Ronald Kellett, elementslab
Ron is a professor of landscape architecture and leads elementslab, an applied research group at UBC that is helping to redefine urban planning and public participation.
When Ronald Kellett engages citizens through his work at UBC’s elementslab, one of the most invigorating aspects of his job is when he sees people change their minds. “I like to illustrate how different points of view might shape a city,” says Ron, “and demonstrate how different views perform under different criteria.” Housed in the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC, elementslab is an applied research group that blends together cutting edge tools, municipal planning, and civic participation to help shape the environments we live in.
“Planning is an abstract concept to most people. The issues are complex. The scales — blocks, neighbourhoods, cities, regions are difficult to visualize. The timeframes are long,” notes Ron, “Meanwhile, familiar mechanisms of public consultation — town halls, community meetings, workshops — have become less effective means of engaging citizens in productive planning conversations.” Elementslab is helping to redefine how the City of Vancouver and other municipalities engage with residents and stakeholders in urban planning and decision-making by harnessing new technologies in a way that participatory design advocates of the 1970s and 80s could have only dreamed about. “We came into being with a mission to develop new approaches and tools that enable people to see the impacts of various urban planning alternatives,” explains Ron.
For example, on the neighbourhood scale, Ron and his team conducted a series of interactive workshops to draw the connection between land use, transportation, energy, and green space to support Marpole’s community plan. Going up a level, elementslab then worked to create visualizations and 3D models of what the Cambie Corridor would look like under a number of proposed development scenarios. On a city scale, Ron and an elementslab team hit the road to Revelstoke and engaged citizens in interactive planning workshops that explored long term community change through energy, emissions, and livability lenses.
“We’re still trying to do what was right 30 years ago in terms of engaging people in urban decision-making,” says Ron. As a professor of landscape architecture he explains that during his formative years in Oregon, planning was at a stalemate in regard to environmental issues. “At the time, growth management and environmentalists couldn’t reconcile with each other’s positions,” relates Ron “We needed to be able to collaborate in order to move forward and reach mutual goals and land use priorities.” When city plans are drawn up they often contain explicit planning goals loaded with terms like “livability”, “dwelling diversity”, or “access to nature”. But what do these words really mean? To elementslab, the fun comes when they challenge people to really think about how to measure these goals on the ground.”
So what exactly inspired Ron and elementslab to conduct this novel form of civic engagement? “For me, the turning point was in seeing the world as a series of systems that could be mapped,” states Ron. According to him it wasn’t a singular technological breakthrough as much as the emergence of a palette of accessible tools, such as visualization software and touch tables that helped to make their work practical. To Ron and his team, the real “secret sauce” is their extensive database called elementsdb. “Elementsdb is the enabling technology, it’s a library of information that profiles the density, energy, and other footprints of real urban spaces and buildings,” he explains. With the database in place, the lab can create indicators and quantify and spatialize information around urban planning and buildings. In Revelstoke, for example, citizens were invited to play in a “virtual sandbox” where they were asked to design their own neighbourhood plans that balanced density and transportation factors with greenhouse gas emissions.
Why does Ron get excited about his work? “It’s all about making engagement meaningful to people. We can facilitate better civic dialogue where people fully understand the tradeoffs they are making,” explains Ron. In the end, elementslab is all about making urban planning accessible for people. Their work represents the future of decision-making in the public arena and could lead to more livable cities with smaller GHG footprints and better community buy-in. Besides, who wouldn’t want to participate in one of their sessions? As self-described tool makers they make some pretty fun toys to play with.