Refining International Urban Planning and Design
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Victor Martins

Toronto-based planning and design firm planningAlliance (pA) has helped clients to plan, design and construct communities large and small in more than 50 countries since 1978. The pA team – which includes 75 planners, urban designers, architects, engineers and social scientists – has managed the design and master planning of a huge variety of private- and public-sector projects, from new cities and sustainable college campuses to industrial complexes and subdivisions. The pA team often works in conjunction with affiliated companies, regionalArchitects and rePlan, to transform spaces and places to the specifications that will best serve the future interests of stakeholder communities, from single neighbourhoods to entire regions.

planningAlliance HQ

Founding Principal John van Nostrand is a Fellow of both the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Canadian Institute of Planners. His portfolio boasts a number of awards from local and international organizations praising his expertise in planning and architecture, as well as his involvement in building global communities. The firm has offices in Toronto, Edmonton, Accra (Ghana) and Quito (Ecuador), and operates in numerous languages.

Good Development is Good Business

The firm offers a broad variety of services geared at the successful development or redevelopment of cities, towns and communities. The company is dedicated to realizing functional, affordable, beautiful, environmentally responsible and socially inclusive projects by working in close collaboration with the stakeholders, clients and residents affected by them. The pA team strongly believes in community meetings to address short- and long-term wants, needs and concerns of those who will make use of these designed places and spaces in the future. The company’s innovative approach to community consultation emphasizes the importance of the history and geography of the people working and living in the project area, and their immediate needs and ongoing aspirations.

For pA, public meetings, stakeholder engagement sessions and design charrettes serve an important purpose: They allow the exchange of ideas, including ideas about environmental responsibility, social progress and solid economic returns. Implications of every project are examined locally and globally, because a successful project improves not only a community but also the country it is part of and indeed the world at large.

The company is experienced in planning neighbourhoods, cities, towns, regions, subdivisions, streets and public spaces and provides master plans for major redevelopments and transit-oriented plans that are focused entirely around how people get around in these locations. Van Nostrand offers some history on the ever-changing industry as follows:

“Between 1900 and 1950, cities in North America like Toronto grew without formal planning. In the ‘50s, post-World War II communities began to embrace the idea of planning. Developers started to plan largely suburban neighbourhoods that were designed not to be changed. It was very appealing to get away from the grow-as-you-go neighbourhoods of the older city. However, the problem was that cities always change, and our firm is now actively involved in the design of communities that can change – in a planned way – over time.”

The same philosophies were applied to cities, with different segments of human life incorporated into districts and neighbourhoods. But, van Nostrand continues, “The issue arose that the people doing the real work couldn’t afford to live there.”

To accommodate this income gap, the high-rise apartment building was born. “Toronto has the second most high-rise apartment buildings in North America after New York City,” reveals van Nostrand, who goes on to state that the business of planning continues to be in a state of transformation. With urban populations booming, communities are being designed or redesigned with flexibility in mind. The pA team, for one, is in the process of implementing a planned community that will occupy 12,000 acres in the northeastern corner of the Greater Toronto Area.

planningAlliance City View

“It’s called the Central Pickering Development Plan,” van Nostrand explains. “The community is designed for a population of 70,000 now, but that can be intensified to 120,000 over time. Cities now acknowledge that evolution. There’s no more planning for a final product, because great cities do change … we’re at the edge of a new period of planning. We’re making cities more affordable for people, more affordable for governments, more sustainable and more attractive.”

Central Pickering is currently being subdivided and holds space for business, commerce, and residences. A 3,500-acre area to the west will be preserved in perpetuity for near-urban agriculture. The sky-view drawing for this project previews the preservation of green space, which van Nostrand says occupies over 60 percent of the populated area. Sustaining the natural features of the region protects streams and aquifers that supply drinking water and irrigate the agricultural section of the community.

Learning Locally and Globally

Much of pA’s recent business consists of modern boom-towns in northern Canada. The company has seen an influx of work creating regional development plans for areas that are experiencing rapid growth in response to mining, and oil and natural gas development. Initially, many of these communities were housing workers in trailers, which soon grew with expanding business to vast trailer camps.

“You’ve got 70,000 workers living in trailers in the Alberta Oil Sands extracting a resource that will take 300 years to extract,” explains van Nostrand. “These camps are costing the oil companies a lot of money and introducing big social issues. You’ve got drugs, drinking, problems stemming from extreme boredom and over-crowding.”

He believes the solution lies in a return to building proper towns. “We work with our clients to develop long-term communities, sometimes called ‘starter cities,’ so that as the economy grows around the natural resources projects, the community booms. It becomes a Calgary or an Edmonton.” If properly planned, these cities are successful and allow room for growth and urban evolution.

planningAlliance Aerial View

Many of pA’s projects abroad are similar to the starter-city projects in northern Canada, but the company’s development services are sought for many reasons. After the 2004 Tsunami that devastated northern Indonesia, pA worked in cooperation with CARE International and the Indonesian government to prepare a long-term reconstruction program for the region. The company developed a plan that resulted in the construction of 8,000 permanent new homes in the region to house displaced locals, and collaborated with community members throughout the planning process to devise village and town plans to include community service facilities and rebuild local infrastructure.

Working in collaboration with its two affiliated companies, regionalArchitects and rePlan, pA consistently delivers development forms that enrich the relationships between people and their evolving worlds. By incorporating all scales of a neighbourhood, city or region into a big-picture philosophy, pA has earned a reputation for groundbreaking service and innovative projects in Ontario, across Canada and around the world.

Van Nostrand believes that projects on different continents inform projects on the home front and vice versa. “I’d say Canada is still a developing country,” he says. “We learn a great deal from our international projects and the communities they serve.” Taking into consideration local culture and international experience, planningAlliance will continue to help realize the communities of tomorrow today.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Dougan & Associates