Hold the Concrete, Save the Shrubs

[I] went for a 10.2 mile jog in the old Maple Leaf Gardens arena last Tuesday.

As outlandish as that sentence may be, that’s arguably the “coolest” indoor exercise facility in the neighbourhood – well, for those who appreciate a historic substance of Toronto. But as euphoric as it was, I would have preferred to run outside.

That doesn’t negate Ryerson’s impressive ability to expand its boundaries and re-invent the architecture and hardscapes. As the fastest growing university in the country, Ryerson’s been building non-stop for the last decade.

A recreational facility at Maple Leaf Gardens is only one of its new seductive charms.

In the arena of urban design, digital media is a major trend influencing the modern architecture and educational programs at Ryerson, which feeds from the 24-hour open space the internet provides as a learning environment.

At the same time in Ryerson’s physical learning environment, sustainability and green innovation are trending; the farmers market every Tuesday, the Quinoa burger at the Ram in the Rye, the homegrown garden on Gould Street.

But a campus divided in block buildings, concrete walls and glass panes is not sexy – the campus needs to be as appealing as the free space that digital media works within; a place where ideas can be openly discussed in an informal setting.

“We need places where students can sit under a tree and read, sit and chat, as opposed to hardscape with no vegetation,” said Dr. Chris De Sousa, Ryerson’s Director of Urban Planning.

De Sousa believes that creating more functional green spaces is a way to create good educational space – but there aren’t many spots. A challenge for Ryerson lies between building a community for a major commuter school while fashioning spaces that offer three elements: education, recreation and aesthetics.

De Sousa argues one example of Ryerson’s reputation for innovation can be seen in the movable chairs and tables sprinkled on Gould Street. People are free to create their own spaces on the street. Theft could be an issue, but the majority of students don’t live close to campus. Lawn chairs on GO trains aren’t practical.

De Sousa argues that commuter schools are more in need of recreational space and tight urban spaces need practicality. “One of the goals is to keep people on campus,” he said, “You can create an environment where people want to sit and relax, outside as well as inside.”

Natural areas with trees have a cognitive affect, according to De Sousa. A design concept that embodies a solution to community is ‘green infrastructure,’ which he argues, contributes to aesthetics, is psychologically pleasing and educates anyone, student or passer-by.

A report released by Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition called Health, Prosperity and Sustainability argued natural landscape is an essential component to a healthy and sustainable place and solves urban issues related to interactivity and stress.

But not every student may want to sit under a tree, and ‘wait for godot’ perhaps. Some students may have come to Ryerson for the gritty urbanism or to be downtown and part of a city.

I originally came to Ryerson to be downtown, but too much time in concrete hardscapes drives me off campus to find greener grass. Originally as an institution, Ryerson’s philosophy was to give hands-on learning and drive graduates to “hit the ground running.” The treadmill is good for training, but outside there are no limits (mother nature permitting).

“We cannot be all things to all people,” says De Sousa, but building community is of equal or greater value as the buildings themselves.

Integrating the trend of digital media into our programs, Ryerson is supposed to teach students to leave with hand-on skills for a digital environment. As a university, Ryerson is also supposed to teach its students how to think critically. Those two skill sets run together.

The same applies to Ryerson’s environment. If the design carried fluidity with practical study nooks, social winterscapes, or bio-soils between the hardscapes, the more intimate our space may be; a place where we feel comfortable, a place we don’t want to leave, and a place we are free to think and free to learn.