Planning class reimagines city spaces

By Sean Trembath, The StarPhoenix December 9, 2013 - Lindsay Herman was ready to put her knowledge to use in the real world. After a semester in a classroom, the third-year University of Saskatchewan urban planning student, like the rest of her Intro to Urban Design classmates, was put into a group and sent to an area of Saskatoon in need of development.

Herman’s group of four was assigned a large open area between the U of S president’s house and the University Bridge.

“It’s basically just a patch of grass right now that people walk through on their way home from university,” she said. “It’s a blank slate for development.”

From that slate sprang ideas for a completely new destination for city residents to enjoy. The group designed a large, uniquely shaped building that would become an icon in Saskatoon.

In the summer, people would come to pop-up markets and use public barbecues to gather and socialize. In the winter, there would be skate rentals and places to warm up when jogging along the nearby Meewasin Trail.

Their proposals were presented to the class in the form of a video. Many of the students had never done any filmmaking before.

“When he first assigned it, it was really overwhelming. It meant self-teaching a lot of technology,” Herman said.

“Once we got into it, it was a really great learning experience.”

Challenging the students with a variety of new experiences was the idea behind the assignment.

“That’s the intent: teaching them how to communicate, how to sell a project, how to work for the public and professionals out there, and get them ready to be good designers and good planners,” said Henry Lau, a professional associate of the urban planning program at the U of S and the instructor of the class.

Lau was very impressed with the quality of work the students produced.

“I’m totally amazed,” he said. “They were so passionate about what they do. As a city, we’re in good shape, because we have these really engaged young stakeholders that are willing to put their hearts into thinking about the future.”

The type of designs groups came up with vary widely, as the areas they were assigned present different problems.

One group was sent across College Drive from the university to an ugly, underused parking area between Cumberland and Bottomley avenues. They designed a new complex with bike-friendly lanes, solar power, visual art and much more.

Other sites included 19th Street West, the area around Station 20 West and the land around the Mendel Art Gallery.

“We had a lot of different spaces — parks, empty parking lots, dirty lots between buildings. It was really interesting to see how much vision these students have for the city of Saskatoon,” Rozan El-Salem, another student in the class, said.

All of the videos from the class are on YouTube for the public to see.

The students still have a long way to go before they become professionals. The third-years still have more than a year left in the program. Next semester’s advanced urban design class will throw them into an even bigger project, the details of which are being kept under wraps by Lau.

But the experience the assignment provided was invaluable to a group who hopes to make up the next generation of planners for this city and others.

“I think it kind of captured the true essence of what urban design is,” Herman said. “It’s not reading out of a textbook and measuring angles — it’s taking a space and trying to make it into something better.”

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