Culture  Food for thought

Cross-university student panel discusses using design to feed cities

Universities produce dreams. This means that, as university students, we are allowed, even encouraged, to indulge in fantasies about personal or universal utopias, a fact that makes some people mutter about ivory towers and the like. Others, however, think that dreams are the first step toward real change. Among this latter group are a number of students from McGill, UQÀM, Université Laval, Carleton, and Ryerson, who this Tuesday will showcase their dreams for a better city at the vernissage for this year’s edition of the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Inter-university Charrette.

Inter-university charrettes have taken place every fall since 1995 in Montreal. Each year, over the course of a couple of days of intense effort, teams of students – usually of design, architecture, or urban planning – work to find solutions to one specific problem related to the city. By encouraging community participation through ads and a public exhibition, the organizers of the charrette hope to create a dialogue that can inspire city inhabitants to refashion their space to suit their needs.

These are lofty aims, yes. But at the same time, the problems that the charrettes tackle are very real; they are issues that may not be taken on because of the lack of short-term financial incentives, but that must nonetheless be solved.

An illuminating example is this year’s project, titled “Nourishing the City.”

“We’re on the verge of a global food crisis,” says Nik Luka, a professor at McGill’s School of Architecture and the head coordinator of this year’s charrette. Further, he notes that food production is not a part of society’s idea of the city, saying that our current practice of importing our food from the four corners of the earth is one that we must realize is unsustainable. Like every industry, food production becomes more lucrative when it’s centralized and large enough to reach economies of scale. But this is an untenable situation, and one that puts great strain on the environment, and making healthy whole foods unnecessarily expensive. The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Charrette advocates that food production be closer to home, and asks its participants to think about solutions that may enable this, and thus improve food security.

While submissions to the charrette have often included plans for projects that are too large to be pragmatic, the main point of the event is to inspire and raise awareness among stakeholders in the issues discussed. Nevertheless, Luka says that this year, the charrette may lead to more direct implementation of ideas, a benefit of larger networks and closer collaboration with the community. The CCA and the universities are working together with the Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal and Nourrir Montréal, two community groups that have a prolonged relationships with the Parc Extension area, this year’s intervention site. Though not wealthy, the neighbourhood has a vibrant community, largely due to its status as a gateway community, and is home to many immigrants, who are active in seeking new networks.

“Public life becomes more important when private housing isn’t great,” explains Luka. Additionally, the neighbourhood is one of those increasingly rare places that has not yet been subjected to gentrification, and this is another challenge for the charrette teams: improving the quality of life without new development on every street corner.

Emily Reinhart, a U2 Architecture student who will participate in the charrette as a part of her studio class, thinks the project is a great opportunity to try out a design competition, which will be an important part of her career as an architect. Social concerns are often said not to get any room in the commercial world, but Reinhart thinks she will find a way to integrate them into her future work.

“Because of what our professors have stressed in class, they have made us more socially conscious,” Reinhart comments. “[Professors] have really ingrained [in us] the importance of building a city suitable to human needs.”

Change must and will emanate from dreamy ideas. The ivory tower only becomes a reality if those thoughts stay within the university walls. So long as students maintain two-way communication with communities, we should think up as many great dreams as we can. It’s a cliché, but true nonetheless: if we wildly aim for the stars, there is always the risk that we end up somewhere in the treetops – and that’s not half bad.

All of the submitted projects will be exhibited at a vernissage at La Société des arts technologiques (1195 St. Laurent) November 11 at 5 p.m.