How do we build livable cities?

When planning decisions are made for cities, the civil engineers, planners and politicians get together to decide what to do.

But where are the experts who deal with the green environment?

So asks Carly Ziter, an ecology professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

Carly Ziter

“When we make decisions about the cities of the future we need to ensure that trained ecologists, biologists and farmers have a place at the table with the engineers and planners and politicians,” Ziter said on a panel at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre on April 27.

The panel, presented by Concordia University and hosted by Walrus magazine, discussed designing sustainable, inclusive places to live and thrive in.

“For those of us who aren’t at that decision-making table, I implore you to be supportive of a little, short-term sacrifice. Making more space for nature means expecting less space for cars and parking lots,” Ziter said.

“It means ensuring our city officials know that our few remaining green spaces aren’t just empty spaces waiting for buildings,” she said. “They’re spaces that are already full of life.”

Ziter said science shows that urban forests protect city inhabitants from “a deadly heat wave” and that community gardens provide not only food but improve peoples’ mood and memory.

“Those of us who study it learn that this ordinary neighbourhood nature yields extraordinary benefits,” Ziter said. “If we’re not careful, if we’re not deliberate about the way we build our cities we stand to lose that.”

When a new development is proposed drawings are presented showing buildings surrounded by trees and flowers — but that may not become fact, she noted.

“When budgets get tight, often those trees and flowers seem to be the first thing to go. Some how we’ve let urban nature become a nice to have and not a must have.”

Ziter said cities must regard the inclusion of nature within its boundaries as “critical infrastructure.”

‘Fifteen-minute cities’

Marco D’Angelo, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, said public transit is key to building cities, and neighbourhoods, he said, should cluster around transit hubs.

Marco D'Angelo

He advocated for what he called a 15-minute cities, communities where a person’s daily needs are within a 15-minute walk, bike or transit ride from their home.

“At CUTA we see transit and housing as a single solution,” D’angelo said. “Building housing near transit hubs will allow people to access jobs, schools and essential services in a more affordable way.”

D’Angelo said transportation is responsible for a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. But public transportation which takes private vehicles off the road “is one of the most powerful emission reduction tools.”

He said governments need to make it easier to acquire land for transit-oriented development and should mandate rental and affordable housing around transit hubs.

Investing in humans

Natalie Voland, president of Quo Vadis Capital and a private developer, said cities are built in boardrooms.

Natalie Voland

“They’re built for return, not for humans or nature,” Voland said.

She said developers need to keep people in mind when starting new projects.

“Something that we’ve always been missing in real estate for a long time is the H,” Voland said. “We need to invest in humans in our return on investment.”