What does it mean to be an urban designer nowadays?

Marcin: Hi Emeline! It’s exciting to have you here! Can you give a short introduction about yourself ?

Emeline: My name is Emeline, I am an urban planner and designer originally from Toronto, Canada. My background and interest started in urban planning, where I studied in Toronto at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. After graduating, I worked for a couple of years in Toronto on the design and implementation of some pretty big transit projects in Toronto — I sort of became a transit nerd. I knew however I wanted to go back to school, and urban planning was a good step and introduction into urban design. But I wanted to solidify my design skills, so I decided to move to Sweden to pursue a master’s there in urban design! Now I work as an urban designer in Stockholm.

Marcin: How did you start with urban design?

Emeline: I think what’s great about urban design is that it stems from a blend of many interests. I was interested in larger scale urban planning problems that I dealt with during undergrad. We tackled both the urban and regional scale which I really liked: looking into case studies and creating plan, policy, and research projects in both Toronto and also the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. But I also had interests in architecture and landscape design and had spent some time learning technical design programs–from AutoCAD to Adobe Suite to GIS. I knew I wanted to specialize and cement my design skills, so I decided to do a masters in urban design, and I thought, what better country to do that in than in Sweden!

Marcin: What does it mean to be an urban designer to you?

Emeline: As I kind of touched on, urban designers are kind of these “jack of all trades” – we really can deal with so many topics and it’s an important blend of people with different backgrounds – some people come from architecture or design backgrounds while others come from geography or sociology, or even gardening! I think this diversity in knowledge is super important in the urban design field.

To me specifically, urban designers shape the way we live and interact with our cities – it affects just about everything – our health, our well-being, our happiness.

But also the environment’s health and wellbeing on the big scale. So to me, understanding that everything we draw or implement has a direct impact on the living — people and ecologies – and that these two halves are in constant interaction has always been important to me as an urban designer.

Being urban designer – perspectives

Marcin: As far as I know the job of urban planner or designer is important, respected and quite well paid in Canada. Finishing studies and starting your first job in a big & well known IBI Group Toronto might sound like a dream start of the designer’s career. What does it mean to be an urban planner and designer in Canada?

Emeline: Yes – urban planning is a pretty well-established career in Canada. Actually in Canada in order to practice as an urban planner professionally there is a regulated process. There are a few schools – at least in Ontario there are 2: Ryerson University and Waterloo, that are “professionally accredited planning programs”. If you want to practice as a certified urban planner, one must graduate from a professionally accredited planning program. Then you have to work and log hours, get a mentor and take a test to get the full “Registered Professional Planner” or “RPP” designation.

So it is quite comparable to that of an architect or landscape architect in Canada – they are protected titles. 

As a result, urban planners in Canada work generally in the public or private sectors, either municipalities or in the private sector as consultants in urban planning processes. It involves understanding policies, development processes and codes, attending hearings etc. I think that is why protected titles seem to be quite important in a Canadian context because as a general experience, there is not so much a “blending” happening. It is often the case that urban planners work in planning departments and generally do the policy work while architects and landscape architects work in their own respective departments and have their own areas of expertise and responsibilities. It’s quite common, especially in larger firms to have these departments – each with their own area of responsibility. Of course there is coordination and collaboration between departments, but in general, responsibilities are quite siloed. And because of this, urban design is quite a “young” field. Because generally you are a ____ AND urban designer. So an urban planner AND urban designer. Or an architect AND urban designer. Landscape architect AND urban designer. The title urban designer is not a professional title in Canada, but rather an “add on” to an existing field of work.

In my opinion, this division of roles seems to work for large-scale projects, it maintains a streamlined process where areas of responsibility are often clearly defined.

But this also can lead to gray areas and I have often wondered if there is no one championing for good urban design, how do we make sure it happens? Who is responsible for making sure good urban design is sought through? Is it the architect, the planner, the landscape architect? It is the stitching together, the meeting ground between the buildings, which architects are generally responsible for, and the public realm, which landscape architects are responsible for, that is vital to urban design. This also means that the work of an urban designer is usually less defined and is often “shared” by many different fields. An architect may often work in urban design as does a landscape architect. And I think in general urban design feels much “younger” in that sense, that it is not placed at the forefront of our design processes. 

Marcin: What made you start questioning that and finally deciding to start master studies in Scandinavia? 

Emeline: Though there are definitely opportunities to study urban design in Canada, I thought that learning from a new context would be beneficial personally but also in my own career. And what not better place than Scandinavia? Scandinavia has always been at the forefront of urban design. Look at places like Copenhagen – these were always presented in my undergrad as precedents and examples of good public spaces, streetscapes, unmatched cycling infrastructure, and for leadership in sustainable development. So why not learn from the pros?

And on top of that, studying in an international master program was so captivating to me because it’s such a neat experience to study and work with not only such diverse professional backgrounds, but also cultures and origins! I learned a lot that way.

Emeline presenting her master thesis

Marcin: What does it mean for you to be a part of the Mandaworks team and what are your main tasks that you are responsible for? 

Emeline: Although I had some experience in Canada, Mandaworks has been my first experience as an urban designer in Sweden. It’s been a huge learning curve! Luckily I think the masters program at LTH really prepares you for the kind of work – specifically for competition work and the expression of urban design ideas (master planning, explaining a concept, diving into details, making sections, AXOS, renderings etc.), but Mandaworks has allowed me to implement them in a variety of contexts and places which has been so fun. There is also a lot of politics in the real world that affects urban design processes that you just don’t see in school.

And again, back to the “titles” thing. Of course there are specialties – some people have landscape backgrounds while others come from architecture and planning.

But I really do love that urban designers in Sweden and Scandinavia can work in so many different areas at the same time.

I love the boundlessness of it: that no 2 days are the same! Some days I am researching the site or meeting with collaborators, others I am coming up with concepts, diagrams, and telling the story of the site. Other days I am drawing a paving pattern in AutoCAD, or studying shadows and block typologies in 3D. There really is so much variety.

Marcin: Can you share a story behind the creation of our Urban10 Collective ? 🙂 

Emeline: I think it was just kind of lucky that we enjoy our own company – I mean we started out as friends really. And working together on the masters you can kind of gage what our skills were and where our interests lie….so it was quite natural (at least for me) that we would decide to work on the Europan competition together. And then it was even better luck that we didn’t completely hate each other after it and started to form Urban10 as a more solid group that could work together on competitions in the future. So I think it’s a combination of luck but also mutual interest in working together.

Conclusion – being urban designer in 2021

Marcin: I need to admit that the start of pandemic was a very interesting time for me as an urbanist. Of course, pandemic as such is a horrible event. But some urbanists (including me) say that there were not better times than 2020 to experience how cities were being changed and shaped by people. Observing different reactions and responses to lockdown by the authorities of various cities from Stockholm, Copenhagen, to Warsaw, Berlin or Milano. Cities became those live laboratories that we could study and make some predictions about the future urban trends.

Knowing that you spent quite a big part of the year in your flat, how did it influence your work as an urban designer and the way you perceive it? 

Emeline: As you know we work a lot on the computer – so in that way, not too much changes, you can still produce. Sketching, yes – still doable but not as ideal of course.

I think the hardest part I have experienced in my own work is that it puts a barrier on the creative design process.

I think in urban design, the design process thrives on sketching and discussing and sometimes (constructively) arguing with people. So that was a major challenge. With everything being online we had managed to find other ways to sketch together with Google meet, and we’ve used so many types of online sketching platforms — from Mural, Google jam board, to now MIRO, and those helped. It even gave us some new tools for workshops in the future. Technology allows us to “armchair” travel in many ways, we can do site visits on Google Earth, skype with people across oceans. It opens up doors. But in general, I think urban designers work best in person, around a table. That’s when design happens, at least to me.

And yes, the pandemic has revealed so many questions surrounding urban design. What happens when a city shuts down? How can cities still thrive? Which response is the best? I was just home for Christmas in Toronto which is very different to Stockholm right now, it’s completely shut down — devoid of life. It’s sometimes hard to say who is doing “better”. It’s just different priorities and understanding contexts: a city with a higher density might require different tactics than one with less. And since it is the first time we are dealing with this, we have to understand there’s some kind of learning curve here.

BEYOND YOUR 4 WALLS – HONOURABLE MENTION of HEALING: Alternative Designs for Quarantine Cities Competition

Marcin: For us, working in design studios with computers, pandemic meant safely shifting into home office mode. But not everyone was that lucky. We even talked that it is easy to be in the lockdown in your big apartment, but what about whole families being stuck in tiny flats for weeks?

We addressed this issue of inequalities during the lockdown during the NonArchitecture competition. Our proposal got even the special mention. Could you then say something more about the BEYOND YOUR 4 WALLS? How can we (re)design the apartments, so they can be better prepared for the future events such as lockdowns?

Our Urban10 team sketches ideas for the NonArchitecture Healing competition

Emeline: That was a very fun project because it was probably one of the most “current” and relevant projects we could have done.

We were also all living in the pandemic and it affected our own lives so working and discussing how cities should or could respond in the face of a pandemic was very interesting and somewhat therapeutic.

But also very challenging – it’s almost impossible to solve all the problems at once. The possible list of problems is endless. That’s why BYFW was interesting to me because it offered a conceptual idea (the expansion of the home to the city) in a practical way (an online delivery service) which made it somewhat achievable or at least practical. 

Marcin: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is a book recommendation.

Emeline: I am very into research and ideas around circular economy. I seem to always talk about it but I recommend Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Micheal Braungart. You don’t even have to be in the field to appreciate this book – I mean Braungart is a chemist himself. The way they discuss very complex topics surrounding circular design is super digestible and interesting. They also have a second book I recommend called the Upcycle which came out more recently in 2013 – which touches on similar topics in a sort of bigger scale thinking beyond sustainability.

Marcin: Emeline, thanks for both your time and the courage to be my first English speaking guest in the second season of my podcast about cities – Urbcast.

Emeline: It was a great pleasure! Thanks for having me!

If you want to get to know about Emeline and our work visit Urban10 Collective website.

If you want to listen to the podcast episode about it, click below:

32: What does it mean to be an URBAN DESIGNER nowadays? (guest: Emeline Lex – Mandaworks)

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