

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As part of the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, we had the opportunity to attend several breakout sessions on approaches to placemaking. One session that has stood out so far centred on Digital Placemaking - defined in the program as learning how to build in and wisely use technology in authentic ways that reinforce the place-based and community-centered approaches inherent to placemaking.

Moderator: Daniel Latorre, PPS, Digital Placemaking Institute (New York, NY)

Panelists: Cath Carver, Colour Your City (London, UK); Glenn Harding, UrbanScreens (Melbourne, Australia); Karen Quinn Fung, Vancouver Public Space Network (Vancouver, BC); Teeko Yang, Northern Spark (Minneapolis, MN); Yuri Aritbase, Strong Towns (Vancouver, BC)

While integrating digital technologies into our practices of placemaking was the focus of the discussion, themes like bridging online and place-based communities; thinking holistically about the environmental impacts of digital technologies; and the issue of who gets to tell and receive stories through digital technologies, brought up questions about how we can thoughtfully refine our concept of placemaking as new tools and technologies inform our practice.

In this blogpost, we summarize and reflect on three of the five excellent speakers whose work was thematically linked through explorations of the tension/synergy between the physical and digital communities that comprise placemaking.


It was wonderful to hear from a Vancouverite, Karen Quinn Fung, who has experience working deeply in Vancouver's neighbourhoods through the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) and other groups. The VPSN is a citizen-led grassroots organization working in many facets of urban life in Vancouver, from open space design to ownership of and access to place - hugely important issues especially in cities with income inequality and the accompanying social and economic exclusion from place. They also work to bring to light the social use of public spaces - in fact, they were one of the organizers of this week's Placemaking Leadership Forum, putting together a fantastic #POPCrawl (Power of Place Crawl) to encourage participants to discover some of downtown Vancouver's underappreciated public spaces.

Karen raised thought-provoking questions around the ways in which we use digital tools and technologies to augment public participation, and the need to be conscious of different populations' comfort and trust of these technologies, especially with concerns about ownership of data. This was timely given all the praise and critiques of Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game designed for mobile phones, and how it enhances or detracts from our experiences in public space. Karen also addressed an important question about the environmental impact of the manufacturing, use, and disposal of digital technologies. As a placemaker, she aligns with a "fixer" (rather than strictly "maker") state of mind, which involves a cultural shift towards understanding how things work and fixing/adapting/improving them; in other words, a shift away from planned obsolescence (something that moderator Dan Latorre also honed in on).


Image from the Vancouver Public Space Network

Cath Carver presented a unique approach to expressing values and personal connections to place through colour. Why colour as a means of participating in placemaking? According to Colour Your City, "Colour impacts everything we do. It is a very powerful tool of language, expression, communication and connection. Everyone 'gets' colour, making it an accessible and potent tool." The idea that colour is something everyone can relate to and thus can use to ascribe meanings, values, and aspirations onto public spaces resonated with us, especially in light of concerns about "non-places" - places that are difficult to connect with due to their absence of rootedness in a particular community.

Cath's presentation brought about a few questions for us: How can we, as placemakers, use colour as an entry point to engage individuals to shape public space, particularly those whom 'traditional' public engagement does not reach? Who communicates the stories that inform public space design? How can we broaden the methods by which those stories are communicated so that more can be heard and thus included in the design and programming of spaces?


Image from Colour Your City

Teeko Yang's work on the Minneapolis-St Paul based Northern Lights, a  a nonprofit arts organization working to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space, touched upon these questions as well. One of their main initiatives is Northern Spark, a "free, annual, dusk-to-dawn, multidisciplinary arts festival that takes place on the second Saturday of June in the Twin Cities and draws tens of thousands of Minnesotans each year". Like colour, light projections have a wonderful capacity to reach everyone who passes through or stops to dwell in a public space. Teeko explained that one of their core principles is not leaving anyone behind, which is a serious concern, especially in communities comprised of diverse migrant populations. Hearing Teeko's emphasis on not taking places away from people to make them more appealing to others was an important reminder as we increasingly work creatively to fuse the digital with the physical in the dynamic process of placemaking.


Image from Twin Cities / Northern Lights

From all these thoughts, ideas, and questions, we can conclude that digital placemaking must begin from listening to how people understand and use a particular place, then humanizing technology to enable these multiple feelings, stories, and connections to be surfaced and communicated. This begins with acknowledging basic human instincts and desires, like curiosity, status, and search for meaning. Often for people to feel belonging in a spaces, those spaces must provoke an interest in newness in tandem with satisfying our intrinsic need for rootedness/connection/comfort. Our understanding from this rich session is that digital placemaking is a process that can either increase inclusion in placemaking, or push people away from places to which they no longer feel connection. We hope these open-ended conversations around the evolution of placemaking will continue.

Laneway Futures

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This isn't the first time we have written about laneways (see our previous stories on le Parc Oxygène in Montréal and the Laneway Summit in Toronto); they are the sites of an emerging kind of urbanism - one in which communities work together to implement on-the-ground projects that bring to light possibilities for underused or underappreciated sites. This "brainstorm, implement, share, test, and refine" model could fit under the "Lighter-Quicker-Cheaper" approach to placemaking developed and popularized by New York's Project for Public Spaces.

Last month, the Toronto-based The Laneway Project opened up one such project to the wider community by inviting residents to the Danforth East Laneway Crawl: a prototype showcasing myriad possibilities for laneway activation in the Danforth-Woodbine neighbourhood in Toronto.


The Laneway Project and local partners the Danforth East Community Association invited passersby to "Help imagine a future for your laneway and similar laneways across Toronto!" by experiencing a range of multi-media installations and interactive activities that demonstrated a different vision of the types of compatible uses in laneways - spaces which are often relegated to afterthoughts. This forgetting of or lack of care about spaces has resulted in a situation in which communities are not deriving benefit from laneway, which could act as secondary transportation corridors, meeting spots, places to access services, to play, to experiment with gardening, to create...


(Imagine this laneway as a destination for...)


During the Danforth East Laneway Crawl, residents, businesses, and community groups of all stripes were invited to contribute to animating the laneway, from simple actions - like opening their garage doors - to more involved participation, like setting up a food or drink stall, sharing a project they were working on, or painting a mural.


On August 28th, the laneway was full of colours, sounds, kids playing ball hockey, locals strumming guitars, artists working together to paint murals - all of which contributed to a feeling of liveliness and of care.


A highlight of Laneway Futures was the incredible (and quick!) injection of art into what was a fairly typical Toronto laneway, dominated by the greys and beiges of ashphalt, fences, and faceless backs of buildings fronting busy Danforth Ave.


This laneway animation also brought up questions about how laneways could better serve the communities surrounded them by offering alternative sites to fulfill daily needs. What if you could speak to a doctor outside of what could be perceived as an imposing institution of a medical office or hospital? Or perhaps just leave your bike casually leaning against a fence while you caught up with neighbours in a quiet space?


Want more laneway love? This Sunday is the last of a series of The Laneway Project's 2016 Laneway Crawls Series in Toronto`s Christie Pits Park! Find out more about Christie Crawlfest, happening Sunday, September 25 from 1-6pm.

What is placemaking?

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This article was originally written for the McConnell Foundation blog by Alex Gillis.

Ten years ago, if you walked along sections of the Toronto ravine system that follow the Don Valley, you’d have likely noticed an abandoned, 100-year-old brickworks, surrounded by an expanse of tangled brush and marshland. Today, thanks to the creative vision of the Evergreen Foundation, the support of three levels of government, and a host of public and private donors,  this long-neglected 40 acres has been transformed into a thriving community asset, replete with yes, brush and marshland, but also children’s gardens, hiking trails, a brick works transformed into gallery and conference space, a farmers’ market, outdoor classrooms, a LEED platinum-certified office complex, workshops, and a restaurant. Evergreen Brick Works is today a global showcase for ‘placemaking.’

With Vancouver hosting Placemaking Week, September 12 to 17, and numerous other activities and projects underway, the placemaking movement has never been more prominent in Canada.

Tiffany Commons

“Brick Works is a living laboratory now, an example of a large-scale public space that re-connects people to a civic asset that was underutilized,” says Robert Plitt, executive director of Evergreen’s CityWorks. Plitt has been involved in placemaking initiatives with Evergreen and Artscape for about 20 years, and helped to create Evergreen Brick Works along with hundreds of others who worked to realize a vision that made this place beautiful, useful and meaningful.

‘Placemaking begins with citizens working together to improve their local environment. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. This inclusive process emphasizes the collaborative ‘making’ that builds local capacity and leadership to empower communities.’
– Co*Lab and Project for Public Spaces

Placemaking is about reimagining and repurposing buildings and spaces whose original purpose has become redundant or obsolete. The term was coined about 40 years ago by Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS),  a New York-based nonprofit organization. Now it is coming into vogue in cities across the US and around the world. ‘Placemaking’ sounds elementary, but the making part involves high levels of civic engagement and social innovation, and the places themselves generate surprise and delight.

Placemaking is about public spaces. “It can be privately owned, but the place is accessible to anyone,” says Mary W. Rowe, Senior Fellow with both Evergreen and PPS. She also worked with Jane Jacobs, who wrote the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which helped to create the concept of placemaking. “Part of what you’re seeing today is a broader definition of ‘shared space,’” Rowe explains. “As a city becomes more and more privatized – private housing, private clubs, private commercial activity – there’s a push to claim back aspects of the city that were once shared and publicly owned. You see that along waterfronts, on streets and with institutions that open their doors to the public.”

You also see it in Montreal. In winter, Village au Pied-du-Courant is a site for dumping snow near a six-lane boulevard. For five months in the summer, however, it transforms into a village beach and boardwalk used by 100,000 people for concerts, family events, festivals or simply relaxing, thanks to tons of sand and a contingent of community volunteers.

Public spaces like these encourage healthy, mixed-use, culturally diverse neighbourhoods and can sometimes raise larger issues, changing city policies and budgets along the way. “In these grassroots movements, people actually have the chance to change their alleyways, vacant lots and neighbourhoods, but also to make requests to the city to change big things and urbanism itself,” says Maxim Bragoli, co-founder of Pépinière & Co., which has helped to create Village au Pied-du-Courant and other placemaking initiatives.


At its core, placemaking proposes processes and partnerships that empower communities. As Evergreen’s Plitt puts it, “How do we create equitable, creative partnerships that, in the end, contribute to health and equity and that empower citizens to be involved?”

placemakingA recent report, “Canadian Placemaking: Overview and Action,” by Halifax-based Co*Lab, nails down this idea.  Citizens become more involved in their communities, guiding professionals and municipalities to make sure that places are affordable, equitable and vibrant.

The environment is another critical part of placemaking. Transportation and housing are created to be sustainable – to decrease carbon emissions, to create green spaces, to increase access to bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly spots and anything that makes a place healthy for people and the environment. Sophia Horwitz of Co*Lab  mentions a number of such green placemakers in Nova Scotia: Morris House (a 250 year-old wooden house that was saved from destruction and turned into a community project for youth);  Common Roots Urban Farm (a community garden and park in Halifax);  and a series of annual placemaking projects support by the city and community groups in various neighbourhoods in Halifax.

“We’re seeing placemaking pop up in new venues,” says Mary Rowe of PPS, which is organizing Placemaking Week in Vancouver, September 12-17. “We see it with the re-claiming of streets. Around the world, we’re using our streets in more imaginative ways. And our waterfronts, too. And many large institutions want to transform as well. They want to knock down the walls and be more accessible.”  The convening will focus on Canada’s place in the emerging global map of the future of the placemaking.


Recipients of placemaking grants from The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation include Co*Lab in Halifax; Evergreen Brick Works; Artscape in Vancouver and Toronto; and Pépinière & Co. and Ateliers créatifs in Montreal.

Fostering Consistent Stakeholder Engagement for a Maximum Impact

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Guest blog by Anna Godefroy, Director, Binners Project

Although a relatively new initiative, the Binners’ Project is often praised for its true grassroots nature and strong engagement with the community. Yet maintaining member involvement is a sustained effort for the project staff. This is a very common challenge for many community initiatives.

At its core, the Binners’ Project aims to decrease stigma surrounding binning (also called dumpster diving). Binners and staff work collaboratively to build new income-generating opportunities. We do so by fostering face-to-face interactions between binners, residents, and the community at large, in Vancouver and Montreal.

Initially a One Earth / Cities for People initiative, the Binners’ Project secured a grant in 2015/16 from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation allowing it to test several pilot programs. In only one year, those burgeoned and we saw an influx of interest from binners and from the public.

Despite the success amongst participating binners, one of the biggest challenges we face this year is relying on their steady engagement. Consistent participation and reliability is the greatest source of anxiety for our staff, as the demand from the community and clients increases.

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Our community evaluation, conducted in the Spring 2016, demonstrated that members regularly involved with the Binners’ Project felt a remarkable impact on their overall wellbeing. However, most of our members lack stability in their lives, which prevents them from fully benefiting from our programs. Barriers include, but are not limited to, housing insecurity, addictions, mental health issues, physical disabilities, abuse, gender-related tensions and/or homelessness. These of course are drawbacks to consistent engagement.

Based on our two years of experience organising regular meetings and workshops, we now believe that the emphasis must be on fostering a web of interconnected individuals. Building tight network around and amongst group members is the best strategy to overcome involvement inconsistency.

This can be constructed around two central pillars: meeting recurrence and peer networking. Although it is too early to draw any conclusions, we are seeing encouraging results already.

We find that success in engaging individuals in the middle and longer-term comes down to the recurrence of our meetings. It is a matter of finding the right balance of meeting regularly without overwhelming people (our members are burdened quite literally with the daily struggle to survive, and therefore meetings occupy time that could be spent foraging for the recyclables from which they earn their living). Our experience has shown that regular gatherings translated into increased connection to people’s surroundings, and growth in confidence in their ability to take on new challenges and fulfil commitments.

Pre-set weekly gatherings require heavy staff involvement, but bring stability and structure in lives that often have very little or none. Perhaps even more important is rediscovering the feeling of expectancy, which might be the early sign of what it means to be part of a community.

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Building a peer-network system: Because dumpster-diving on the street is an extremely competitive activity, binners are most often marginalised and disconnected with their own community. Additionally, most binners do not have access to internet, mobile phones, and/or landlines.

To facilitate the process of connecting and staying connected, our group has selected two team-leader binners, whose roles are to work out ways to contact people at street level and help them organise so they can honour their commitment with the Binners’ Project. Often, finding people involves knocking on their door (provided they have one), or walking around Vancouver Downtown Eastside with the hope of crossing paths.

With this peer-network in place, we are finding that team leaders’ roles are going beyond expectations. They informally keep track of the other binners’ housing situation, addiction challenges, and mental health states.

New members look up to their team leaders and are able to approach them with specific questions and concerns. Joining a group is often challenging for new participants who are used to being, and working, on their own. Our programs aim to break isolation, while building on soft skills with the goal of reaching financial independence for binners. Peer-team leaders play an important role in supporting new members passing through the daunting early stages before they are able to reap the full benefit of joining.

Commitment issues are not rare when it comes to community initiatives. Despite proven impact in their stakeholders’ lives, some community initiatives’ existences are threatened because of a lack of commitment from participants. It must not be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm from its members, adequacy, or relevancy to the group it serves.

Our track record shows that our programs are popular and truly improve people’s lives. Only time will tell whether the solutions mentioned above will help tackle the issues in the long term – but our early outcomes are promising.

Social Innovation and Cities – Les Jardins Gamelin, Montreal

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This blogpost by Social Innovation Fellow Lyndsay Daudier was originally written for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog. It has been re-posted with the author's permission.

Definition: An influence process leading to social change that rejects existing social standards and proposes new ones.

When referring to social innovation in cities, the one and only concern is the welfare of human beings in the environment where they evolve. This is increasingly important today since 80% of the population live in cities. We are experiencing a constant renewal of urban areas in order to meet the new needs of its inhabitants. We are witnessing political transformations, planning changes, technology improvements and the discovery of changes by city-dwellers and visitors alike.

For true innovation to occur in a city, economic/technical innovation must merge with community innovation, as it is largely the community that will benefit from these changes. A community does not consist only of its representatives, but all those who use it: children, young people, the active population, the inactive population, seniors, people with disabilities, newcomers, immigrants, First Nations members. It is therefore critical to clearly identify everyone’s needs.

Moreover, in keeping with the times, innovation also requires a smart design, whether it be in the use of technological tools for a comfortable urban life, the planning of a city space or the ergonomics of public equipment. The challenge today is also about working with what already exists and making the most of it. For example, the planning of a city space must take into account what has happened there historically, the population groups that already frequent this locale, as well as the existing architecture. Innovation is not a substitute for heritage. Instead, it must go further to find out what must no longer be done and respond to the new needs.


The builders of the city are not just the people who envision it; they are also the ones who pass through it and who live in it. To make the transformation movement a success, we must join forces. A vibrant example of this is the development of Jardins Gamelin in Montreal last summer. Beyond the notion of creating a city space, this garden was intuitively designed to take everyone’s needs into account. This public square, which had long been occupied by a homeless population, had to reinvent itself by keeping things simple so that everyone could use the space…without uprooting the homeless! A place where people can sing karaoke, relax and do yoga or garden and grow vegetables right downtown to help feed the underprivileged population. Among the highlights: a local user telling a tourist not to wake a homeless person who is sleeping in the sunlight and not disturbing anyone. After all, he’s at home…

Lastly, social innovation must not come at the expense of the environment. With findings across the globe, such as those established at COP21, we are going to have to innovate while preserving our resources, reducing our carbon footprint and using renewable energy.

Social innovation in a city is an often-misused term. Innovation must be developed with an overall vision: it requires a shift in thinking to change our cities while taking into account the needs, the design and the environment. More and more, the public is making its voice heard. Innovation also means sharing ideas, which often results in beauty and admiration for what has been created.