The duo connecting city-dwellers with nature and Athens’ city hall asks residents for ideas.
The idea for Parkbus was born from founders Boris Issaev and Alex Berlyand’s dissatisfaction with the inaccessibility of the Canadian outdoors. “We realised how ironic it was that Canada has such beautiful, iconic spaces yet there was no way to get to them without a car,” says Berlyand. In 2010, the pair found a solution with Parkbus, the non-profit they formed to provide Torontonians with accessible, collective transportation to the great outdoors.
“The first Parkbus was actually a park van that we drove to Algonquin Park,” says Berlyand, referring to Ontario’s first provincial park, located just a few hours’ drive from downtown Toronto. But the concept proved appealing and soon a network of city-to-park bus routes connected Torontonians to nature.
“I think part of what it means to be Canadian, and to develop that identity, is to have a connection with the outdoors,” he says. Which means Parkbus also proved a natural avenue for integrating refugees into Canada. “Both Boris and myself were immigrants so we always knew that for somebody arriving in Toronto, you’re restricted to the city.” Last year the pair launched Nature Link, an extension of Parkbus, which during its first season provided more than 800 newcomers with subsidised transportation and educational programming in the countryside. “It’s an introduction and when they’re better situated, they can explore the other destinations Canada has to offer,” adds Berlyand.
While Parkbus emphasises connecting with nature, it complements urban living by limiting the need for individual cars – the bane of many North American cities. “With car-sharing and bike-sharing, there’s a general mindset these days that you can live without a car,” says Berlyand.
Parkbus has resonated beyond Toronto and now operates in Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver. The duo’s sights are set internationally too, having recently launched in Mexico City. “There’s a desire for people to connect with nature,” says Berlyand. “We’re going to open those opportunities to as many people as possible.”
William Cobbett has been with Cities Alliance, a global partnership formed by the World Bank and the UN, since 2001 where he works to reduce urban poverty and boost sustainable development.
How important are cities for battling climate change?
The urban community has been trying to raise the profile of cities both as victims and problem solvers of climate change. This is part of a bigger debate that goes back to getting cities recognised as players on the international stage. The first success that we had as an urban community was getting the role of cities incorporated into the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Cities are where the majority of the population lives so it would be crazy not to focus on them, how they work and what impacts they have.
How important is it to bring the scientific community and city makers together to create sustainable urban centres?
Getting the scientific community and urban practitioners together is vital because one of the real weaknesses that we face in city development is the absence of data and understanding. [By working together there can be a] better understanding of the needs, aspirations and weaknesses of different communities.
What is your approach to tackling climate change in the global south, the biggest producer of greenhouse gases?
The challenge there is much less one of mitigation and more of how to react to risks and threats. Focusing on long-term planning and governance amounts to the same thing as responding to climate change. In land-use planning, we often end up with formations that are inefficient and wasteful. Through lack of planning, a large population remains on exposed land, vulnerable to floods. This is not how you plan a city. We advocate for adopting a citywide approach to encourage governments to move beyond the election cycle and plan decades ahead.
A major port city on the Baltic coast of Poland, Gdansk is set to reanimate its Imperial Shipyard. The once bustling docks had fallen into disuse but now plans are afoot to turn the industrial site into a mixed-use neighbourhood.
Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen’s masterplan makes room for a plaza, 3,500 new homes, a beach and broad sidewalks to encourage walking and cycling. “From Copenhagen we know how a reduction of car traffic creates wellbeing and better living conditions for people,” says architect Jacob Kurek. Shipbuilding may be over in Gdansk but the city is setting sail for a new era of prosperity.
Athens city hall is calling on residents to help create the identity of their neighbourhoods. Successful proposals on ways to transform areas, streets and buildings will be financed by the city with grants of up to €6,000 per project.
Workshops with architects and urban designers are open to Athenians to help with design and sustainability for a long-lasting impact. So far ideas have ranged from vertical gardens to signage that highlights the history of each street. This pilot initiative, however, goes much deeper for crisis-battered Greece: creating this kind of partnership between city hall and residents could transform mentalities by establishing trust.