Urban planner and disability advocate wants a Toronto that’s accessible to all
It’s 1990s Etobicoke. Young Igor Samardzic is crafting narratives as he plays with his LEGOs. He imagines tension between the figurines and gets to work figuring out how to accommodate their differences in his finished LEGO masterpiece.
Today, Samardzic is 32. He’s an urban planner and disability advocate who lives with conductive hearing loss. Complex problems that need to be resolved to create something cohesive and purposeful still fascinate him. He approaches them by collaborating, seeking creative solutions and challenging the status quo.
Take the documentary he’s producing with Urban Fabric Media, a social enterprise he co-founded. Titled “Accessing the City,” it provides a perspective on how people living with disabilities experience cities on a daily basis, and probes what’s needed to improve accessibility.
“It’s trying to shift the perspective of decision-makers when it comes to accessibility, and telling stories that resonate with people so they can make different decisions when it comes to what they’re planning in the city,” Samardzic says.
“You get situations where (a lot of) the TTC (may be) accessible but the sidewalks that lead to the TTC stop or the public right of way leading to a business is not accessible. For full accessibility, the siloing effect that exists between different departments and stakeholders needs to be removed so that everyone is thinking about accessibility. It isn’t good enough to only work on the projects within your scope of work and mandate.”
Urban planning is not just about building a building, Samardzic says. “The process involves the intersectionality of different systems that need to work together in a really complex way.”
You could say Samardzic is used to complexity. In 1992, when he was two, his family left Serbia. A few years later, he began to lose his hearing. The condition worsened up until his teenage years, before it stabilized.
He uses hearing aids, but even with them, he says it’s still a challenge to navigate an urban environment.
“Not a day goes by where I’m not in some way reminded about (my disability),” he says. Wind and rain sometimes hinder the ability of his hearing aids to work, and then there are times when PA announcements are muffled, or when a loud coffee grinder or fire truck wailing past, mutes a conversation.
“Electronic cues like signage, stop announcements that are broken, closing doors on subways — I often look for the light that is flashing and sometimes this doesn’t work or it’s broken,” he says.
His experiences have given him more awareness around people’s lived experiences, and it factors into asking stakeholders and the public for their feedback on urban plans.
Samardzic is co-founder of S+G Urban Partners, a firm that leverages finance, social capital, and analytics to make a positive impact on urban development. He also consults and works with various firms that provide architecture and urban planning for developers and municipalities, and sits on more than 10 boards and volunteer committees.
Armed with a bachelor of arts in geography, urban studies and political science, and a masters of science in urban planning, Samardzic has evaluated the performance of community space and public infrastructure in Toronto, assessed the potential impacts of the Mississauga’s proposed Inclusionary Zoning Policy on housing affordability, and evaluated the accessibility provisions in the City of Toronto’s Complete Streets Guidelines.
Yes, he’s a busy guy. Yet the excitement in Samardzic’s voice is obvious when he talks about his projects. Like the one that aims to challenge Islamophobia by incorporating Islamic architecture and shapes into public spaces. While still in its early stages, a website on this project is expected to launch soon.
He’s optimistic about where Toronto is heading with urban planning and development. It drives him to tackle issues, contribute to his city into the future, and make an impact on society.
“After that is, how do we scale this impact? How can I contribute to scaling this impact so it can affect more people in more communities?” he says.
“At the end of the day, we want to live in a livable city where everyone feels like they’re able to participate, where everyone feels like they’re able to contribute.”