ULI Toronto News

This architecture and design firm developed a framework for understanding, measuring and improving community wellbeing

By Jessica Myers, Yonge + St Clair

On May 9th, 2018, ULI Toronto members were hosted by architecture and design firm Dialog for a breakfast discussion focused on a unique framework their company has been working on for over two years on the idea of community wellbeing.

Held within Dialog’s offices at 2 Bloor Street East, Principal Architects Antonio Gomez-Palacio and Craig Applegath spoke about their mission to measure and then improve community wellbeing surrounding architectural projects.

The session provided an overview of the methodology, exemplified by some case studies and pilot projects that Dialog has worked on in the past.

After introductions from ULI Executive Director Richard Joy, and opening remarks from Applegath, Palacio introduced the concept that has been integrated into the firm’s many projects. He took the crowd through a descriptive journey by first posing a question about how to know when you’re actually improving wellbeing in a measurable and understandable way.

Dialog was able to go about understanding it by partnering with the Conference Board of Canada (CBoC), a not-for-profit applied research organization that delivers insights on economics, public policy and organizational performance. The CBoC allowed them better understand the metrics behind the meta research and interviews they examined and gathered over the past two years. The research included over 3,000 pieces of literature from various sources including clients, municipal staff, city mayors and chief medical officers. According to Palacio, working with the CBoC made sense because “they are research experts in developing robust research methodologies.”

After reviewing all of the data and literature, they had to ask themselves “how do we define community wellbeing?” It then took Dialog six months to get to that definition. “Well, we actually adopted a well understood definition that is used in Australia, and other places use it to understand their environment. It’s a combination of a number of domains which are: Social, Environmental, Economic, Cultural, and Political.”

“This was a tremendous watershed moment for us in the conversation,” says Palacio. “It meant that no longer it was a top down externally imposed system that you would force into a project. All of a sudden it had to be a system that had to be tailored and nuanced and really emerge on a project by project, community by community, context by context basis. This was so important that it actually became reinforced in the second part of the definition. That individuals and communities had to be part of the conversation.”

This idea behind conversation launched them into an effort to understand more about the important conversations that needed to be had through the context of a project from the communities and individuals themselves. Initiating these conversations led to the design of the Community Wellbeing Framework Wheel which now has a place at every desk at Dialog. The wheel is used in the context of all their projects from inception to occupancy. It highlights their definition of community wellbeing through the layering of domains, while addressing the indicators and metrics that inform them (see wheel attached).

Palacio took time to go over a few case studies involving architectural projects that Dialog has worked on in the past. He demonstrated through these case studies how they implemented the framework into the conversation from day one. Starting with the Durham Regional Police project which was “fairly complex, but also fairly typical of issues that a mid-sized project would start to deal with,” said Palacio.

Digging into the first domain which is Social, Dialog explored the first indicator within the domain ‘welcoming.’ “Clearly, if a project is not designed to be welcoming to everybody regardless of background, regardless of physical abilities and regardless of income, it wasn’t going to be contributing to the broader well being of the community. It was really was important to make welcoming a significant part of the conversation on any project from day one.”

While exploring the other indicators that make up the Social domain — support systems and socialization — it was easy for Dialog to see how, at times, these indicators are not realized until after a project is complete.This reinforces the notion that these are conversations to have in the early stages. Palacio then went on to explore other case studies involving their projects, such as “The Banks,” a residential project in Saskatoon, “Decidedly Jazz,” a mixed-use building in Calgary, the LRT project in Edmonton, and a wayfinding project in the City of Toronto.

In terms of now using the framework with every project they start, and making it available to other city builders, Palacio said, “We’ve started to use it on a number of different projects, we’re really testing it out. All of this research we’re just putting it all out there. We’re not keeping any intellectual property on it. We’re sharing it with everybody in the world.”

CBoC’s research report, Community Wellbeing: A Framework for the Design Professions, will be officially released on July 18, 2018.


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