8 Questions with Dr. Zhixi Zhuang, Associate Professor, Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning

In 8 Questions, 8 80 Cities asks amazing partners we’ve worked with, or amazing people doing amazing work 8 questions about their passions, their history and their amazing-ness. And then we ask them to suggest a question for our next interviewee.

Associate Professor Zhixi Zuang

This week, 8 80 Cities Summer Project Assistant Niko Casuncad spoke to Zhixi Zhuang, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director (Interim) of Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. With experience in planning and urban design across China and Canada, Zhixi has research interests that encompass public realm, community design, retail developments, urban revitalization, and multicultural planning. We talked with Zhixi about her insight on multicultural planning and how inclusive community engagement plays a key role in city- and community-building.

8 80 Cities: A city should work for everyone, whether you’re 8 or 80 years old. What does that look like to you?

Zhixi:  I think this is an excellent question. If we live in a city that works for everyone from kids to seniors, working parents, young people, male or female, people with different sexual orientations or cultural preferences, a city should be a safe, accessible, fun, and just place.

  1. Safety is very important for everyone. You feel safe to navigate a city, interact with other people, you become a citizen to use the space.
  2. Accessibility is the second important aspect. Everyone should have access to different places in the city (i.e., universal design): kids, seniors, people with (dis)ability. For example, children should be able to ride their bike and have the freedom to go wherever they want. Seniors should have a reliable transit system that allows them to get from point A to point B is also important. I remember a couple of years ago when Jan Gehl came to Toronto, he gave a public lecture and talked about Copenhagen and the design of bike lanes in the city. Parents of kids aged 12 or 10 don’t worry because their kids can bike across the whole city with no problem. He was celebrating his birthday with his wife in his favourite restaurant and rode their bike 10 km one way to and from the restaurant. So how nice is that! Accessibility that works for everyone, whether its active transportation, public transportation, you should have the freedom to navigate and access all points of the city with no trouble.
  3. The next important aspect is that cities should be fun to live and work; there should be playgrounds for kids and adults, places across generations to interact freely and start meaningful conversations, have outdoor play options, outdoor cinema. Fun also means finding opportunities to interact with other people. A city for celebration, fun activities where you can play, live, and work is very important and is my ideal.
  4. The last important aspect, the city must be a just city,  equitable, accessible, and safe. Your voice will be heard no matter your identity, that’s inclusive and diverse and that should be a just city where peoples opinions are valued and are engaged in the decision-making process in an equitable way. So, to me, ideally, if a city works for everybody, it should be a safe, accessible, fun, and just city. I am still hopeful we can achieve them one day.

8 80 Cities: It is important to have different ingredients to creating cities for everyone: having a safe city that’s accessible, fun, just and includes everyone in the planning process. That’s an excellent transition into the next question about community engagement.

8 80 Cities: When you hear the term community engagement, what do you think of?

Zhixi: The first word that comes to mind is people. It’s about engaging people, understanding their needs, ensuring they are involved in decision-making. Community engagement is a process, it should be community-initiated, it requires time, different perspectives, negotiation, and different voices. Engagement is more about an equitable process and whose voices are being heard, how do we avoid power imbalance, and how do we ensure underrepresented populations are being engaged. It is important to avoid elitism, top-down process, you’ve got to understand what the community is comprised of, who are these people and what are their needs. Is there any equitable way to ensure their voices are heard? Who’s making the decision and for whom, it’s about finding that common ground, it’s about the negotiation of community needs and priorities and understanding from each other.

8 80 Cities: This is especially important for urban planners and city builders, they are the connectors, builders, facilitators and mediators between the community and the decision makers, so community engagement is important for planners and the profession.

8 80 Cities: Before joining Ryerson University at the School of Urban and Regional Planning, what was your experience working in the planning and urban design fields in China and Canada?

Zhixi: I would say half of my work at the time, especially in urban design work, was mainly about the physical aspects of the city and not so much about the people. I think that’s why I felt like I needed a change in my career path because I was trained in architecture and before I came to Canada, I had my architectural degree and practice architecture and urban design mainly focused on the physical space and aspect of the environment. I felt what was lacking was understanding people who are the users of those spaces and built environment, and I decided to start in planning and received my Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo’s School of Urban Planning. I started my research on diversity, multiculturalism, and planning. As the research progressed I developed a strong new interest in the public realm, especially applying an equitable lens to look into public space because these are important spaces for people to interact with each other, people who come from different cultural background and preferences who come together and how municipalities and planners can play a role in facilitating meaningful interactions and that’s how I changed my career path from urban design and architecture into planning.

8 80 Cities: That’s really great, city building is interesting because when we talk about  planning or urban studies, people generally don’t know what that means but when people talk about architecture they know instantly what its about designing building but its interesting to see how city building is an inclusive process of building for the people rather than great urban design, but how does that design facilitate peoples experiences

Zhixi:  Urban design can also emerge from peoples preferences and good urban design should actually respond to peoples needs and allow us to question why we create public squares here, or walkways along the waterfront, parks, or public spaces in between buildings, all in good urban design should respond to people’s needs but sometimes that’s what is lacking. If we don’t have meaningful and effective community engagement, how do we collect those viewpoints and needs to inform our design and solutions? I am not saying that architects and urban designers don’t consider peoples needs  but just saying that without a good understanding of those needs and those design decision cannot be made, so as a planner since we are mainly dealing with the public and serving the public good, planners might have a bigger role there and one of the key players because we decide the policy s and implement them through the public engagement process and we engage them by having their voices heard and collecting information and using data and evidence to inform decision making. So, we are kind of working at the front line of city building and were dealing with people serving the public good, so from that point of view planners are important key players in the city building process and in this profession we should be mindful of the importance of community engagement, equity and inclusion in the profession and in planning practice.

Photo by Shay Alford for Ryerson CBI

8 80 Cities: What would you say are the biggest challenges to you as planning in engaging communities in a more productive way?

Zhixi: Understanding differences and acknowledging different cultural preferences and how diverse our population is, which means that there are different needs for public services, uses of spaces, getting involved; so it’s a real challenge, especially in the context of Toronto, many people come from diverse backgrounds in terms of gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, and the list can go on, but how do we actually balance those differences and how do we actually understand, acknowledge, and appreciate differences is the key. I think that the first thing is about differences, second, how do we embrace difference, and again inclusion is so important because people bring different perspectives and preferences, values, and they see cities in different ways and how do we make sure that the city we build and design is actually inclusive rather than segregate people just because of these differences instead of isolating peoples or disadvantaged certain groups of people and marginalized them and disregard their opinions, how do we actually create that inclusive space and also ensure that their engagement and involvement should be an equitable process. Sometimes community engagement can be tokenism, just because we have a public meeting does that mean we have effective and productive public engagement, not quite. Sometimes we call a meeting and the same people show up and the same people dominate the podium and there’s this kind of power imbalance, there are the people who are underrepresented so all in all how do we outreach to the groups that didn’t show up is more important rather than having just a regular public meeting. Or even considering peoples differences and their cultural preferences, some groups may not feel comfortable speaking in front of 500 people at a community consultation meeting or people have different schedules and priorities so they can’t come to the meeting. So it’s important to consider other creative and effective ways to engage a diverse community, and I could go on but pretty much is understanding those differences and acknowledging and then the next question would be how, how we ensure that this is inclusive, and to understand the differences, and that is equitable, everyone has a voice, but again is there a channel or an appropriate way for these people to voice their opinions and how is their treatment equitable?

8 80 Cities: It is important how you mentioned how Toronto is a center of a diverse and multicultural city that is hard to come by in other North American cities. One thing that I really like about Ryerson University and the School of Urban and Regional Planning is that is located right in the middle of everything and its connection with the community and how the School is an actual living lab where we can take what we learn in class and how it can benefit society as  a whole through experimentation and research.

8 80 Cities: Now that you’re at Ryerson University, how do you think about community engagement differently with your students in the future?

Zhixi: I think that’s a great question. What I think for the future generation is about the planning education and curriculum, we still rely on conventional practices and wisdom in developing our planning curriculum. But our population and cities are changing and I think in our curriculum there’s still a lack of emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion so we are working collectively and collaboratively to improve it. We are educating and training the next generations of planners, it’s important to tie the current curriculum into the current and future challenges we might be dealing with; increasingly a diverse population and needs emerge from the community and there is a need to emphasize more on equity, diversity and inclusion so we can provide a timely education for our students. Planning as a profession should integrate equity, diversity, and inclusion and reflect the practice from its hiring practices to its training practices, public engagement process, policy and decision-making process, and looking at the profession and questioning whether it reflects the diversity of our population. At the moment it’s not, so this is something that we need to increase awareness of. It is not a one-stop destination, once you receive your planning degree it continues into the profession and practice integrating these values.

8 80 Cities: How can community design, urban revitalization, engagement, and multicultural planning incorporate an 8 80 lens in inclusive city-building? You’ve recently completed a case study analysis Can Ryerson Benefit from a Better Yonge Street, which rethinks Toronto’s downtown Yonge Street’s public realm. What are some key takeaways for equity, diversity, and inclusion in planning and engagement?

Zhixi: I think that the 8 80 lens has an ultimate goal of being inclusive, and again when it comes to design, engagement, and policymaking. We need to understand the people from 8 to and 80 years old and the differences in background, so all in all, the equity, diversity, and inclusion values are a foundation for city-building and the 8 80 lens reflects those values because we want to ensure the city-building process is meaningful for everybody. The 8 80 lens requires the appreciation and acknowledgement of those differences and cultural preferences and making sure it’s equitable and inclusive, recalling what we’ve discussed prior and acknowledged that the 8 80 lens has reflected those EDI values and ensuring our city works for everybody.

In terms of the public realm, the study is about Ryerson’s campus public realm improvement and how does that respond to Yonge Streets redevelopment and what is the benefit of redevelopment for Ryerson and vice versa. Ryerson sees itself to play a role in contributing to an improved public realm. In that study we talk about safety issues, people-centred approaches, diversity of the population, and ensuring that its accessible to people (e.g. wayfinding) because the public realm is meant for everybody. Those values ensuring inclusivity and connection to the city space and campus space is connected, we want to enhance that connection and interaction because we have so much more to pay back to the community. We generate innovation, research and we want to see how that can benefit the wellbeing of society. In the report, we use a case study approach of other downtown urban campuses.

8 80 Cities: Can you share a story of engagement activity or community conversation from your time as a planner and researcher that you feel most proud of?

Zhixi: I have been doing my research in the suburbs and looking at diversity issues and ethnic placemaking practices, especially in immigrant suburbs and my research looks at the role of immigrant communities in transforming those suburban spaces and what are the occurring practices and preference,s and how those suburban neighbourhoods have been transformed in the past 30 years. I did lots of interviews with residents, businesses, officials, professionals, and community leaders. One interesting thing is that the more I talk to those people, as a planner, I realize we don’t know much about our community because its not our job to really understand their stories, to really go to the field and interact with the people who are the actual users of the spaces that we plan and decide for. During my interviews with the community, the Chinese seniors who use Chinese malls for social activities and exercise, when I was making the documentary, this group of people (which is often quite common in many suburban Chinese malls) go during the early hours of the mall and you can observe suburban life in these malls. When I first had the idea to film them, as a planner, the first thing that came to my mind was to get to know their needs and really listen to their stories. These stories are so powerful, it’s the oral history of the community and is part of the community heritage. Since I didn’t know any of them, I decided to film the activities in a suburban mall in Scarborough and went there a couple of times in the morning for their members of a senior exercise club for Chinese seniors, majority of them are immigrants from mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The first thing for me was to observe their activities and looked at how they were organized and how its coached to do tai chi or other exercises.

My research study was to understand who these people are and how they use the space and how their needs can be addressed in a meaningful way. After a couple of times there, I started casual conversations with people and developed trust. I told them what I do, who I am, why I am interested, my research plan, and we developed trust and understanding from each other and they told me their stories. Storytelling is so powerful in public engagement because we need to understand their lived experience, needs, and concerns, etc. So, they told us that they created this club 10-15 years ago as a self-help group for immigrant seniors, and they found that after their activities, their health is improving and developing social bonding with each other through gatherings and events. They self-developed their own community and cherish that. They also use other spaces such as community centers and they are becoming very creative and integrating themselves into hosting society. When I told them, I was making a film and looking to present their stories and I was initially concerned about their interest in the project,  the people were so proud of their stories and they wanted them to be shared to the wider public. About 100 people normally go to the Scarborough mall for practice, it was challenging to get all their signatures and consent to film my documentary. But to my surprise, in a positive way, none of them opposed to the filmmaking and were so cooperative and open to sharing; they even decided to wear their uniform and beautiful fans to the filming. Many of those senior members said to me to feel free to take close-ups and they were happy to be filmed. They were all supportive and I am grateful for that. It’s fascinating if we doubt this preparation, we probably won’t understand support from the community and willingness for their participation and their joy for sharing their stories. The learning for me is that if we don’t really spend the time to listen, to converse with the community, the people, we won’t be able to gain their understanding of their needs. Storytelling is powerful and compelling when you listen to those stories you develop that trust and support from each other and then you can engage them effectively and productively and use that information to inform future decision making.

I am really proud of filming with the seniors because they feel valued, voices are heard, and they are happy to do that, despite they don’t speak English. I have the language ability to communicate with them, so they were really happy because if you send someone who speaks English, they might not feel comfortable to engage. Another thing about community engagement, you need to find the appropriate and effective way that’s creative and through filming and storytelling that’s how you can engage people effectively. They kept telling us how important that space is for them, in the future, if there is a private developer who is going to redevelop the mall, will they lose that space that is so critical to their daily life and community, so everything would be lost. In Scarborough, for example, one of the oldest Chinese malls in North America is going to be redeveloped into residential, small businesses, and frequent visitors, where will they build that community connecting and social bonding or places for social interaction?  We need to be mindful of the price of redevelopment, we always need to think about the social fabric, the community, and the people.

8 80 Cities: We often talk about storytelling and how its important, especially in planning literature that allows us to rethink how we engage with the community. I was also wondering if the documentary available online?

Zhixi: Yes, my documentary Globurbia: Suburban place-making amidst diversity, is available on YouTube to watch.

8 80 Cities: From Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, Executive Director of SOMOS Mayfair: How do we create spaces that support liberation?

Zhixi: It should be people-centred. People must be a priority. It’s not about how pretty a space is, but it’s about how we address peoples needs and how to make them for fulfilled through that space and how do we use that space to facilitate meaningful interactions. How do we ensure spaces are inclusive, accessible that addresses different needs? It’s basically people-centred, if we focus on people then the next step is to figure out what their needs are. Spaces aren’t about their physical attributes it’s more about the people. The next step is to identify who are the people, what are their needs, and how do we engage. When we engage with them, is it equitable? Are there any marginalized or underrepresented people that we tend to ignore? How do we outreach to them effectively? Not just sending public notices or online surveys. We need to be creative when we engage with people, for example, oral history, storytelling, interactive workshops, pop-ups, using community agencies to develop communication between planners and community members. There are so many ways to achieve this, but what is central to this is people-centred. We can talk about transportation, infrastructure, how pretty the paving is, but we miss the point, and once we center around people, the next step would be to how to create spaces for these people.

8 80 Cities: Excellent. What question would you have for our next interviewee? 

Zhixi:  Acknowledging the diversity of our population and differences, how can we construct a common ground to embrace diversity and difference to create inclusive spaces?


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