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Homelessness is a widely misunderstood and stigmatized concept.

Most understand homelessness to be unkempt people, often men, living on the street.

The broader and more factual way to describe homelessness is ‘anyone without a home.’ Anyone with lack of stability, privacy, safety, and identity of place to call home, can be classified as homeless.

The homeless are…

People living on the street


People living in shelters


People temporarily without shelter


And people who are precariously housed, or at risk of becoming homeless



The homeless male stereotype does in fact comprise the largest share of the homeless, however more and more we are seeing families, women and children, youth, and persons with mental illness struggling to find and afford shelter.

Homelessness is increasing. This can be due to system causes, such as increasing poverty, housing affordability, limited social housing programs, poor discharge planning from institutions, and limited community support services. Increased homelessness can also be caused by individual causes, such as inadequate income, unemployment, family breakdown, family violence, physical and mental health issues, and substance abuse problems.


Obviously, homelessness is not as simple as it seems. It is not just ‘that guy with the beard’ begging on the corner who is too lazy to get help. It is very often not the result of personal failures. Rather, outside factors can force literally anyone, any type of person, into varying degrees of homelessness. Without the proper education and system opportunities, these homeless people may resort to difficult methods to keep their income afloat in order to survive, such as begging, prostitution, stealing, and illegal sales. Many people who resort to these methods do not wish to continue, but feel they have no other choice.


This is why pointing the finger at the homeless is ignorant, and we should instead be looking at the bigger picture – how can the city system improve as a whole to reduce the likelihood of people finding themselves in a homeless state, to provide awareness to the general public about homelessness, and to provide safety nets for those who are forced into homelessness?


For one, housing costs continue to rise, making housing incredibly difficult to afford to begin with. This is where affordable housing comes in – non-profit or co-operative housing communities where some or all of the rents are subsidized (as defined by the City of Toronto). This means that households pay a fraction of the price for living in a given unit, and affordable housing along with government assistance accounts for the rest. The rent price for affordable housing is geared towards the resident’s income in order to make it affordable on a case-by-case scenario.




Images taken from powerful affordable housing campaign in Toronto

Historically, in Canada, the availability of affordable housing has steadily declined, specifically in Vancouver and Toronto. This decline has occurred because affordable housing is a financial challenge – both during its implementation and throughout its maintained life. There are some poster-childs of affordable housing that have dealt the right cards at the right times and [have debatably] stood the test of time (Regent Park), however it is currently a difficult task to gather any support for new affordable housing in Ontario. Affordable housing is also wrongly and negatively stigmatized by outsiders, making it a real challenge to propose financial and social solutions such as social mix developments, which aim to mix ethnicities, demographics, incomes and housing types harmoniously in order to create a stronger community that prevents social exclusion and polarization.

With Toronto’s affordable housing regulations, the City is trying to preserve what affordable housing currently exists. The regulations essentially tell developers that they can implement their proposed design on affordable housing land, as long as they replace the affordable housing units and give tenants a legal right of return. This, however, does not solve displacement and identity issues, which can become root causes of homelessness to begin with.

article-2252602-16A29121000005DC-731_964x667It is my hope that homelessness can become less stigmatized, because I believe that with the proper education, communities and systems can better understand how to handle it. Homelessness is an unfortunate reality – something that we see in every city, something that will happen. But are we equipped to handle it? Are we equipped to face the homeless as human beings with individual stories? Are we equipped to treat the homeless with the same respect that any other person would receive? Are we ready to raise awareness about homelessness causes, and topics such as where the homeless can comfortably get shelter and receive guidance?

What type of first steps do you think would help the homelessness case in your region?


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Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.

For example, we know what the meaning of the “boy” and “girl” bathroom signs are in the same way that we know, or may be intrigued to know, what we will find if we continue down a certain path.


Urban space always has a significance; there is an utilitarian purpose for an urban distribution based on functions and usages.

Urban space is made up of paths, enclosures, districts, intersections, and points of reference.


Urban semiotics are about the consciousness of the symbols’ functions in urban space, rather than simply the structures themselves. There are marked (signs) and non-marked (spaces, feelings) elements.

There is often a difference between significance and the reality itself–occasionally even a conflict–when it comes to objective geography and the reality of maps. Ever experienced a city and then looked at a map of the same area afterwards? It’s usually shockingly different than what you thought it would have looked like.


So the city has a language, speaking to us with its built form, and we reply with where we are, where we live, where we travel and where we look.

The city is a writing; whoever moves about in the city is a sort of reader who, according to his obligations and movements, samples fragments in order to experience them. You can change the whole poem by taking a different street.

All photos taken by author in Geneva or Paris.

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I often get asked why I love living in downtown Toronto so much.

Sitting in bias, I always want to chuckle and respond with “why would you want to live anywhere else?” but as an urban planner and a generally understanding and open-minded human being, I try to respond with the least bias possible.

There is a general understanding that young people love to live in busy places but once they get older or get ready to settle down they will surely want to move to places described with the following adjectives: safer, quieter, cleaner, and more private.

I have three comments regarding the places described in this way:

1. Who said that these qualities are the official standard for a good quality of life?

When looking for a place to live, everyone has different wishes, wants, and standards. If we were to make a list of all the requirements that people have across the globe, we would end up with thousands of requirements. It may be true that it is more sensible for a single 20 year old to live in a smaller apartment, and for a family of 5 to live in a more spacious home, but this does not explain location.

2. Who said that urban environments don’t retain these qualities?

Urban environments do in fact retain qualities that most people mistakenly assume they cannot possibly have. It is possible to raise a family in a downtown neighborhood defined as safe, quiet, clean, and yes, will give you your privacy.

3. Is everyone’s life so similar that every person will ‘grow out’ of urban living?

Not every person will fit a standard life path. Many will border the status quo, and some will never come near it. It is unreasonable to expect that everyone will ‘get over’ downtown living and finally ‘mature’ into suburban family life.


I would have to say that my favorite things about living in an urban environment are…


Being completely alone in a sea of strangers and feeling like I am part of something greater, with the thrill of the off chance that I might bump into someone I know…




Feeling safe – eyes on the street folks…




Never having nothing to do, even if you have no one to hang out with…




 Being able to retreat into privacy and quiet when I need it…




Taking public transit – just like the suited lawyer from the business district, the mom with her stroller, the kids going home from school, and the guy talking to himself…




Wanting to walk for pleasure and discovering new things…




yorkvilleThe old and the new presents a story – that we are all part of now, and that we can shape for the future…




Public spaces and the spaces in between, as shortcuts, destinations, and resting points with a view…






And lastly… a statement that would be very difficult to illustrate in a few images… being surrounded by as many different people from me as possible – race, culture, opinions… this keeps everyone in check. This reminds everyone that the world does not revolve around themselves. This makes people more aware and less ignorant. 


To me, urban living is healthy, happy living. It provides me with my current needs, and I can only imagine how proud I’ll be when I start a family here one day.


So you’re an urban designer of some kind, and you just won a job to redevelop a site within a stunning city. It’s stunning because it holds centuries of heritage and is already a great place with many things to do. What do you add? How do you design something in a space for a city that is already great? Wouldn’t something new be almost offensive?  What do you do?

I’ve seen this happen a lot in Europe. But out of the successful ones, one element stands out the most – reflection.

Landscape Architect Michel Corajoud who designed the riverfront along the Garonne river in Bordeaux, France, said:

“We already have a beautiful place here. The best thing we can do is to simply double it.”


And that is exactly what he did with the Miroir D’eau – the focal point of the entire riverfront site. His 2009 design became extremely successful and managed to draw many people back to the riverfront from which their City originated. At the Miroir D’eau you will find a long elevated base plane with a thin layer of water. Sometimes, small fountains embedded inside the pavement shoot water out of holes accross the platform, but when they don’t, people often walk accross it and play in it. Not only is this place a beautiful, unique, interesting and interactive nodal & destination point, but it also clearly reflects the historic buildings behind it (Place de la Bourse) into the water, doubling its beauty.


2013 has brought a new site to the map – take a look at the Vieux Port Pavilion in Marseille, France. Architects Foster & Partners designed this reflective stainless steel canopy to reflect the city’s UNESCO World Heritage port. The overhead plane creates a public room, a defined space, and a sense of enclosure – all elements that entice pedestrians to divert their path in order to experience walking under it. If all else fails, the reflection, which creates an illusion of people walking upside-down on a nearly-invisible cieling, is sure to peak their curiosity.

“It’s quite literally a reflection of its surroundings – its lightweight steel structure is a minimal intervention and appears as a simple silver line on the horizon” – Spencer de Grey, head designer.


We have also seen examples of reflection in North America. Anish Kapoor designed the Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as the ‘bean’ in Chicago. This stunning piece is now a widely recognized landmark in the City, and visitors flock to visit it as a destination point. People take interest in its odd shape. The reflective stainless steel surface reflects and distorts the Chicago skyline and visitors experience a fun-house mirror effect when walking around and through it, observing their reflection. Chicago reflected, yet projected through a new lens.

“There is something about opening one’s heart to the possibilities that one doesn’t even truly or readily know are there.” – Anish Kapoor


Charles Wright Architects won the 2012 far north Queensland Awards Auilding of the Year with their mirror-clad Cairns Botanic Gardens Visitors Centre design. The building was designed to be invisible amongst the surrounding trees of the gardens in order to blend somewhat seamlessly with the beauty of the site’s natural state.

“We proposed a design which literally reflects the gardens as camouflage for the building.” – Charles Wright Architects

Reflection in urban design around the world has become a modern trend. Its impact is both aesthetically pleasing and respectful to existing settings.


“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished” – William H. Whyte.













It is not difficult to design a space that people will love, but it is difficult when the odds are against the designer. I’m talking about pedestrian underpasses – the most ironic design principle dead end.

The intended purpose of a pedestrian underpass aims at introducing a chance for pedestrians to continue their journey and create opportunity for mobility through environments containing blocked areas (highways, buildings, etc), but unfortunately these areas are often left neglected or are poorly designed, plaguing them with negative associations… unsafe, dark, dirty, uncertain, avoid – all percieved descriptors that most people would associate with pedestrian underpasses.

Underpasses strive to connect pedestrians from one side of a pedestrian obstacle to the other, however there are numerous factors that prevent these types of essential connections to fulfill their total potential, such as:

Rundown appearance
Lacking adequate lighting and surveillance
Lacking in pedestrian wayfinding
Decreased on-street vibrancy
Usefulness is not defined


Most underpasses have potential and can be redeveloped into successful pedestrian underpasses by achieving the following:



“You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.” – Jane Jacobs

121294-manhattan-mapIdentity/Landmark: Make the underpass a landmark to help users understand a recognizable point of reference in a larger space to aid with orientation. A character and sense of place will be created. To emphazise the location and its usefulness, the underpass should be highlighted in some way on a network map.


3245080767_e4717e2d4a_zNavigation: The underpass should clearly navigate users through it as opposed to around it etc. as it is a thoroughfare, not a long-term destination.



capital_cast_iron_bollard_with_cycle_plinthSigns: By incorporating a sign of the overall pedestrian system near the underpass, the navigator will be able to place the entire space within his or her view and consequently be able to deduce where they are, what is in their immediate vicinity, what destinations are available, how to get there, and how long it will take them (ped shed). The underpass as a decision point will help foster it as a landmark and as a safe and reliable passageway.


Full_02-anacostia-underpassSightlines: A first time user may have uncertain expectations as to the underpasses extent and purpose – to avoid this uncertainty, the sightline through the underpass should be clear in order to give the user enough information about what is ahead and to encourage them to move or continue further.


full_melbourne-pedestrian-underpass[1]Connectivity: An underpass will only be used if it is connected to a network, therefore it should be connected to some sort of pedestrian system. It is also important for users to be aware of that through marketing, signage, and clarity on-site.




“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” – William H. Whyte

CPTEDCrime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED): CPTED is a great framework for making an underpass approachable and safe, especially because CPTED believes that crime and loss are by-products of human functions that are not working properly. The three overlapping CPTED design strategies are:

file_7312Natural Surveillance: an underpass should be designed in such a way as to facilitate observation by increasing visual permeability and sightlines in order to see what is ahead and around the site. Visual permeability will increase the potential for ‘eyes on the street’. Since sightlines cannot be achieved from all perspectives through an underpass, wayfinding techniques can be used to reassure the user. Encouraging visitors to progressively and passively use the site is also an effective form of natural surveillance.

moodwall2Natural Access Control: an underpass should be designed in such a way as to direct normal access to observable areas and prevent access to unobservable areas. The path should have a clear sense of direction, and wayfinding techniques can create a sense of anticipation for what is coming next to keep movement flowing.


untitledTerritorial Reinforcement: an underpass should be designed in such a way as to enhance the feeling of legitimate ownership by implementing symbolic or psychological barriers such as bollards and signs, and to minimize the creation of ambiguous spaces, such as gaps and corners.

Mechanical Forms of Surveillance & Access Control: Such as uniform white lighting should also be applied.


“We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.” – JFK

4-52846-450015_30cardiniaweb1Image: An underpass should be designed in such a way as to enhance and maintain its physical appearance to encourage users of the area to respect their surroundings. The more dilapidated an area, the more vulnerable it is to further abuse.


shared_tunnelApproach: The entrance and exit of the space should be clearly defined and anticipated using branded signs that tie in with the rest of the trail or the City’s branding, to make it official and trustworthy.

: The underpass should be maintained in the following ways – infrastructure maintenance, standard cleaning, and responsive cleaning (graffiti).

Addressing Graffiti: Graffiti can be prevented through design in two ways:


Dimensions & Distractions: for underpasses, a line of street furniture or greenery is not recommended. Instead, 2D or 3D (relief or installation) designs on any of the four facades (walls, ground and cieling) are recommended.



Lighting: often times underpasses are short with an opening in the middle, which is great for lighting. However, with no additional luminaire fixtures the longer underpasses and the night scene for any sized underpass can become quite dreary. Additionally, weak or unpleasant colored lighting (yellow) can be unattractive as well. A well-lit (white) and brightly-colored (white) underpass can put it in a perceived ‘spotlight’ and discourage tagging and even crime due to a fear of being seen and caught. This technique obviously plays a huge role with personal safety as well.


At the end of the day, underpasses may be an awkward problem to solve, but what’s life without a challenge, right? An enjoyable, useful and safe pedestrian underpass is possible.

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