Urban Design & Infrastructure

The cities of the future won’t just be greener, they’ll be more resilient too

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The cities of the future won’t just be greener, they’ll be more resilient too

The world is an increasingly urban place. More than half of the world’s population already calls urban areas home, with more than two-thirds expected to do so by 2050.

At the same time, the planet continues to face the challenges posed by climate change. Without change, global biodiversity will continue to decline. In the near future, many of our children may grow up more familiar with the landscapes of the city than those of nature.

Humans need nature to survive — and to thrive. Ryerson is at the forefront of applied research that helps to address how urban environments can incorporate and include nature.

Green infrastructure from the ground up

Building a greener city is much more than planting trees. The design choices we make can touch every facet of daily urban life, from turning on the tap to the air we breathe walking down the street. Through planning and design, engineered, purpose-built infrastructure that integrates well with the living world can help cities to become places that are more resilient and sustainable.

Imagine cities developed with nature in place, where “green and blue” infrastructure — which incorporates living things and water — is as essential to the cityscape as the “grey infrastructure” of buildings, sewers and roads. Parks, urban gardens, meadows filled with pollinator-friendly plants, living walls, green rooftops and bridges not only connect humans and animals to those spaces; they also are important infrastructural investments.

Ecologist and urban planner Nina-Marie Lister can envision urban spaces of the future where green infrastructure is a standard part of city building in every community worldwide. Her work, and that of her Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson, connects people to and reminds them of the sustaining power of nature. “Our work helps people see nature for its benefits and services to people, and also for its inherent value,” she says.

a woman standing in the forest and looking up
Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning. Photo credit: Jonny C.Y. Lam

The green infrastructure she helps to design offers more than just the chance to experience nature’s beauty in the city — though that’s important too. As Lister notes, connections to nature are now known to be vital to human physical and mental health, as well as to our emotional and cultural well-being. In addition to providing green places to recreate, exercise and relax, integrating the natural world into the urban landscape provides important benefits to humans, as well as to wildlife, including cooling, shading, pollination, carbon capture and storage, oxygen production, water quality and infiltration, urban flood management, and food production through urban farming, foraging and seed collection.

Number of wildlife crossings (38 underpasses and 6 overpasses) in Banff National Park

Purpose-built green infrastructure has applications outside city limits as well. One of the best-known research projects that Lister has collaborated on are wildlife crossings designed to move animals across roadways safely via bridges and tunnels, which can effectively be used for urban roads and rural highways. The crossings can help to prevent animal and vehicle collisions and the ensuing potential injuries and deaths for animals and humans, as well as the costly cleanup and damage.

Despite perceptions that wildlife collisions are only issues in places like the Rocky Mountains, Lister says the fastest growing areas for wildlife-involved crashes are in the outer ring of suburbs. “You have wildlife on roads and you have settlement creeping into habitat areas, and both drivers and wildlife are at risk,” she says.

The ARC (Animal Road Crossing) project started 10 years ago with the International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition and has evolved into a decade-spanning effort. There are more than 30 partners across Canada and the U.S., including Ryerson University, working to make wildlife crossings a standard practice in transportation design. Well-known examples include wildlife overpasses in the Rocky Mountains and the efforts to build a wildlife crossing over the 16-lane Pacific Coast Highway in California to help save the cougar population in Los Angeles’s Hollywood Hills.

a woman sitting in a tree
Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning. Photo credit: Jonny C.Y. Lam

“It’s slow going but the evidence is compelling,” says Lister. “When they’re placed in the right spot with fencing attached, we know they work more than 95 percent of the time.”

Location, habitat type and materials are key considerations when designing the crossings. The research shows the crossings are successful, says Lister. What’s harder is getting the funds, usually from governments, to invest in a type of infrastructure that can sometimes be perceived as a frill.

Cities are where we often make a real and lasting difference on the ground, where decisions about the land and how we live are made.
Nina-Marie Lister, director of the Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson

Collaborating across borders and industries to design a more natural city

Collaborations and partnerships play a key role in many of the projects Lister is involved in. When it comes to government partnerships, she seeks collaborations with cities, universities and institutions across the globe for her research. She says municipal governments can sometimes be more agile in responding to current issues, such as climate change.

“We find that joining a worldwide network of cities, especially for those of us in urban planning, is a really smart strategy,” says Lister. “Cities are where we often make a real and lasting difference on the ground, where decisions about the land and how we live are made.”

Toronto offers Lister a living laboratory, providing real-time research opportunities and community connections. “At Ryerson, we are in the heart of the downtown of Canada’s largest city, the economic engine of the country, and a diverse community of progressive urban leaders and place-makers,” she says.

Estimated effectiveness of wildlife road crossings when installed in strategic positions with proper fencing

While her own work is focused on landscape design, it’s part of the efforts to address pressing issues such as climate change and declining biodiversity, and to spur cooperation. “It’s urgent work that’s necessary, and we need a lot of us doing it,” says Lister. “We’re not in competition for work, we’re collaborating, many of us, to effectively keep clean air, clean water and places for people and wildlife that are healthy, resilient and sustainable.”

For some of her projects, interdisciplinary approaches have been woven together to reach innovative solutions, developing integrated designs that incorporate the expertise of engineers, landscape architects, architects, artists and ecologists.

Lister and her colleagues seek beneficial partnerships in ways that cross disciplines, borders and industries. Sometimes, unusual partnerships — such as working with insurance companies to reduce wildlife collisions — can be surprisingly fruitful, she says.

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The future of flight is green and affordable

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The future of flight is green and affordable

While aviation serves and connects us in ways that no other mode of transportation can match, there are serious challenges in the industry today. To start, a look at a live air traffic monitoring website such as FlightRadar24 might surprise with the sheer number of aircraft in the skies around us. Together, they contribute significantly to one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.

We need to find ways to make aviation, on which we depend for so much, cleaner and less harmful to the environment — a cause that the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made popular by refusing to fly to speaking engagements in Europe and North America, for example.

It’s also a goal that researchers and innovators at Ryerson are taking on through projects aimed at advancing alternative energy sources for powered flight, which ultimately could serve to make the aviation industry more sustainable.

Using the sun to power aerial vehicles

For aerospace engineer Goetz Bramesfeld, soaring above the clouds as a young man with his high school glider club in Germany inspired his career choice. Now, he’s leading a team of graduate students at Ryerson’s Applied Aerodynamics Laboratory of Flight who are focused on developing a long-endurance aircraft powered by clean solar energy alone.

“The immediate outcome of this project is the training of capable aerospace engineers who have a broad and applied understanding of the challenges in our field, while also considering the societal and environmental implications of their work,” Bramesfeld explains.

students gathered around a machine in a lab
Graduate students at Ryerson’s Applied Aerodynamics Laboratory of Flight

While that summary sounds appropriately well-grounded, the team behind the CREATeV endeavour has its sights set on a loftier purpose. It hopes to set a new world record for sustained autonomous flight by a solar aircraft. The current mark is just under 26 hours, which was set in 2018 by an aircraft built by the European aerospace giant Airbus. The CREATeV team is confident it can beat that using the solar panels it is developing and is aiming to deliver an aerial vehicle that’s capable of continuous flight for at least 60 days.

It would be an extraordinary achievement for such a small aircraft. The CREATeV is seemingly pencil thin, with a long, solar panel-covered wingspan. But small is what gives it many of its potential applications, including environmental and wildlife observation, remote surveying, forest fire detection and as low-cost airborne communication hubs.

students in the airfield with an aircraft
Testing a prototype at CREATeV, Ryerson’s Research Center of the Aerospace Engineering Department

In fact, although it is purely a research project at this stage, some of the students involved are hoping to commercialize the CREATeV, primarily by offering long-endurance airborne sensing services.

“The miniaturization of electronics and advances in solar and battery technologies are making things possible that we can barely grasp at this point,” Bramesfeld emphasizes. “Smaller and more autonomous aircraft become possible every day, and they will enable even more previously unimagined missions and applications. It is truly an exciting time for young aerospace engineers,” he adds.

Smaller and more autonomous aircraft become possible every day, and they will enable even more previously unimagined missions and applications. It is truly an exciting time for young aerospace engineers.
Goetz Bramesfeld, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering

Indeed, it is. And our airspaces will end up cleaner for it, as a result.

Making road trips less-travelled by road

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

So begins the short poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., written in 1941 while the 19-year-old airman was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England, and beloved by generations of pilots and aviation enthusiasts since.

The experience of taking the controls of an aircraft is one that Alon Guberman, founder of Woodbridge, Ontario-based DisRAPTOR, wants to extend to everyday commuters, as well as aspiring adventurers, first responders and potentially even future delivery services.

a futuristic vehicle
CAD rendering of prototype

The company is developing an electric vehicle (EV) that can drive and park on regular roads, while at the same time offer vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities and cruising speeds of up to 300 kph. That makes it an attractive transportation alternative not just to and from densely populated areas, but also remote regions where communities are harder to reach. Plus, because the vehicle relies on clean, renewable energy for charging, it can operate at about a third of the cost of a small, sporty vehicle with an internal combustion engine. As an eVTOL vehicle, it can also take advantage of existing networks of EV charging stations.

300 kph
Speed that DisRAPTOR’s electric vehicle will be capable of flying

“Over the next decade, I can see several different models of DisRAPTOR zipping across the sky and driving our streets,” Guberman explains. “And there won’t be the need for hangar space or the costly infrastructure required for a commercial ‘vertiport.’”

He adds that DisRAPTOR is designed to be road legal, at least, anywhere in North America. Such a concept received a welcome boost in July 2020 when the state of New Hampshire passed legislation that was quickly dubbed the “Jetson Bill” after the 1960s animated sitcom, in which George Jetson “squired his family in a flying car,” as Forbes reported.

The state law addresses “roadable aircraft” and provides for their registration and rules for inspections and accidents in ways that could be precedent-setting.

Over the next decade, I can see several different models of DisRAPTOR zipping across the sky and driving our streets. And there won’t be the need for hangar space or the costly infrastructure required for a commercial vertiport.
Alon Guberman, Founder of DisRAPTOR

For Guberman, partnerships with or investments from major automotive manufacturers or aerospace design firms could also help accelerate getting versatile and energy-efficient vehicles like DisRAPTOR to market. In the meantime, he’s gained valuable experience through working with Ryerson’s Clean Energy Zone (CEZ), an incubator focused on clean, sustainable energy innovations.

“The great thing about CEZ is that it provides access to start-up learning resources, advice and connections to other founders with similar ambitions,” he says. “It also gives our work greater visibility, and that can help with fund-raising from government and private funds.”

However grounded in practical matters that might seem, Guberman also continues to hold to his vision — one in which door-to-door travel by car can be less time-consuming or bound to roadways laid out by others, and more environmentally friendly, by including the option of some EV-powered high flight for at least part of the journey.

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The future of water is clean, smart and accessible

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The future of water is clean, smart and accessible

Water is essential to our existence, which is why in developed parts of the world we build elaborate infrastructures to gather, purify and deliver it to meet our personal, commercial, industrial and other needs, and then recycle much of it afterwards. 

In under-developed regions, the task of collecting and distributing water is often much more labour-intensive — and time-consuming. The hours in a day lost to collecting and transporting water can easily compromise someone’s ability to hold a job or attend school.

There are opportunities to rethink how we manage the lifecycle of water in our lives, along with a pressing need to address how water scarcity and conveyance affects millions of less-fortunate people. 

Researchers and innovators at Ryerson are facing those challenges and developing solutions that could make a difference in lives today, and well into the future. 

Putting rooftops to better use

Stormwater is a growing concern in large, densely populated areas. Heavy rain or melted snow makes its way along hard surfaces covering much of a city like Toronto, for example, and into drains that lead to wastewater treatment facilities or local waterways. Too much stormwater can overwhelm the complex network of pipes designed to carry it and can lead to flooded basements and poor-quality water emptied into nearby lakes and rivers, while also increasing pressure on municipalities to invest in even more costly infrastructure projects.

Potential cost per square foot of a blue roof (compared with $15+ for a green roof)

For architectural science professor Hitesh Doshi, part of the solution to managing stormwater more effectively comes from not looking down and envisioning more pipes leading to treatment plants, but rather up and to where a lot of rain and snow lands: on the rooftops of houses, apartments and condos, and other buildings. 

“A lot of rooftops are simply collecting water and putting it into the stormwater system — and something needs to be done about it,” Doshi explains. 

Instead, Doshi says that water could be diverted to on-site storage and used to irrigate nearby green spaces or even purified for drinking. Rooftops fitted with solar panels could see more value if some of the energy they provide is used to heat that collected rain and melted snow for use in washing or HVAC systems.

a professor in front of a whiteboard
Architectural science professor Hitesh Doshi

“Another question we have to ask is whether it is practical on certain flat rooftops to grow enough vegetables of a certain type to supply local needs,” he adds. “Looking at rooftops as potential biodiversity zones needs to be explored. We could also use them more to create amenity spaces, or for simply greening to act as heat sinks.” 

As he ponders the multitude of ways that rooftops could be put to work rather than left as vacant spaces, Doshi concedes there will be roles to play by municipalities and governments at different levels to enable some of his ideas to come to life. 

But, he also imagines how forward-looking companies might embrace the notion that their empty rooftops could be as valuable to their business as the large parking lots they provide for customers. If a chain of supermarkets were to sell produce or cut flowers grown and nurtured on its rooftop summer gardens using captured stormwater, for example, it would carry a strong environmental message to consumers — and could turn rainy days into money-makers, as a result.

That would be good for the economy, and even better for the environment.

Our product is driven by the desire to provide everyone access to potable drinking water, reduce water-borne diseases and, in turn, provide a higher quality of life to our users.
Andrew Feldman, Project Lead at WaterG

Access to water — clean water — for everyone

While managing stormwater sensibly is an option in developed countries, finding potable water is an urgent worry in large parts of the world. 

For many — mostly women — in the Gujarat region of western India, for example, each day typically requires walking long distances to fill a variety of containers with unclean water and then carry them back to their villages. 

It’s hard work. Water is heavy.

Similar scenes occur in impoverished areas and war-torn countries around the globe, but it was to the Gujarat region that several students from Ryerson went in 2015 to meet with government officials, entrepreneurs and investors and conduct field research that would help improve a water-purifying and transportation device conceived to alleviate the water woes of millions of people.

They were there as one of three winners of the university’s Global Innovation Challenge, which asked teams of students and alumni to develop ideas to improve social conditions for those in need. It was an example of learning beyond the classroom at Ryerson.

Amount of bacteria or pathogens the WaterG device eliminates

The device the students were promoting is essentially a wheeled barrel with a handle that when pushed generates electricity and kills 99.9 percent of any pathogens or bacteria in the water it is carrying. It also has a battery that can store unused electricity that’s generated, which can be used to power small household appliances.

“Our product is driven by the desire to provide everyone access to potable drinking water, reduce water-borne diseases and, in turn, provide a higher quality of life to our users,” explains Andrew Feldman, who was the concept creator and is now project lead with the startup WaterG that emerged from the team’s early efforts. Those were aided in part by experience with Zone Startups India, a collaboration between the BSE Institute (a subsidiary of the Bombay Stock Exchange), Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone and Simon Fraser University, among others.

“I think in the next decade it would be possible to have our product in hundreds of communities globally,” he contends. “Our hope is that where our product is introduced, we’ll see a decrease in fatalities from water-borne diseases, as a result.”

That’s a noble aspiration, with global implications for the future.

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The green building revolution will start from the ground up

Urban Design & Infrastructure

The green building revolution will start from the ground up

Over-reliance on fossil fuels is one of the most significant barriers to achieving a more sustainable future. If we hope to achieve the limits to rising global temperatures set out in the 2016 Paris Agreement, our cities will need to be built in such a way that fossil fuel usage is decreased drastically.

Space heating consumes immense amounts of natural gas in urban centres around the world, for example, and is one of Canada’s largest sources of CO2 emissions. Implementing more sustainable alternatives could make an enormous difference in the fight against climate change.

At the same time, we need to find more innovative ways to distribute power within buildings. One of the best ways to do this is to apply greater intelligence and automation to the use of electricity. Today, too much energy is lost to inefficient conversion systems.

It’s precisely these types of challenges that Ryerson researchers and innovators are tackling to create a more sustainable future in Canada and beyond.

Unlocking the potential of geothermal

Geothermal — using the crust of the earth to heat and cool buildings — has the potential to revolutionize the HVAC industry. Not only is it energy-efficient and environmentally clean, but it can also be one of the most cost-effective space conditioning systems available. However, to drive more widespread use of geothermal, work is needed to refine the design of systems so that they can be incorporated directly into the components of a building’s foundation.

an overhead shot of a geothermal system on a farm
Geothermal HVAC has the potential to revolutionize the heating and cooling industry

Ryerson researcher Seth Dworkin is focused on helping to take geothermal to the next level in terms of efficiency and scalability. In countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, as much as 75 percent of homes use geothermal systems, but there’s huge potential for an increase in North America and in commercial buildings all over the globe.

of homes in Sweden and Switzerland use geothermal systems

“We are creating, refining and combining geothermal technologies to be deployed in new commercial building developments, and in retrofits for older buildings,” Dworkin explains. “We are also studying more compact systems for application in the single-family residential market, which is still mostly untouched by sustainable alternatives, and in remote northern communities.”

The practical applications of his research, which involves working closely with industry partners, will be most beneficial where there is a low- or zero-emitting electricity generation mix. Electricity is needed for the exchangers that circulate the hot and cold air in buildings.

“If coal or natural gas is being used to generate electricity, running the geothermal heat pumps will still contribute indirectly to emissions,” Dworkin adds. “If, however, most or all of the electricity is being generated by some combination of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear, the technology will end up being much better for the environment.”

In the next 20-30 years I think we could develop, test and validate a whole suite of sustainable technologies for building energy.
Seth Dworkin, Professor, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

Indeed, while there are still challenges ahead, Dworkin is confident his work will make a difference.

“In the next 20-30 years I think we could develop, test and validate a whole suite of sustainable technologies for building energy. Those technologies would use solar energy and geothermal heat storage to provide completely sustainable heating and cooling to all building types — in all regions — without the need for fossil fuel consumption.”

Such progress would represent a major step forward in efforts to diminish our reliance on fossil fuels and create a greener future.

Smarter buildings are greener buildings

Alongside developing sustainable ways to make interior spaces comfortable year-round using alternative energy sources, researchers and innovators at Ryerson understand there is a need to reassess how power within modern commercial and residential buildings is distributed and managed, so they are more environmentally friendly.

That’s where Argentum Electronics enters the picture. Founded by Ryerson student Bolis Ibrahim, Electrical and Electronics Engineering ’19, the company was developed at the university’s Clean Energy Zone, one of 10 on-campus incubators in which students apply their degree coursework to real-world startups, causes, projects or ventures. For Ibrahim, the zone proved to be “a phenomenal growth partner,” by providing access to grants, expertise, networks and other invaluable resources.

a man touching an electrical equipment
Bolis Ibrahim, Founder of Argentum Electronics

Argentum is focused on developing intelligent direct current (DC) power distribution along with an easily reconfigurable Internet of Things (IoT) backend that connects devices, such as LED lighting and HVAC systems, to wireless sensor networks and automates how they interact.

“The reality today is that DC devices account for about 90 percent of power consumed in a building, yet power distribution is still based mainly around alternating current (AC). The conversion from AC to DC is on average only 80 percent efficient, which means that a building loses 20 percent of what it spends on that electricity,” says Ibrahim. “On the IoT side, buildings need an easier way to remotely control DC-powered devices using sensors that are more affordable.”

of energy is lost in most buildings to AC/DC conversion, leaving significant room for greater efficiency

Now, energy that is captured as direct current, such as solar, or converted to DC can be distributed and managed through Argentum’s award-winning micro-grid system that relies on Power-over-Ethernet (PoE). With PoE, a single cable provides both a secure data connection and power to DC devices.

“Our micro-grid system can easily be retrofit without major infrastructure changes in buildings, and instantly those buildings will realize significant energy savings,” Ibrahim explains.

“For the everyday user, it could mean seeing fewer AC wall outlets and more USB sockets,” he adds.

Behind the scenes, the implications are more profound: a system such as the one Argentum is developing could result in buildings that are much smarter and more energy-efficient.

The faceplates on our wall outlets would be a daily reminder that we’re living in greener buildings and contributing to a more sustainable future, which benefits everyone.