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February 6, 2023

How to Build Developments That Have a Soul

Ameet Johal

The life source of a city is its streets. It doesn’t matter where in the world you travel, if the streets are active and serve the people in the area, there is a specific energy you can tap into.

Think about the last time you travelled—or better yet, think about your hometown or city. What streets are you drawn to? What neighbourhoods do you find yourself returning to time and again? If you had to recommend one area to somebody visiting what would it be? Whether you realize it or not, we’d be willing to bet your favourite hometown street or far away destination is a stand out because it has a soul. It’s been built or used in a way that allows it to have an energy, a vibrancy, an electricity that makes people want to spend time there.

In our work at Junction Co., we are tasked with capturing the essence of a neighbourhood or a street so that a new development integrates into the existing fabric of a community. But how do you capture and recreate something that’s actually intangible?

That’s where our magic happens.

It starts with understanding

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a boardroom with a group of developers and have been the only woman and/or person of colour in the room. But when you think about the make-up of our cities, there is an incredible amount of diversity happening. Take a city like Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world, and then consider the decision-makers who are greenlighting projects. There’s a huge disconnect between the two groups. To put it another way, and bluntly at that—the old and stale perspective isn’t representative of the realities of our cities.

But at the same time, just because I am both a woman and a person of colour doesn’t mean I am the ultimate authority or the representative for every diverse population. True diversity, equity, and inclusion work isn’t about ticking a box—it’s about actually doing the work to listen and learn. Sure, I have lived experience to contribute to the conversation, but what I—and my team—really offer is the knowledge and experience of how to effectively engage with a community, how to take inspiration from culture, and how to think about buildings from a different perspective and then take those learnings and turn them into tangible actions.

Why does this matter? Because people, culture, and place are all foundational elements of what we know as the soul of a place.

Finding inspiration

Inspiration can come from everywhere. For me, the inspiration I find for my projects is always a little bit different but there are some common elements. You need to ask the right questions. You need to use all five senses. You need to be able to understand the past, present, and future. And most of all, you need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do a little work! You can’t bottle the existing soul of a place and just let it out once construction is done. But what you can do is be thoughtful and work to create the conditions to allow the soul of a place to emerge and thrive. And that’s what the team at Junction Co. brings to the table, the ability to tease out the little details that work together to bring the intangible to life.

By truly understanding a neighbourhood, its residents—both current and potential—what’s missing, what’s unique, what’s sacred, and what needs a refresh, we can begin to conceptualize the outlines of what’s needed to make a development feel organic, not in opposition, to the existing community. In turn, we can use that information to help our developer clients make better decisions when it comes to building and constructing a place that people actually want to spend time in.  

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Another piece of the puzzle toward building places that feel right is paying attention to culture. Understanding and observing trends are fundamental to my process. I take so much inspiration from the streets. Both literally through observing how people interact and move through a neighbourhood, but also in the cultural trends that are emerging. For instance, right now how we think about and view luxury is really changing. Luxury used to be something that was consumed behind closed doors. It was inaccessible, it was reserved. But now, luxury is everywhere. Luxury fashion, in particular, is boldly represented in street culture.

This might not be a profound observation—scroll through a social media feed, flip through a magazine, listen to the lyrics of a hip-hop song and you could come to the same conclusion. But what can be impactful is how that information is used.

When we build, we’re thinking at least five years in the future. From blueprint to ribbon cutting takes time and because trends can be fickle, the inputs we use have to go beyond the surface. The soul of a city is not superficial, the soul exists deep in the fabric of a community at its very core. Therefore, the work to ensure a development can hold space for such a sacred intangible thing also needs to be thorough and thoughtful.

Trends will come and go—good design is built to last. But that doesn’t mean trends can’t factor in, it just means they need to be considered as another input when thinking about and building places for people.

It needs to feel right

There’s a great excerpt from the book “The Ideal City” by SPACE10 that I use as a driving force for the work we do at Junction Co. It reads, “We have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink, adapt, and design our cities to be places that feel better for more people. Cities that are greener, healthier, more sustainable, inclusive, and safe.” I think about this quote whenever I’m engaged in a project and remind my team of it often. The bricks-and-mortar piece of a development is really important, but buildings must also feel good for people.

Creating the right feeling isn’t something that can be achieved with a checklist. Every single project, neighbourhood, and person is different, so why shouldn’t our thought processes reflect that? What ‘feels’ right for a specific project depends on the project, city, neighbourhood, street, etc. Every new development goes through a checklist of things that applies to every project, however, if you miss the part of truly understanding the area, what's happening on the street, the economics of a place, the future plans of the specific area, the history, migration of people, you fail to capture the existing soul or feeling of a place and the result is a development that just feels flat. And if it doesn’t feel right, even if you build it, the people won’t come.  

If the definition of exploring is to investigate, study, or analyze, I do that through various forms and then I take that learning with me to my next project. While there’s nothing like pounding the pavement in a new city or neighbourhood, I also explore through technology. With things like Google Maps and social media, you can get a sense of places and spaces without physically being there. Music, art, and culture are also ways to explore places beyond the physical sense. It’s all about seeking various inputs to achieve the correct output. It’s a constant process.

I think it’s important to seek out experiences and different perspectives because it allows for more wholesome and fulsome thought while also mitigating risk. Plus, it’s just fun! I never want to be the person in the room that assumes to know everything. Creativity, innovation, and ideation have no depth without perspective. And perspective is everything.