Social Infrastructure and the Role Architects Play

What we’re missing in our current debates about infrastructure is the role architects play.

When people talk about spending to stimulate the economy, governments are often quick to turn to “shovel ready” projects. According to Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the CanInfra Challenge, we have an infrastructure deficit of hundreds of billions of dollars. We tend to think of infrastructure as big ticket things like bridges, transit projects, pipelines and highways. Infrastructure is architecture: schools, community centres, social housing, theatres and arts facilities. The reality is that most of our infrastructure is designed by architects.

During a debate at Queens Park on the Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act, MPP Vic Fideli said, “historically 60 per cent of all infrastructure is bricks and mortar. It’s buildings: hospitals, schools. That’s infrastructure as well.” He couldn’t have been more right. What we’re missing in our current debates about infrastructure is the role architects play in creating our society.

Buildings create the social infrastructure that is vital to who we are. The creativity that architects bring to the table, makes new opportunities and innovates on new ways to solve problems. Architecture is about solving problems and delivering excellence that has sustained, generational impact.

In the years after WWII, huge investment was made in just this sort of social infrastructure. Toronto Community Housing, for example, has 2,200 buildings, representing over 50 million square feet of residential space, an asset worth more then $9 billion of which more than half is more than 50 years old.

In this same period, Canada invested in new universities, colleges and libraries to meet the demands of a growing population. We saw massive investment in, and understanding of, the role of the built environment in creating community well-being that have resulted in places that have become iconic parts of our cultural psyche.

Toronto-based Gow Hastings Architects achieved an Award in the best Public Space category for the Niagara College Welland Student Commons project at the recent SBID International Design Awards for 2020.

We know that if we invest in a community by creating a social hub where young people can gather safely, where new Canadians can learn job and language skills and where children can be cared for, we create a community anchor that becomes a beloved part of people’s lives. Case studies in the U.K. and the U.S. have shown that investing in people, and their sense of place, saves money. Current calls to defund the police are as much about reallocation of police budgets to fund housing, mental health, substance abuse and increasing access to education. We know that this investment helps create happier people who feel connected to their country and their community. We know that it can reduce crime by giving people hope, education and a sense of well-being.

We know that if we create a place for childcare, we create job opportunities for women; this can offset the “she-cession” that is the result of the COVID pandemic. We know that if we create a place that is culturally relevant, we can bridge gaps and move towards reconciliation with Indigenous People, taking specific action on recommendations in the TRC Report and bring about a socially just society.

Investment in buildings has enormous potential to affect climate change. Buildings account for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and, combined with transportation, can consume as much as three quarters of all energy produced. We need to invest in sustainable buildings that are closely linked to sustainable public transit, including walkable and bikeable communities. Making a better place for people, where they can live, work and shop in close proximity creates the 15 minute neighbourhoods we know are essential to vibrant, socially rich, communities.

Our population is aging, and we are seeing an increasing need to integrate accessibility into our built environment. If we want to welcome a diverse range of abilities and ages in our cities, we need to create homes, businesses and public places that allow everyone to feel included.

Our physical infrastructure supports a social infrastructure.

Building an Accessible Canada means creating a built environment where everyone feels welcome, feels included; a place where their spirit is lifted and they have a sense of belonging. Accessibility cannot be applied as an afterthought, or meet a minimum building code standard, it must be integrated throughout a design process to create places that are welcoming and inclusive.

We need to approach to problem-solving in a creative way, bringing forward talent, innovation, and the ability to apply Canadian research and technology to designing solutions to these challenges. There is enormous potential in Canada: our research institutions, universities and colleges are at the forefront of building science innovations. The growth in use of mass timber in the last few years is a made-in-Canada approach that creates jobs and sustainable solutions.

Architecture can address many of the challenges society faces today. The solutions may be indirect: architecture can provide the space for social connection, communication and development of shared cultural beliefs. Architecture can create physical environments where people can gather, to celebrate life and grieve loss.

Related design fields in landscape architecture and planning can create parks, public places and preserve our natural habitats. Increasing weather extremes mean we need places for stormwaters to flood, forests to buffer the winds and shady green spaces to play. We need natural habitats for wildlife, and farmland to grow food closer to home as international supply chains become strained.

Let’s not forget the buildings we already have: thousands of buildings across the country are in urgent need of investment: everything from new roofs, insulation and windows to replacement of heating and ventilation systems. Ontario has over $16 billion in needed repairs to schools alone.

As published on Treehugger, when using Life Cycle Analysis, “building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality.” Renovating our existing buildings is an excellent opportunity to learn about, appreciate, and enhance our heritage while having a significant impact on sustainability.

Architects are here to help. When given the opportunity, architects can create cohesive social infrastructure that enhances the role of government investment. Governments can support design competitions to solicit ideas, creative and innovative solutions and open the market to smaller firms and emerging talent. Over 75 per cent of architecture practices in Ontario are small businesses but are often excluded from projects because of restrictive procurement processes that value firm size, past performance and low price as criteria for selection.

The time is now. We need to recognize that infrastructure includes architecture. Culturally relevant places for people, that respect the land, are needed today more than ever. Focussing on people, creating opportunities for health, happiness, dignity and social justice is the core philosophy of national architecture policies in most western European countries and the driving force behind Rise for Architecture, a grassroots effort to develop a national architecture policy for Canada. Reach out to your elected officials and make sure they know that architecture is infrastructure. Announce loud and clear that architecture matters.


Toon Dreessen, OAA, FRAIC is president of Architects DCA, an Ottawa based architecture practice. Toon served six years on OAA council, two years as president and received the Order of DaVinci in 2020. Toon is a noted public speaker, writer and advocate for architecture and serves on numerous regulatory and advocacy committees. He leads the company’s activism in the role of architecture in social justice, gender equity, fiscal responsibility and the role of architects in a strategic, visionary, and thoughtful planning. 

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