Published on February 12, 2024

Designing public spaces that connect us: Q&A with Evergreen’s Senior Urban Designer

T.J. Maguire says it isn’t just about physically changing what a space looks like, but the opportunities for people to be involved

Regardless of age, country or economic background, humans need social connection.  


“When considering the umbrella term of social connection and its constituent components, there are perhaps no other factors that can have such a large impact on both length and quality of life — from the cradle to the grave,” according to a frequently-cited study on social connection as a public health priority in the United States.  


The study points out that social connection is largely ignored as a health factor because people are not entirely sure how to prioritize it.  


But access to public places that connect people with their community and nature has been proven to reduce loneliness and the risk of chronic diseases. So, how do we create and steward public spaces that connect us? 


We asked T.J. Maguire, Evergreen’s Senior Urban Designer, about designing healthy public spaces that strengthen social connections.  


Tell us about your role at Evergreen and a bit about what an urban designer does. 


Generally, an urban designer focuses on everything from buildings to the area between buildings, like streets, public spaces and infrastructure. It can even get into the programming, activation and placemaking of those spaces and how people interact with them. Urban streetscape design is multidisciplinary and can involve so many different people and trades, but an urban designer can be a good first person to go to as they work on everything from visionary elements down to small details like seating and pavers. Planning public spaces isn’t just about architecture and design — it’s also about listening to different perspectives and working with the community.  


The Toronto Foundation’s Vital Signs Report shows nearly one-third of Canadians report struggling with loneliness and isolation. What role can public places play in social health and in addressing this crisis? 


I also want to point out the fact that the U.S. Surgeon General called loneliness and isolation a new public health epidemic. Public spaces can play a huge role if designed and programmed well. A lot of public spaces are often designed and implemented and then left with no real supportive infrastructure. A successful public space is one that is programmed and activated by the community, or representatives of the community. So, it isn’t just about physically changing what the space looks like, but the layers of opportunities for people to be involved.  


If you have enough people involved and enough things happening, when people go to that space they’ll spend longer there than they were expecting. They’re bumping into people that they just met or already knew. You’re increasing the likelihood of connection. 


Young people perform a dance in front of crowd in public space



Can you think of an example of a project where the design aimed to strengthen social bonds? 


The example that comes to mind is Youth Art Connection’s Salt Yard Sessions in Halifax. The Youth Art Connection is mostly catered to newcomer and black youth who are trying to find their way into the art scene and navigate the process of becoming successful artists. The Waterfront was working on this area called the Salt Yard, which was this centre for small businesses, food, music and creating a new public gathering place in a parking lot on the Waterfront. 


We worked with the Youth Art Connection to pilot this series of Salt Yard Sessions, where three different artists would come down on a Thursday night to perform. They really loved the opportunity to play in front of a crowd — there’d be as many as 200 people there. It was very much their initiative, but it really encouraged these artists to come down and perform in an area that they didn’t normally play. They got to see more people like themselves around the Waterfront.  


How important is it to involve local communities in the process to ensure that public spaces meet their unique needs and preferences? 


It’s a choice that folks in power have. They can decide not to go through that process, or they can decide to engage with people and the community. And I would argue that there are a lot of benefits and value to going through that process. 


If you’re in a position of power, helping people navigate the systems that are in place, walking them through the procurement process, or something as simple as an event request form, you’re working together to create a more connected place — a place that people feel connected to. There’s a sense of belonging and ownership of place. These places are dynamic and constantly changing, but the principle is that there are opportunities for people to participate and that equity is ingrained in the space. What you end up with is a place that can evolve and change with the community.  


Can you forecast any innovative trends in the future of public space planning that could further enhance community health and connection? 


I think, ideally, it’s seeing more flexible, dynamic spaces that aren’t making the cover of architecture magazines but can be transformed overnight by the community to support various events and activities. It’s more about the experience of people interacting with each other than the picture that’s taken from across the street.  


Maybe there are elements that are more permanent, but also elements that invite participation and invite people to set up markets or festivals. To do so, you need to reduce the number of hoops that you need to jump through to make things happen.  


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We know that our public spaces are boundless in their potential to connect us to what matters most — each other, our communities, nature and the planet. But transforming them takes a community of action. And we want you to be part of that community. Learn more about partnering with us, volunteering or becoming a monthly donor. You can also follow along on our journey and keep up with the latest from our work across Canada by subscribing to our newsletters.