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25 November 2015

A Conversation With HOK’s Bryan Jones, Vice President and Regional Leader of Planning in Canada

Bryan Jones, CSLA, LEED AP, who is based in Toronto, leads HOK’s planning practice in Canada, providing expertise in large-scale master planning, urban design and landscape architecture.

Bryan JonesJones and his team work closely with clients throughout a project’s process, from developing initial concepts through on-site construction supervision. He has worked with clients across Canada and in the US, UK, Colombia, Germany, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Taiwan.

Describe a typical day.

Jones: Our Canadian planning practice has the privilege of working closely with HOK clients and team members in offices all over the globe. This results in frequent travel and communications at all hours. My day starts after a good walk or jog with my dog. It is important to begin the day with a clear head. I make an effort to touch base with my entire team every day. These conversations are often informal – project status updates and discussions.

What do you love about design?

I love that design is always a challenge and a thrill, whether we are designing for a traditionally utilitarian purpose or a signature project. Planners and landscape architects look at a client’s challenges and bring people’s lifestyles into the design. It’s not just about plants and paving – it’s about creating places that people enjoy interacting with.

Some of the most meaningful aspects of design are not necessarily tangible. As an urban dweller who was raised in the countryside, for example, I believe it’s important to create quiet spaces such as car-free zones. When these features can be identified early in the process and included in a design, they provide small victories along the way.

Describe your design process. What inspires you?

I take a holistic approach. Everything in nature – from plants and animals to geological formations – exists as part of a community and is dependent on something else. The same is true of an urban environment. We can create a design statement to give something cultural relevance, but to sustain itself it needs to function as a community.

A site’s history is important to my design process. I look at a landscape and consider how people have used that space over the millennia. Even in a relatively young country like Canada, I imagine the different stages the land has gone through from glacier to today. I live in a historic district in downtown Toronto. When it was built, this neighbourhood was completely serviced by horses and carts. There was no machinery to dig out the foundations of the buildings. It’s fascinating to see how people living in the community have readapted or repurposed these buildings.

What is a recent project in which you were able to marry site and history?

The Canadian practice is working on a project that is signature and utilitarian: the revitalization of Brunswick Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Brunswick-Street

Brunswick Street descends down Citadel Hill to the harbor, exposing the aging parking podium of the surrounding 1970s apartment buildings. To disguise the podium and make the site more inviting, our planning team introduced retail shops and outdoor seating. By emphasizing street life, the revitalization creates a more pedestrian-friendly area. We also started to create internal site paths and random niches where people will be able to pause for a break along the street corridor. Interestingly enough, we found a similar fabric when old photos of the area started to surface.

What is the most significant planning issue facing your community?

As Canada and the rest of the world turn to vertical living as a solution to urban densification, we are challenged to transform living environments. In Canada, though, our national identity is linked to the wilderness. As a culture, we’re facing the question of how to bring rejuvenating wild spaces into the urban environment and marry our national identity with urban expansion.

Toronto faces many issues concerning public transportation. A healthy infrastructure is intricately tied to mental well-being. Ease of movement around the city is one of the most significant improvements to urban life we can make for Toronto. Since I moved to Toronto in 1997, I have seen people begin to address this challenge as part of taking ownership of their communities.

Read a blog post on improving transit in Toronto, coauthored by Jones.

What elements of other cities would you like to see implemented in your city?

Toronto’s residential laneways and alleyways are aspects of the old city plan that can be reclaimed. Though we have historically turned our backs on them, they are interesting spaces with intimate, pedestrianized proportions. With more residential infill, these laneways have the potential to become pedestrian corridors and accommodate small-format commercial spaces that are affordable to small business owners. Cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Berlin are putting businesses in these back alleys. These are tight spaces – but large enough for a flower shop, for example. People then start to see that space as a piece of their community.

I would like to see Canadian cities explore how we relate to wilderness in the urban jungle. Other countries, including the Netherlands, are implementing initiatives to create wilderness zones in their cities, re-wilding and reintroducing plants and mammals that historically would have coexisted. Given our natural resources and the role wilderness plays in our national identity, Canadian cities have an opportunity to integrate city and nature.

What’s your favourite place in the world?

I love being in nature and I think wilderness is nourishing for the soul. So no matter where I am in the world, I always seek nature.