June 15, 2021
Class of 2021: Market garden, anyone? Students help residents envision a new neighbourhood
Tina Dadgostar, MPlan’21, was going to be an architect. She completed her degree at the University of Tehran and embarked on a professional career working for an Iranian architecture firm.
The work was more expansive than she had first imagined, involving complex urban issues like housing, inclusivity and sustainability. Her interest in urban planning and sustainable design grew and she decided to apply for a Master of Planning degree. She chose the program at the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) because it combines policy with design, unlike most of the other programs in Canada which focus strictly on policy.
See the outcome before it happens
At SAPL, planning students learn how to create visual depictions of their proposed policy recommendations. This helps both designer and intended audience “see” the physical outcome before it happens, allowing them to visualize potential problems or benefits, gaining a deeper understanding of the proposal. Students also learn how to work with stakeholders in the planning process, through a community engagement model that values social equity and justice – the type of work that “develops cities into functional, thriving communities that can offer vibrant, livable and healthy places to live and work,” Dadgostar explains. “It creates a better future for everyone.”
The most revolutionary thing she learned as a student is a bottom-up, community-engagement approach to planning and urban design. “Iran has a centralized and top-down planning system,” she explains. “I wasn’t trained in this before, but I really like this idea of relying on the wisdom of the people you are planning for.”
Unearth ways to improve lives
Over the course of the two-year program she has learned how to communicate and negotiate with stakeholders, sifting through layers of proposed ideas to unearth ways to improve people’s lives.
During this last semester, she had an opportunity to test her skills in the Professional Planning Studio led by Dr. Fabian Neuhaus, PhD. Dadgostar and her teammates (Adam Roberts and Asawari Modak) worked with the Kingsland Community Association to realize their vision of creating a vibrant place for community. To be successful, the team had to address historically low participation from community residents and navigate challenges around engagement due to pandemic-related gathering restrictions. “Collaborating with community residents and local stakeholders is challenging,” Neuhaus explains. “It’s something Tina tackled with a quiet and dedicated passion, drawing on her rich background of experiences in very different cultural environments.”
The team proposed a project called 100 Ideas for Kingsland and used a combination of social media, pamphlets for senior citizens and the community newsletter to invite residents to participate.
Residents respond amazingly
“The response was amazing,” Dadgostar recalls. “Within two weeks we reached 100 ideas.” Residents made thoughtful suggestions like painted crosswalks, frisbee golf and a barbecue/firepit area near the Community Association. Once the ideas were gathered, the team had to think about what they could implement, and how.
They used online workshops as a way to engage residents while adhering to pandemic gathering guidelines. After experiencing a few hiccups in the first workshop, the team adopted some different communication strategies for answering questions and explaining what they needed the residents to do. They learned early on that listening to understand and build trust was vital to the process.
Through a voting campaign, they identified 33 of the best ideas and asked residents to vote for the ones that made the most sense for the community in the short and long term. The team created a timeline to show how and when the ideas would be implemented and categorized them into four themes: Hubs, Nodes, Entrances, and Connections. They created two games to allow the residents to depict the amenities they wanted to see in the community — frisbee golf, tennis courts, community gardens, etc. Residents used the online platform Miro to help design their community.
Finally, the team produced a Community Amenity Plan for Kingsland and helped them apply for a grant as a way of bringing some of the ideas to life.
The planning program has expanded Dadgostar’s understanding of the western approach to urban design, giving her the tools needed to step into her next role: working to deliver sustainable, equitable, functional and affordable communities. Experiencing a global pandemic, first-hand, over the last 14 months, has also influenced her as a community-minded urban designer.
Pandemic points to value of public spaces
With outdoor public spaces being some of the only places available to people in the last year, Dadgostar believes we need to think about how to reinvent public spaces that can be flexible, safe, inclusive, accessible and suitable even when gathering is restricted. As these spaces are essential to the physical and psychological well-being of urban residents.
“I yearn to play a leading role in generating more ecologically sustainable, artfully perceived, culturally engaged, socially fair and vibrant environments. When we preserve natural space, encourage economic growth, and improve the quality of life for people, we make the world better,” she says.
“I’m happiest when I interact with people and understand their ideas and concerns about communities and I can make sure I’m meeting their needs — coming up with a solution that can be beneficial for everyone.”