Change Leader Full Interview: Transforming the World toward a Better Outcome
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Antonio Gomez-Palacio, Arq. MES, RPP, MCIP, MRAIC, is a principal at DIALOG, focusing on the intersection of architecture, planning and urban design.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before DIALOG.
Gomez-Palacio: I started as an architect in Mexico and was practicing there. I discovered that many of the questions I was trying to deal with, which had to do with sustainability and social equity and how we relate to each other as a community, were really being dealt with at the urban scale, so I decided to go back to school and did a master’s degree in environmental studies and urban planning. I then started a practice focusing on the city-building scale and urban planning. I launched a firm with a couple of colleagues in 2004, Office for Urbanism. In 2010, we merged with some other colleagues and formed DIALOG.
V1 Media: Could you explain your current role with DIALOG? You’re based in Toronto, correct?
Gomez-Palacio: That is correct, although it depends on the day of the week. I tend to bounce around a fair bit. I’m one of the principals. I lead the urban-planning side of things. Most of my work has to do with the urban scale or urban interaction—very much those things that have to do with how we as communities, as cities, engage. How does the work we do, the projects we do, have a positive impact on the broader community? That has me going through projects coast-to-coast—mostly in Canada, the United States, Mexico and other areas—really looking at how and where we can make that positive impact.
In the last several years, I’ve been focusing a lot of my work around the concept of community well-being, and how can we actually meaningfully and understandably and with some evidence bring and inform the planning and design conversation in terms of bringing indicators and metrics to the notion of community well-being, and how that influences planning and architecture and engineering and landscape.
Typically, the projects I get involved with tend to be complex and riddled with urban issues. I don’t plan subdivisions or typical greenfields, but areas where there’s a higher aspiration: downtowns, infield projects and transit projects—areas where there’s an idea of actually transforming the world toward a better outcome, where typically there are people already involved and living and engaged. They might be highly politicized environments already, or areas where communities are really trying and seeking to transform. I go to a variety of different cities that are trying to establish a positive vision around what they want to do in the future.
V1 Media: What would be your personal definition of “transit” and “urban planning”?
Gomez-Palacio: Let me put transit in a bit in context. The bigger conversation is about mobility. How do people move in and around cities? Transit is the aspiration that if we do things together, in terms of mobility, it’s more efficient and going to be much more sustainable.
There are different versions of transit. Certainly there are the buses, trams, streetcars and subways in which we can bring a group of people together and have a shared commute in a way that’s able to make better use of infrastructure, roads, energy and sustainability in all of these types of fronts.
Transit typically has been delivered through public agencies, so that’s where public transit makes a lot of sense. At the end of the day, it’s a community service and amenity and function that brings us together. Transit has become one of those catalyst conversations for the idea of city building. When city councils think about adding transit to their cities, they’re not just thinking about mobility. They’re thinking about community economic development; they’re thinking about regeneration of their economy; they’re thinking about all kinds of things. Transit is both a means and an end in how people are thinking about transforming their cities.
Urban planning, in itself, is an exercise in identifying what do you want as a city, what do you have, and how are you going to bridge the gap between what you have and what you want? Urban planning is an aspirational exercise that links vision to implementation. It’s about doing road maps, not only of what currently exists, but about the future potential. It’s always forward looking, but it’s always political in as much as it’s a conversation between all the different voices who participate.
Urban planning by excellence requires people coming together to have that conversation about what the future is, and how we’re going to deliver that together.
V1 Media: How would you describe the state of transit in North America? What are its strengths and weaknesses, and how does it compare globally?
Gomez-Palacio: In my mind, we’re in a really exciting time. In the 1950s, post-war, we collectively got distracted with the single-occupancy vehicle—the car—as the solution and way to solve a whole series of problems. We went down that pathway for many decades and discovered that car-based systems came along with a number of different pitfalls. It resulted in sprawling cities and an unsustainable urban environment, but also affected personal and family economies. In the last several decades, there’s been a real shift. The pendulum is going in the other direction of trying to bring much more sustainable ways of moving around, and different ways in which we can develop cities that are much more conducive to high quality of life. Hence there’s been a resurgence of prioritizing walking and cycling and active modes of transportation, but also transit.
The state of transit in North America is going in the positive direction; we’re building more transit and integrating it into all the active modes. We still have a long way to go. Many of our urban centers are under-built and under-supplied relative to the transit infrastructure. They’re still dominated by car-based urban patterns. We still have to really invest ourselves in it. I’m really optimistic about the direction in which things are heading. Pick any urban center; if they’re not building transit, they’re thinking about it, they’re really engaging in that conversation. It does take tenacity. It takes a fair bit of political will to get us to that point. Some are mustering it a little bit more than others. We can’t relent in that exercise.
Where does that compare internationally? Certainly there are international cities that are way ahead, partially because they had a pre-war urban fabric they can fall back on, but also some of them started this shift earlier than some North American cities. Everybody cites the cycling in Copenhagen or the transit infrastructure in capitals such as London or Paris as being fairly robust. It’s absolutely true; they’ve invested a lot in those environments. The positive is that we have good examples we can learn from, both in what works and what doesn’t. In North America, we can really start to build up toward some of those lessons learned and some of those precedents.
V1 Media: Since you’re based in Toronto, I was hoping you could speak about the differences in transit between Canada and the United States.
Gomez-Palacio: Canada never lost its downtown population in the same way many U.S. cities did during the post-war era, which meant there was always a mix of uses and strong population in the downtowns, which allowed them to keep its transit infrastructure to a greater extent. Toronto, for example, kept all its streetcars in the urban core as well a functioning subway system throughout, which is great. Many U.S. cities actually had streetcar systems, and they dismantled them over the course of the second part of the last century. Now they’re in the process of trying to rebuild that, and not just rebuild the infrastructure, but rebuild the behavior and the culture and the appetite for transit in many of those cities. Canada—and Toronto in particular—has a bit of a leg up on that.
Now the U.S. is heavily investing. I’m looking at cities like Los Angeles, which was car-oriented for such a long time. Now they’re investing incredibly; there are very few cities investing quite as much as LA is on transit. Certainly some of the older cities such as New York, or even cities such as Portland, which are really looking at transit not just as a service for a limited population, but actually as a quality of life piece, and it’s becoming a real hallmark. Nevertheless, there are still many cities lagging behind, and they really need to start to think about it.
Density often ends up being a big trigger for transit, because you need to serve a wide population. Also, congestion tends to be a disincentive to solving things through continuous road infrastructure. Many U.S. cities leading on transit tend to be those where density is a larger question.
V1 Media: How does DIALOG like to build transit spaces? What are some key principles or design elements?
Gomez-Palacio: A few years ago in Edmonton, we were engaging with the construction of an LRT (light rapid transit) and bumped into a condition that we often found: there’s a school of transit planning, or transit engineering, that’s very focused on just building ridership, getting people from A to B. But many of the reasons why municipal councils or communities want transit is because it ought to come along with a whole series of city-building initiatives.
At that time, we coined the term “sustainable urban integration,” which was the notion of refocusing the conversation around transit, not just around transit as a service, but how does it connect with a community? How are the transit corridors planned? How does the transit architecture of the stations prioritize and put passengers first, and become something that’s a hallmark of a quality of life? That’s when you shift from transit being used by the captive audience—people who have no choices—to choice riders: people who have choices but actually choose to use transit because it’s a better experience.
That, in many regards, has become our area of expertise. That’s what we add to any transit project. It’s to go above and beyond the sheer engineering of the transit system as an A-to-B type of route to really make it a passenger-first experience, a user-based experience, something that’s positively contributing to the community it comes along with, and is really maximizing all the other city-building opportunities: transit-oriented development and economic development as well as community economic development and the whole concept of community well-being.
The team we have at DIALOG includes urban planners, urban designers, architects and the engineering that has to do with a lot of the structures; so structural, mechanical, electrical, interior design, sustainability. We bring those into the transit conversations. We’ll team up with other folks who are doing the transit engineering and transit planning, and railways, and all of those kinds of things, but we really bring in that focus on design, that focus on sustainability, and that focus on urban integration.
V1 Media: Could you describe an end-to-end example of one of these sustainable transit systems?
Gomez-Palacio: I’ll elaborate on the city of Edmonton example, because we’ve now been working on that one probably close to a decade. That’s a light-rail transit, so it’s essentially long streetcars running on rails with a catenary system on top. It goes from the downtown all the way to the southeast of the city on one side, and then the northwest on the other side. It really goes from the edge of the city, through the downtown, into the edge of the city. I mention that because it ends up being very different neighborhoods that this system goes through. The downtown, of course, is more urban. It has a higher density. The buildings are up against the sidewalks. There are a lot of pedestrians milling around. There’s a predominance of hardscapes. It’s very heavily used at all times of day. Some of the outer areas are lower density. You now have neighborhoods with single-family, detached housing, wider streets. You have a lot of trees. You have some bucolic environments.
Clearly, we couldn’t do a system that reacted to every environment that it went through in the same way. We had to do something that was very context-specific. In fact, many of the neighborhoods are very cherished in their existing condition. They work really well, and people love them. In those instances, we had to make a system that was very “light touched,” that really helped reinforce and conserve and contribute to the character of some of those areas.
Conversely, other parts of the city are in evolution. They’re transforming. They’re at a state that you could imagine 10, 20, 30 years from now are going to evolve quite a bit. In these areas, we saw that the transit was really a trigger for that transformation. We looked very carefully around. How are we creating environments along the corridor for future development, for new uses to come along, for creating incentives in addition to the transit that would really spur the transformation of those areas? And then think carefully about, as these areas transform, what are they going to transform into?
I mention all this, because the evolution of the transit system became much more than just building a system that was going to be shifting people from one place of the city to a different place of the city, and capturing that ridership. It was really about capitalizing on the opportunity that transit presents to do that city-building piece, and do it in a way that was going to create an environment that was going to be conducive for people to choose to use transit.
We started with some very broad-picture pieces in the process, thinking about vision, thinking about the character of the neighborhoods. Then we quickly started to move in from that, into levels of detail, to try and develop some concepts for the land use, some concepts for the evolution of those areas, and then eventually concepts for the streetscape and architecture of the different stations, and the look and feel, and then all the way down to the details, and eventually into assisting the city with a whole procurement process in making this thing a reality. You have to dream big, but you also have to deliver on the implementation of it, because that’s how you’re going to make it really work.
We’ve done that in Edmonton, but we’ve also done it in several other cities. Really, the aspiration is getting larger relative to what’s being sought for in transit systems. When I started doing this 15, 20 years ago, it was nearly impossible to have an urban planner and an architect and a transit engineer in the room at the same time. Now it really becomes part of the way in which these things are thought through. It’s great to see that the integration of thinking is coming along in a great way, and that’s what we like to see, and where we typically get involved.
V1 Media: More generally, how does transit affect a community, and what are some obvious as well as not obvious examples of this?
Gomez-Palacio: Think about it in your own life. Many people are incredibly dependent on their car. Some people will always choose to do that. If you’re a senior and your license has been taken away, or if you’re a teenager, or if you just don’t care—my wife and I gave up our cars 20 years ago, and we’ve been car-free ever since. There are a lot of folks who would actually like to choose to use transit—maybe not for every trip, but for some trips. Unfortunately, many of the cities we live in, people actually don’t have that choice. If you want to use transit on any particular day, it really is not a viable choice. It’s either not there, or it’s incredibly inconvenient, or the bus comes only once every blue moon, and it doesn’t actually work. At a first level, good transit—and accessible and convenient and a good experience related to transit—has the potential to significantly increase options for individuals and families and communities in terms of how they move around and how they get to different parts of the city.
As a community continues to involve, it’s a considerably more efficient use of space and resources to move many people in one vehicle vs. many vehicles with one person in each vehicle. It occupies much less road; it occupies much less energy. We’re actually building more-sustainable communities; we’re reinforcing more-sustainable municipal budgets and resources. Then what we typically see happen is—if you just look at the evolution of many cities and look at the desirability of different neighborhoods and compare those with great transit service vs. those which are not—increasingly, those environments that have great transit service are becoming the desirable communities. It’s becoming a way in which employers are attracting and retaining the best talent. It’s becoming a way in which businesses are choosing where they want to locate. Look at some of the RFPs for Amazon, or many of the new employers, what is it they’re looking for? They’re looking for that option, they’re looking for that quality of life, they’re looking for that ability for people to have environments that are walkable, where they can cycle, and where great transit service is part of the equation.
In many regards, transit has the transformational capacity all the way from my personal family and my household, and the types of things that we can do as a household, but certainly the life and energy of the community, and certainly the vibrancy and success of any community or any city in that regard.
V1 Media: Can you describe some of your favorite DIALOG transit or urban development innovations, and why these are your favorites?
Gomez-Palacio: In the city of Hamilton, we were looking at the transit project. We discovered that the regional rail was actually about three blocks away; a little too far a distance for us to assume that everybody was just going to connect and walk between the transit and regional rail. We worked with the community, we worked with the city, we worked with the transit agencies, and we developed this concept of covering that space by doing a large urban plaza: an environment that now was going to be much more a big public-realm space. Instead of traversing and walking three blocks, you’re actually walking across an urban plaza that’s animated. What was perceived as a challenge actually became a huge opportunity.
It was fascinating to see how even as people started to think and wrap their heads around that as an opportunity, it really became a transformational piece. It ended up revitalizing a whole part of the city in a different way. That is urban integration.
Another idea is the integration of street trees, which often is the last element in many of these pieces, but often the one that has the most visual impact for a community. We have spent an inordinate amount of time in the context of transit thinking through how you incorporate trees into the equation. In Calgary, I remember the chief planner for the city telling us that it was urban design surgery, finding the right locations for the trees. It actually became one of the hallmarks of the system in its use. Through time, people comment and talk about how many of the trees are either saved or still there, or new trees were incorporated into it. I mention that because it’s often an extremely neglected component of transit systems. It’s easy to chop them off and leave them at the bottom of the priority pile, but in fact they become a huge element in the design.
Transit architecture is another one. We’ve done several transit stations in Vancouver where the use of wood as a material, which is not often used, adds a level of warmth and sense of “specialness” to a lot of the stations. That has actually made it fascinating for a lot of folks to feel like they’re really engaging in a quality experience. We first introduced it, and now the transit agency really is cherishing it. Initially it took some convincing; it took some experimentation to get it to that point.
V1 Media: For engineers, what are some of the best ways to improve transit, both short and long term? What can engineering firms in particular do to help?
Gomez-Palacio: Work with your urban planners; work with your designers; break out of the silos. That has a huge impact. Most people are very entrenched in their philosophies. Value engineering is a huge part of the typical process, where they have a criterion that only has to do with ridership. I would say: “relax a bit.” Bring in a multiple-account evaluation approach to the value engineering, and think about not what’s going to capture the captive audience and riders, but what’s going to make somebody really choose to use this system. That’s when you can start to work with all kinds of other folks.
V1 Media: What do you think is the future of transit and urban development?
Gomez-Palacio: First, urban development’s future includes transit, which may sound facetious, but in fact that was not the case or presumption a few decades ago. Urban development can really only happen these days if it includes a robust transit strategy.
I anticipate that—given the onset of autonomous vehicles and dockless bikes and many other pieces—the lower density and short distances are being covered by a whole series of other parallel systems. The future of transit agencies is very much focused around the mass-transit equation. It’s around those environments that can really support larger groups of people. That’s going to be very much the focus, but certainly, even transit agencies need to understand that they’re third in the priority list; we need to be designing cities for walking—every passenger is a pedestrian—and for cycling. Then the question is: how does transit integrate into all of those things?