O2 Planning + Design began operations in 1991. However, business really picked up when president and CEO, Douglas Olson, returned from Harvard University with a Doctorate of Design degree. From there, the small firm of three began to grow, rebranding to become more versatile within its respective markets. Olson and his associations, a collaboration of landscape architects, designers, regional and urban planners, landscape ecologists and geodesign specialists, pride themselves on the variety of their work. “Right from inception, we’ve been working across scales – from regions as large as Austria or Maine to more detailed, construction- oriented design projects,” says Olson. “We are a distinctly multidisciplinary firm. We don’t offe architecture, although we do have landscape architects and urban designers on staff who have been trained as architects. But, really, we look at design across scale.”
While O2 respects traditional approaches to urban and regional design and planning, landscape architecture and growth management planning, they have adopted a unique concept through their geodesign services. The firm is recognized internationally for their use of geographic information systems and computer modelling in harmony with the design and planning process. According to Olson, geodesign allows for a more analytical approach toward environment and economic impact assessment right from the start of the project; this allows for the testing of different scenarios and design alternatives much sooner than traditional approaches.
“We try to look at conservation and development simultaneously,” he says. “We believe that you really can’t do sustainable planning and design without considering both the development requirements and the growth needs that most jurisdictions face. We’re looking at engineering requirements at the same time as we’re looking at the need for aesthetic spaces and building sites, and we’re always trying to integrate the work of environmentally sustainable stormwater management, landscape connectivity – all these kinds of environmental considerations – within the design process. Finally, we’re visualizing the environmental, financial and cultural impacts of different design alternatives. We’re visualizing these to make them accessible to ordinary people, stakeholders and clients, and to allow us to make informed decisions all the way through the design process.”
While the firm works internationally, O2 is currently designing open space and park strategies for Canadian cities including Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax. The goal is to achieve a broad assessment of the functions these open spaces provide and their significance in structuring cities, “in a true sense of ecological urbanism,” says Olson. He and his associates feel those projects contribute greatly to “setting a framework” around which continued growth and economic development can occur. Two additional areas that O2’s multidisciplinary approach can improve on are expansion of geodesign tools and reduction of the potential for crime through environmental design.
“This is an exploding market for us,” he says. “When we look at urban growth planning across the planet, I believe the areas of real need are at the very broad scale. We are deeply engaged in and know the requirements for sustainable urban growth, particularly at the city and regional level. The need is exceptional, and an area of focus for us – together with more detailed design projects. Another area of real interest and focus is embedding water management, climate adaptation and flood mitigation within our park planning, land-use planning and detailed design.”
During 25 years in the industry, O2 has won many awards, including the Mayor’s Urban Design Award for Great City, Great Design on its West Eau Claire Park and Public Realm Plan; the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Award for the Helen Schuler Nature Centre in Lethbridge; various recognitions for its Parkland County Environmental Conservation Master Plan; as well as several awards through the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects. Olson strongly believes that the support of these associations not only benefits industry leaders, but helps inform and support clients.
“Whether it’s Universities, the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects or the Canadian Institute of Planners, it’s part of our professional responsibility to work with and support those institutes in that they are promoting understanding of the practice of landscape architecture – which is poorly understood, I would say, with much of the population,” he explains. “We’re not just garden designers. We create; we design and plan landscapes that extend, in some cases, for hundreds of miles.”
Going forward, Olson explains that there are many issues that need to be addressed to ensure a better future for the landscape architecture industry and its related disciplines – including water management, biodiversity, climate adaptation and urban growth. In addition to these key touch points, he says that it is fundamental for those in the industry to fully engage in the planning of regional, rural and urban landscapes. “We also need to be working right across scales,” he adds. “We can design wonderful spaces at the very fine scale, but we really also have to know how all those individual projects add up to make better places, better cities and better regions.
Another area of great opportunity for landscape architects is the ability to coordinate large, multidisciplinary projects. Landscape architects are well-positioned to lead interdisciplinary complex projects and that’s an area more landscape architects should be considering. As well, we need to have a commitment to advanced technology and to be bringing forward cutting edge work that is not just our opinion, but is substantiated by data- driven evaluations.”
Olson began his professional career as a ranger in the Rockies of southern Alberta, at a bighorn sheep wildlife sanctuary. After returning to school for his Master of Landscape Architecture degree, he moved to Nairobi, where he worked for several years. When he returned to Canada, he worked as a landscape architect and planner for the University of Calgary before leaving for Harvard to pursue his Doctorate of Design degree and continuing to move forward with his business. Now, he and his team are focused on the capability of O2. “I certainly see us growing,” he says. “We’re working across the country, and we work internationally frequently. We would like to expand our interdisciplinary services across scales and across the globe. We’re certainly looking to expand our international reach as well as continuing to work across Canada. We are truly a national company. We’re coast to coast, quite literally, and I see that expanding. What I’d like to see is an increased appreciation of the importance of landscape and landscape architecture at all scales and that really means starting with the landscape.”
Olson elaborates, “I’d like to see an increased appreciation of landscape, the importance of landscape and how it can be used to structure the form of cities. We should be starting not with the buildings, but with the landscape. That’s a fundamental shift in the way we look at cities, I know, but I truly believe what people value most about most cities is the landscape – the river valleys, the open spaces. Whether they’re very clearly hard, urban designed plazas or more natural areas, these are things that, when gone, are very difficult to bring back. We should be thinking about how to protect and enhance landscapes and use the landscape to provide the overall structure for urban form.”