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Stan Leinwand at the Urbanism Lab. Photos provided by NCC.

CityMakers: Interview with NCC urban planner Stan Leinwand

By Taylor Howarth on August 20, 2019


Taylor Howarth is Apt613’s correspondent at Synapcity, an Ottawa non-profit for civic engagement, connecting people across diverse communities to share perspectives and create positive change. Taylor met up with Stan Leinwand to discuss the National Capital Commission’s Urbanism Lab, and what urbanism means in Ottawa.

Stan Leinwand is an urban planner originally from Montreal who is the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) Acting Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Services. The Urbanism Lab is a joint project of the Capital Planning and Public Affairs branches of the NCC. Stan’s role at the Lab is to staff the internal steering committee, brainstorm ideas for the space, and coordinate speakers for their speaker series.

Apt613: Who are you, Stan?

Stan Leinwand: I’m a professional planner and urban designer. I’m originally from Montreal, and I studied at McGill and Laval. I spent eleven years working in the States, came back to Canada and have been here in Ottawa since. I’ve been working at the NCC for nine years. My original position in the planning department was a Senior Planner in charge of communications and outreach. So, part of my role from the beginning has always been outreach.

How do you define Urbanism?

Just to be clear, this is not an NCC definition of what urbanism is. This is a Stan Leinwand, urban planner and designer definition of what urbanism is. So, urbanism is the study of the workings of a city from a social, political, economic, and environmental perspective. How those all interact together creates urbanism. It’s the study of the way cities work. And whether urbanism is successful or not, depends on whether each of those elements or elements thereof are successful.

“Urbanism is the study of the workings of a city from a social, political, economic, and environmental perspective.”

So, it includes design of place, design of buildings, design of communities, how communities interact, transportation issues, mobility, socioeconomic equality. All of those things are, to me, part of what I see as good urbanism. For there to be good urbanism, you must have successful elements in all of those things.

Ottawa is a very unique creature though, which I’m sure you know, since amalgamation: it’s an urban centre, but it’s extremely rural. Urbanism writ large is bigger than just the downtown core, it isn’t just city life, city living. It includes village living, but there’s no word that says “ville-urbanism” or whatever. Urbanism is a catch-all phrase in my mind that incorporates all of those things. I wouldn’t use urbanism to describe country living or to describe rural living or rural issues necessarily, but small towns and small villages deal with urbanism.

What inspired the NCC to open the Urbanism Lab?

The Lab was the brainchild of our previous CEO, Dr. Mark Kristmanson. Just after he started, he sent an open invitation to staff to explore this idea he had. And that’s the genesis of it. There were over thirty people from across the organization that showed up. We brainstormed about his vision, what other people saw would be the benefits, and how they thought it could develop and what that would mean. It was really interesting because people had different interpretations about what an urban design lab could be and what benefits it could bring, how it would be developed, whether it’s an esoteric idea, whether it’s a physical space.

Dr. Kristmanson said the idea was based on what are called idea labs, like the Guggenheim Lab, the Google lab, or Pixar and Disney. It’s a space for ideation, where people can come together, share ideas, and explore new ways of thinking.

And part of the idea behind it was also to show that the NCC—and I hope the comms person is going to be okay with this—is not an ivory tower organization, which is an unfortunate criticism that in the past has been levelled against us. The Lab shows that we are actually a grassroots, ideas-based organization with talented, passionate people. And the idea was that we would have these discussions with the public to show that we are wanting to be on the forefront of ideas. We’re not stuck in an office tower behind closed doors making decisions, we’re bringing in people to learn from other places because we don’t have all the answers here.

“The Lab shows that we are actually a grassroots, ideas-based organization with talented, passionate people.”

And Ottawa, just like any city, tends to have certain groups or a culture where things have always been done in a certain way. And the Urbanism Lab was created to break that idea both internally at the NCC and externally within the entire community and show that there’s all kinds of exciting things happening across Canada and other parts of the world in urbanism, whether it’s from design, culture, really anything related to our mandate planning. The basis of it is “let’s learn together with the public and see how that can influence what we do.”

“The basis of it is ‘let’s learn together with the public and see how that can influence what we do.'”

Did Dr. Kristmanson’s vision inspire the creation of this physical space for this specific purpose?

After the 2013 federal budget, the NCC’s mandate was slightly changed and we lost one of our functions, Capital Experience, which went back to Canadian Heritage. So, when that happened, we had space that was freed up in our buildings. And so that’s from a physical perspective where the idea came. Hey, we’ve got this empty space, let’s use it for something instead of it going to waste.

So, it was completely a pop up kind of idea. But from an internal perspective, the idea was that it would be a gathering space that would help break down silos internally. The Lab has a public face and it has an internal face as well too. We have our public events, we do public consultations in this space now, we do internal brainstorming, we do internal workshops on major issues or specific projects we are working on.

What does the Urbanism Lab offer residents of the capital region?

That they get motivated; inspired by different things; that they see what they can contribute. So, for an individual community member, what they can contribute, what their community can contribute, what they can ask of their counsellors, what they can ask of us. You know, some might say that it’s risky what we’re doing because we’re bringing in creative, innovative new ideas and putting them out there in the public. And from a risk management standpoint you’re creating expectations, which yes, we are creating expectations, but we also strive for excellence.

It’s both for us and for our colleagues, the professionals, and the general public who come to our events and use them as continuing education in professional development and an opportunity for them to know more about what’s going on elsewhere so they know what to ask for and they know what could be and what they could have here in the Capital Region.

The NCC’s Urbanism Lab is a free, monthly lecture series that runs between September and June. Visit their website to stay up to date on the latest Labs, and to find links to recordings of past Labs.