Architecture, Buildings and Places, People Spotlight

Our People Spotlight series gives you an inside look at our technical experts around the world. This week, we are highlighting a landscape architecture team lead from our Buildings + Place business line in Canada and providing you insight into their design inspiration and work.

Tell us about what inspired you to join the industry.

As a student of architecture in Calcutta, India, I was passionate about creating architectural solutions for the people most impacted by the lack of adequate housing—those living in slums. Upon taking it up as a subject for my fourth-year thesis project, I realized that the problem of inadequate housing required solutions that went beyond the physical buildings that people lived in.

As I progressed through the research and design process, two things became clear. First, architecture had to be flexible enough to allow people to build as their needs grew and as their resources allowed. Second, common spaces would be necessary as a low-cost extension of people’s otherwise small homes. In my visits to nearby slums, I saw the difference these shared open spaces made in the lives of people—as extensions of their living spaces, safe places for children to play, and for availability of common amenities like water. This made me think about the interplay between open spaces and buildings, and the importance of integrating the built form with its surroundings.

Upon graduation, I pursued a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, India. This education further opened my eyes to context-sensitive design and an awareness of how our site solutions can have a major impact on people and the environment. My aim was to design buildings that were integrated with the landscape and vice versa. When I moved to Canada, I was presented more opportunities in landscape architecture, and I decided to get certified as a landscape architect.

Joining AECOM seemed like a perfect fit as it presented an opportunity to work on large-scale multi-disciplinary and technically challenging projects, where our integrated disciplines work together to provide comprehensive solutions for our clients. The complexity of sites and solutions continue to challenge me to grow and evolve. I am similarly driven by the support, knowledge, and commitment of my colleagues, and knowing that the work we are doing is making a difference in the places we live, to our environment and to the lives of our neighbours, friends, and families.

What is your favorite AECOM project that you’ve worked on and why?

Although I have been fortunate enough to work on several diverse and interesting projects since I joined AECOM, my favorite is the Front Street Revitalization at Toronto’s Union Station because it transformed the fabric of a very significant stretch of the city.

Front Street is the stage-set for Union Station, Toronto’s primary transportation hub. Over 26 million people typically pass through this congested public realm annually. When the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission initiated a restoration and refurbishment of the aging station that would require excavation of Front Street, they seized the opportunity to reduce costs and minimize disruption by revitalizing Front Street at the same time based on an approved environmental assessment. AECOM’s landscape architects led this re-design and transformed the street into an attractive, vibrant, urban destination with improved safety and mobility.

By working closely with many City of Toronto agencies and stakeholders, I learned a lot. I was able to understand their concerns and gained an insight into their considerations for public realm design on such a heavily used section of the street.

I enjoyed the complexity of the project, working with our very talented team in developing new and custom details for different conditions encountered during design, seeing the project closely through construction, and working through the challenges that came our way.

I still remember being amazed when the construction fencing was stripped away, and I could experience the entire space between Union Station and the Royal York Hotel—the street was completely transformed. It was also very rewarding to overhear the appreciation of the passersby and the positive comments in the media on how this revitalization had made a difference to visitors’ first experience of the city!

Tell us a story of how your work positively impacted the community.

I would like to mention the Front Street Revitalization project again, as it has been particularly transformative in how the space is used. As one of the busiest streets in Canada and a conduit for its busiest mobility hub—through subway, commuter rail and road—the street must accommodate all modes of travel including active transportation. In addition to considering safety, accessibility, and emergency vehicle access, we also succeeded in creating a high-quality, multi-award-winning public realm.

The street was transformed—from a main street divided, into a place for people. Once a busy road that people rushed through on their way to work or home, Front Street is now an outright destination. The car-oriented, deteriorating roadway was replaced by a European-style plaza in front of Union Station that invites people to experience it. Traditional barrier curbs and a tree-lined median were replaced by an open social space, flush across, with removable stainless-steel bollards, planters and decorative paving defining pedestrian/vehicular lanes.

The impact of that is also seen in the multiple uses for the plaza. It is home to year-round events like Union Summer, Luminato in the fall and ice skating in the winter, each of which contribute to Toronto’s vibrant culture.

Share a piece of career advice.

Following my professional education in India, my family moved to Russia for a few years, and then we immigrated to Canada. The transitions through completely different geographies and cultures were at times challenging, as it was effectively a new beginning each time we moved.

What I find has worked for me has been remaining open to every opportunity that was presented, stepping up and taking on additional responsibilities, and then giving each task my very best. I have also endeavored to develop meaningful relationships with co-workers, allowing me to learn from and leverage the talent and knowledge around me as we strive for collective excellence.

Shalini Ullal

Originally published Apr 19, 2023

Author: Shalini Ullal

Shalini is a landscape architecture team lead from our Buildings + Place business line in Canada.