Student Project Tackles Downtown Revitalization

Outdoor theatre and food trucks could attract more visitors

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Corey Johnston

Corey Johnston

Corey Johnston has an idea to bring more people into downtown Guelph: a rooftop cinema for the summer. His vision has an open-air theatre set up temporarily on the top level of the parking garage beside the Sleeman’s Centre.

Johnston has figured out simple ways to create the necessary components. The screen: a canvas cloth draped over and fastened to a shipping container. The seats: stacked-up pallets. The snack bar: food trucks that can drive up through the parking garage to their assigned spaces. A projector and amplifiers would be needed as well, he acknowledges. Hedges made up of trees in pots could dampen the sound and enhance the theatrical setting. With no need for structural changes, the location would be accessible to those using wheelchairs.

“You could attract different types of people by changing the kind of movie you offer,” Johnston says. “I think it would bring people downtown, and many would have dinner or do a little shopping before they went to the show.”

Johnston is part of a large second-year landscape architecture class taught by Profs. Shirley Hall, Larry Harder and Kyle Poole. Their major assignment this semester has been “Design Interventions for Downtown Guelph.”

But this project has gone beyond a little library research: the students are connecting with a project sponsored by the Guelph Downtown Neighbourhood Association called Small Spaces, Big Ideas (the logo and tagline were designed by second-year landscape architecture student Corin Latimer). Their concepts were on display April 2 in the heart of the city, and they’ve benefited during the design process from helpful critiques from both local stakeholders and landscape architects.

Hall lives downtown and says she’s tried to help the students understand how different the area is in the summer when the weather is warmer and students aren’t around. “We have some wonderful public spaces and programs,” Hall says. “But there are also many ways the community could be enhanced. The students did a gap analysis to see what was needed and researched other cities to see what has been done that might be scaled down for Guelph. The results have been very different and creative.”

Jason Thorne, an urban planner and co-chair of the Guelph Downtown Neighbourhood Association, says having so many ideas to pull from is very helpful. He hopes that seeing these designs will encourage some people or organizations to take the next step and proceed with one or more of them.

Harder adds that community-based projects like this are the norm for their course, but there was more community engagement throughout the entire process this time. Preparing their designs for public viewing is a good experience for the students, he adds. “It is a real skill to create images in words and pictures, and be able to get your vision across to others.”

Student Rebecca Adler has tackled another aspect of downtown Guelph in her project: the Marilyn Murray River View behind the River Run Centre. “I see this as a site with a lot of potential,” she says. “Right now there is nowhere to sit, so people just walk out, turn around and go back.” Her design includes steps that take visitors down to the riverside and a circular glass floor in the structure that projects out over the river, so visitors can watch the water flowing underneath them. Lighting under the glass would also make the area safer for pedestrians at night, she says.

“We are learning how to make small-scale changes that can improve quality of life,” says student Mallory Thacker, whose design turns John Galt Park along the river into a destination with play areas for children, a splash pad, seating areas and a boardwalk. “Even small changes can have a big impact on a community.”

Harder feels this project helps students prepare for their futures in the profession. “This is what it’s like in the field – you are getting input from many different people and needing to present your ideas to them and respond to their criticisms.” He, too, hopes that some of the projects will be picked up and bring new excitement downtown.