Dr. Sara Diamond enjoys a panel session at the Urban Ecologies conference. Photo by Nicole Torres.
Patricio Davila, Shelagh McCartney, Behzad Sarmadi, Adrian Blackwell, Nicolas Barrette. Photo by Caroline Vani.

Urban environments are the location of ever increasing populations. How can we achieve a sustainable balance between human impact and environmental resilience? What ecological considerations can we apply to the design of urban environments, and how do we use ecology as a source of new theoretical, methodological and metaphorical directions? How do designers reconcile interlocking imperatives, such as social needs and desires, cultural norms and aspirations, economic restrictions and the allocation of natural resources and aesthetics?

These are some of the questions raised and discussed at the first Urban Ecologies conference, by speakers and delegates from a diverse group of backgrounds and professional affiliations—from local, national and international experts to thinkers and practitioners drawn from academic, professional, public service, business and grassroots communities. 

The conference, (June 19-21), included keynote talks, panels and workshops, and was held at OCAD U and the Art Gallery of Ontario, along with offsite event tours to the Evergreen Brickworks, Toronto’s waterfront and the Leslie Spit.

According to the conference co-chairs, Bruce Hinds, Chair, Environmental Design and Jesse Colin Jackson, OCAD U’s sustainability officer and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Design, urban ecologies operate dynamically across time and space and challenge the two-dimensional logic of conventional design methods. “Ecology provides a way of looking at cities that is not new but is extremely important and has the potential to transform the way we understand cities,” says Jackson. The overall goal of the conference was to examine relationships between ecology and urbanity and begin to foster strategies for designing sustainable, inclusive, healthy, engaged and resilient cities. “Urban Ecologies 2013 was an opportunity for us to examine our relationship to the city as a laboratory,” adds Hinds. 

The event was organized around five intersecting themes shaping the future of design in our cities: 

Thinking Systems: Applying knowledge of the urban environment’s complex and dynamic patterns of exchange to design stronger communities.

Visualizing Information: Using advanced visual strategies to improve our understanding of data-intensive human and non-human urban activity.

Regenerating Cities: Developing regenerative urban design strategies to create restorative relationships between cities and their surrounding environments.

Building Health: Bringing integrated concepts of human health, quality of life and inclusion to the design of the urban environment.

Creating Community: Fostering design partnerships between grassroots and professional communities to co-create sustainable urban places.

The conference kicked off with an opening address by Dr. Sara Diamond, OCAD U’s president, and included panel talks on topics such as building the biocity, healthy communities by design, lessons from the global south, urban parkscapes, urban botanics as community catalyst and innovation for urban transresilience. Keynote speakers included Kathryn Firth, Chief of Design, London Legacy Development Corporation, Peter Hall, Head of Design, Griffith University Queensland College of Art and Teddy Cruz, Professor of Public Culture and Urbanism, University of California in San Diego.

A sample panel at Urban Ecologies 2013: Lessons from the Global South

Patricio Davila, Assistant Professor, Graphic Design, OCAD U, the panel moderator. 

Shelagh McCartney, Assistant Professor Carleton University, who spoke about slums in Sao Paolo and Manila.

Behzad Sarmadi, PhD candidate, Socio-cultural Anthropology, the University of Toronto, who gave a talk on urban transformation and migration in Dubai.  

Adrian Blackwell, Visiting Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, who presented on the ecological paradox of Shenzhen, China.

Nicolas Barrette, graduate student, Architecture at the University of Toronto, who spoke about land reclamation in China.