Edmonton’s Interlacing of Urban Design and Academia

by Zosia Czarnecka

On May 27th, Cappsule will be hosting a full day of conversations to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship among millennials. One of the invited speakers is Robin Mazumder – a Vanier Scholar studying at Waterloo. His PhD explores the impact of urban design on mental health. Yesterday, The Wanderer had the opportunity to speak with Robin on the phone about his research and his thoughts on Edmonton’s urban design.

I understand that your PhD is on the psychological effects of urban design – could you describe your research for us briefly?

My PhD is in cognitive neuroscience but we consult with a lot of different professionals such as architects and urban designers for our studies. I use virtual reality to build cities and then I expose people to them while changing certain variables. My goal is to see how changing the variables in these environments contributes to stress. I can then measure peoples’ stress response using a variety of techniques such as looking at their heart rate variability, blood pressure, even their levels of sweating. We also compliment the work with real-world studies. The reason we use VR in the lab setting is to be able to peel apart the specific variables affecting a person’s level of stress. One of my experiments right now is looking at how being surrounded by skyscrapers can impact someone’s level of stress and anxiety. The study is based on another test that was done seven years ago that had some anecdotal evidence that people feel crowded and claustrophic when they’re in that setting.

What are your thoughts on the proposed 80-storey tower that is set to go up in downtown Edmonton?

That’s a contentious item right now. On a level beyond the research I’m doing, I can see the benefit of having more people in downtown Edmonton – I think we need more people in downtown Edmonton in order to become a vibrant hub with sustained street life. However, I think we can get this in a different way as well. I don’t think we need 80-storey towers being built, I think we can build mid-rise buildings. Just think of all the empty parking lots – why not turn those into residences?

This year with the Oilers being in the playoffs downtown saw a lot more foot traffic than usual and businesses thrived from the increased number of customers. Unfortunately there’s still a large disconnect between the downtown community and students in Edmonton – how do you think we can connect downtown businesses with the student communities on the other side of the river?

I used to live on Whyte Avenue and I was perplexed that two of this city’s busiest areas (Whyte and Jasper Ave) are not connected by transit. There are a few busses but the commute is not as easy as it could be. I was always a proponent of using the streetcar to facilitate connections between Whyte Ave and downtown Edmonton. We have the infrastructure in place already – we could use that to run a two-stop shuttle between Whyte and Jasper. Living in Toronto, I’ve seen students living all over the city – they’re not just concentrated in one area. If transit is difficult, people will not engage with businesses or events because getting there is too challenging.

In promoting community thinking and collaboration, do you think there should be more efforts in Edmonton to connect the different academic campuses? (MacEwan, UofA, Concordia)?

Yes, definitely – I think there’s a lot of untapped potential there. I used to work at NAIT – I ran a startup accelerator there for about a year and I know there was a lot of interest in making it easy to bounce from campus to campus. Students can really add life to a city. I grew up in Victoria, we lived close to university – we saw what having students did for a city and then what happened when students weren’t around. Students are important for various reasons from bringing new ideas to spending their money at local businesses. At NAIT, we always made our programs accessible to students from all campuses – I think it’s key to give people a reason to go to other campuses and give them collaborative projects and programs to participate it. Looking at UofA, MacEwan, and NAIT you can see that they all offer very different things and very different expertise that a lot of people could benefit from.

I recently read your article about the importance of libraries as hubspots and Think Tanks in growing cities. Edmonton already has a library downtown and yet it’s not particularly well known as a Think Tank… do you think it’s a matter of redesigning the library or does the problem have to do with the surrounding area?

Before I did my PhD, I worked as a community mental health occupational therapist – I worked with a lot of people who were living in poverty and on the street and the library was actually one of the only spaces in a big city where everyone could feel part of a community. I think it’s important for a library to be a space for everyone. I think the best Think Tank and the best space to generate new ideas is a space that everyone can access. There was a quote that said, “If it’s not accessible to the poor, then it’s not going to be revolutionary”. Considering startup culture, while some of these ideas may be revolutionary, they involve a specific crowd. When we talk about innovation and new ideas, they can come at the risk of gentrification or pushing people out of a community and I think it’s very important to be aware of that. Edmonton has a really cool opportunity with its library to start a creative space that everyone can access. Part of that will come through education of the public as to why this is important and part of it will come from the design of the space itself.

Why did you decide to come to Cappsule and what are you most excited for about the day?

I was very honoured to be invited to speak at the day. I don’t think I really count as a millennial but I’m really excited about how the conference is looking to engage the millennial voice. I think if anyone can get us out of the mess that we’re in right now around the world, it’s going to be milennials. Their perspectives, ideas, and energy are what’s going to save us and I’m very excited to engage with them at the conference.

Photography courtesy of Anne Williams.

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