Urban Design & Infrastructure

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

Nurturing urban ecology with green design

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.

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