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City-building is a messy process of colliding ideals and conflicting priorities. Projects, both big and small, are a negotiation between planners, architects, engineers, developers, municipalities and citizens, all pulling the conversation in different directions. It’s a process that’s so acrimonious, Toronto architect Naama Blonder designed a board game that promotes informed conversations around city building. It isn’t only meant for kids.

Developing a common language for city-building is something Dialog principal Antonio Gomez-Palacio has been thinking about too. And in tandem with the Conference Board of Canada, his team is preparing a methodology that measures how design impacts community well-being. The 200-page report, called Community Wellbeing: A Framework for the Design Professions, is meant to quantify, inform and guide the design process – and though it’s a tool for professionals, it also empowers citizens to get involved, too. (And for those short on time, there will be an abridged executive summary, too.)

Dialog principal Antonio Gomez-Palacio is one of the designers behind the report. Photo by Roth and Ramberg Photography

“Our goal is to break [a project] down into manageable conversations,” says Gomez-Palacio. “It’s a methodology that allows us to come into any setting and host an informed conversation about meaningfully improving community well-being. What does that entail? It’s about defining a project and understanding the community it’s affecting.”

Dialog, of course, isn’t the first organization that has attempted to quantify community well-being. The City of Vancouver, for example, has released reports at measuring community health. But Gomez-Palacio points out that their findings weren’t design-centric, focusing on issues such as voter turnout or high-school dropout rates. Community Wellbeing, on the other hand, is built on the Jane Jacobs-ian concept that quality urban design serves people. A building, after all, is not an end.

The Framework is comprised of domains, indicators and metrics. This visual tool, the Community Wellbeing Wheel, presents an at-a-glance view of the indicators that fall under each domain. Image by Dialog

At first glance, the 18 community indicators in Dialog’s framework feel qualitative. The Community Wellbeing Wheel (above) visualizes the core components of the framework: community well-being is broken down into social, environmental, economic, political and cultural domains. From there, Dialog broke each segment into key indicators – environmental well-being, for example, is measured by delight and enjoyment, natural systems, mobility and resilience metrics. “The sets of indicators are like a diagnostic, like having a check-up at a doctor,” he says. “You go in and check the temperature, your weight, and if something is completely out of whack, then you investigate further.”

Dialog’s report suggests that community well-being should be considered at multiple scales. What happens at the regional level can directly impact the occupants within a building and vice versa.

But how can you quantify how design impact projects – and their sites, neighbourhoods and ecosystems? How do you measure, say, a community’s socialization metrics? We throw those questions to Gomez-Palacio. “For the socialization example, one of the metrics is net supply of space,” he says. “How many square metres of social space exists per individual? Then, you might discover that, well, there’s a lot of space, but it’s tucked in the basement. A second metric will be about where a social space is located, whether it’s adjacent to pedestrian thoroughfares. These metrics measure both quantity and quality.”

Gomez-Palacio details a few other metrics: rates of volunteerism can help us understand sense of belonging. Biophilia can be linked to rates of enjoyment. Through such evidence-based findings, designers can identify areas of need and take actionable steps – ensuring that projects are thoughtful right from their inception.

Community Wellbeing isn’t public yet; it will be available on July 18, free of charge. Though it hasn’t been tested by designers, planners and architects en masse, Gomez-Palacio notes that it isn’t entirely conceptual – his team has refined the methodology in the field. Thus far, it has been applied to three diverse projects – Durham Regional Police Service, Clarington Police Complex in Clarington, Ontario, Calgary’s Kahanoff Centre and the Banks, a mixed-use development in Saskatoon – to distinguish how each has impacted its communities.

“Those case studies were a very succinct moment in developing our research methodology,” says Gomez-Palacio. “We discovered that some metrics were harder to measure, and some weren’t as relevant as we thought.”

Calgary’s Kahanoff Centre is one of three projects to which the Community Wellbeing methodology has already been applied. Photo by Ema Peter

Elsewhere, Dialog has launched pilot projects to envision how its framework can impact projects right from the design and planning stages. In Petrolia, Ontario and in Ottawa’s Heron Gate neighbourhood, it used the tool to engage a number of stakeholders in forthcoming projects – which could very well impact their outcomes. In Petrolia, relying heavily on Dialog’s Community Wellbeing Wheel, a steering committee, citizens and a hospital came together to discuss plans for the community and a master plan for a health centre. “It was super exciting,” says Gomez-Palacio. “Both the municipality and the hospital had a clear idea that they could do something better together than apart. It’s become really interesting to see how the framework does facilitate a conversation.”

That’s the type of forward momentum Dialog hopes to see on a larger scale, when its findings are released in July. Informed conversations are one thing, but action is another – and, Gomez-Palacio points out that everyone can agree that community well-being is a goal to strive towards. It’s something even developers – those focused on selling units – can support.

“From their perspective, if it makes conversations with communities easer, if it makes municipal approvals earlier, then there’s value for them,” he says. “I can go to market and say that this building, these interiors, are designed for well-being.”

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