It’s late afternoon on a Friday – I’ve ducked out of work to root through local recycling bins for cardboard tubes. I am packing for DesignInquiry Montréal – to explore the UNESCO designated City of Design.
I am not entirely sure how to prepare. I've gathered supplies; some thick sharpies, a book titled The Map as Art by Katharine Harmon and a few very large sheets of Stonehenge. I’m on a hunt for a cardboard tube to protect the paper during the flight. Luckily, with the help of Thunder Bay’s Home Hardware I scavenge a cardboard inner tube from a roll of artificial turf.
Biking with a metre long cardboard tube tucked underneath my armpit turns out to be easier then it looks. I am relegated to the sidewalk because there’s no room for me, my bike and the tube on the busy expressway that cuts through Thunder Bay. Other cyclists pass me on the sidewalk. I carefully slip past one pedestrian – but don’t see any other people walking.
Cycling and, arguably, walking are marginalized activities in this city – with only a few bike lanes recently carved into the urban design. The multiple lanes of vehicles speeding past me provide a steady spray of exhaust and dry grit. It begins to rain.
Riding past car-dealerships, chain stores and orphaned shopping carts gets me thinking about the differences between the average city and what makes a UNESCO City of Design. As I understand it, being a city of design refers largely to the creative production that comes out of the city not how the city itself is designed, however, I am curious about built environments that can actually fuel a certain kind of cultural production.
This relationship between city infrastructure and design production is noted in the City of Design list of criteria. The checklist includes a requirement for the city to have a cultural landscape fuelled by design and the built environment. Another requirement is to have opportunities for local designers to take advantage of local materials and urban or natural conditions. It states that good design must contribute to the quality and sustainability of the living environment.
After spending several months in Thunder Bay I see how creating an inspiring cultural landscape isn’t always a priority for all cities. Reaching this standard requires some official support, grassroots efforts and clever integrated community sustainability planning (ICSP). During this trip, I want to focus in on how communication designers relate to the sustainable design city.
I need to understand what a sustainable design city is. For preliminary research I created a survey to ask Montréal designers general questions about the UNESCO criteria. The survey (Montréal une Ville de Design Durable et Responsible) asks Montréal communication and package designers about the cultural landscape that fuels them and what kind of local materials they’ve tried to use. It was done in partnership with Luce Beaulieu of Perennia Design – who helped refine the questions, translate them and send them out to the Société des Designers Graphiques du Québec and the Project d’Action Consommation Tranquille (PACT) network. (Results will be posted to this blog once they are collected).
I consulted with a municipal sustainability planner and colleague, Angela Evans, about where graphic designers fit in the sustainable design city. Evans encourages me to consider city systems such as air quality, solid waste, water waste and sewers. She suggests looking at how these systems affect designers and how designers affect these systems.
She offers questions to ask, “Can we better use cities to get what we need? What would a city where sustainable design happened look like?” Evans is on a roll, “What happens when engineers share ideas with biologists, ecologists, landscape architects?” She directs me to Noel Harding’s functioning sculpture The Elevated Wetlands in Toronto. And Frederick Hundertwasser's public toilets in Kawakawa, New Zealand.
Based on these visionary ideas I am filling my notebook with causal loop diagrams on city systems, timelines of historical change and the potential for future cities. There is one page of my Moleskine with a scribbled note to myself, “learn how their cool BIXI bike system works.” I make it home with the tube damp but intact. The roll of Stonehenge slides neatly inside. I am ready to go!
Find out more about Montréal as a UNESCO City of Design and the imprint posted above here.