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Shelagh McCartney

Associate Professor
EducationDDes, MDesS, BArch, BES

Shelagh McCartney is a licensed architect and urbanist whose expertise in design and development focuses on urbanization and housing, with a strong community development focus. She believes that planning and architecture are byproducts of complex territorial networks and cultural history. Her interdisciplinary approach, undertaken in partnership with communities, is often situated within contested territories of marginalized peoples in Canada’s Near-North and the global South that are experiencing rapid growth.


As a Fulbright scholar at Harvard, McCartney’s research focused on exploring community-based housing solutions for American Indigenous people and comparing American and Canadian Housing policies. Her doctoral work focuses on growth patterns of global rapidly growing cities and the effect of development policies on changes of morphological structure of informal housing in these cities.

In particular, McCartney has developed a growing record of interdisciplinary work pursued in partnership with communities, embodied in six important current projects:

1. Learning Together, external link, opens in new window - Recognizing that housing crises have been declared by First Nations and governments alike, Learning Together looks to bring a community approach to the creation and definition of housing metrics allowing for housing problems to be defined in an appropriate way

2. Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Housing Strategy, external link, opens in new window - Is the development of a regional housing strategy focused on the development of metrics, solutions and action plans rooted in the knowledge of community members; this process includes design, governance, community planning and more.

3. Yellow Knives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) Housing Strategy, external link - Is the development of a housing strategy for N’dilo and Dettah, focused on process tracing existing policies, the development of metrics, solutions and action plans rooted in the knowledge of community members; this process includes design, governance, community planning and more.

4. PDF fileCreating a Home for Our Youth (CaHfOY), external link, opens in new window - Grew out of the NAN Housing Strategy and looks to understand the relationships between built form, service delivery and well-being in housing for NAN youth. Rejecting external understandings of housing need, the project’s methodology relies on an immersive approach which centres the voices and lived experiences of youth. This process includes journey mapping, design charrettes, sharing circles.

5. At Home in the North (AHiN), external link, opens in new window - Working in partnership with communities across the provincial and territorial Norths to advance a northern housing continuum, this Partnership project informs the development and implementation of context-based, culturally safe programs, services and models for housing and homelessness, developed by and centered in northern communities. Our pan-northern, multi-scalar and interdisciplinary approach is critical to effectively bridging the gaps between research outcomes and impact on northern housing by facilitating the translation and implementation of research into policy and practice. Dr. McCartney eco-lead of the entire project and of the focus area of Housing, Community Design and the Built Environment.

6. StudentDwellTO (SDTO), external link, opens in new window - Started as a response to the call by the presidents of the four universities in Toronto - OCAD University, Ryerson University, University of Toronto, and York University, and is a collaborative effort to research and address how the current Toronto housing crisis is impacting students in the GTA. The initiative is multi-disciplinary in nature and composition and brings together students and faculty in a number of academic disciplines and research methods from all four universities.

McCartney has lectured and exhibited work internationally in countries including Canada, the United States, Spain, Bogota, Thailand, Brazil, Argentina and Australia. Prior to teaching at Ryerson, she was an assistant professor and coordinator of the Urbanism program at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University; was a teaching fellow at Harvard University, teaching private-public development and approaches to urban design in the 21st century; was an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, teaching comprehensive building and introductory design and option studios; was a lecturer at the University of Toronto, teaching urban scaled design studios and seminars on urbanism; and has been an invited critic at schools internationally.

Outside of academic research, McCartney has practiced privately in lead design, technical and management roles in South Africa, England, Finland and Canada, leading teams in projects requiring extensive community consultation, and as part of a team or individually she has secured wins or mentions in four international competitions as well as over twenty Canadian design awards in the past ten years.

Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and publications including Mapped Ground: Projecting the Urban Imaginary, at the Centre for City Ecology Urban Space Gallery, Toronto; and Gallery of Grid Cities in Cerda I La Barcelona Del Futur: Realitat versus Projecte, at the Consorci del Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, Spain.

She founded Together Design Lab, external link, opens in new window at Ryerson University which takes a collaborative approach to investigating and creating innovative solutions to housing issues with marginalized communities in Canada. Together Design Lab relies on an immersive model of partnership bringing an interdisciplinary team of students and collaborators together with communities to understand the meaning of housing in shaping lived experience. Recognizing the cultural, gendered and classed implications of dominant housing systems, this model of partnership looks to reimagine home environments through the values, goals and aspirations of our partners. Housing issues and solutions are not limited to discussions of basic shelter provision but are understood as central unit of analysis of personal and community well-being.

In addition, she is the director of +city lab an innovative research and design practice exploring platforms that focus on contemporary, interdisciplinary approaches to city and open territory design due to rapid growth and urbanization. Seeking to nurture both built and unbuilt work through scholarly and applied research, +city lab uses design and planning as research vehicles to pose and explore alternative urbanisms that address the broader social contexts of a project.

Philosophy of teaching:

McCartney believes teaching should model, engage, and inspire critical thinking, self-reflection and community engagement. Her approach to teaching and learning is to provide students with learning experiences that hone and shape the way they approach and think about communities, and how they can influence change in this increasingly complex world. McCartney empowers learners by introducing complex ideas and encouraging them to join the conversation, debate differing viewpoints, look beyond the obvious, and be creative in critiquing systems for the purpose of evoking systematic change from within – hallmarks of leaders and good planners. 

Another critical component of McCartney's philosophy of teaching is to instill in students a sense of personal responsibility – to be the very change they seek in the world. She believes community engagement is foundational, and actively links theory with the communities her students work with in classroom projects. Understanding communities differently, students learn from local stakeholders, synthesizing priorities and creating real-world solutions.

McCartney believes it is important that students learn to look past the surface of the buildings and roads to the structure of the city, the players involved and examine how the built environment is created. In collaborating with others, she also collaborates with her students to create a conversation rather than a monologue.

Teaching interests:

  • Urbanism
  • Contemporary urban design
  • Project-based physical planning studios
  • Planning research studio
  • Planning in the Global South
  • Field research project
  • Indigenous planning

Research interests:

  • Urbanization and housing
  • Informal housing and urbanization process
  • Urban growth dynamics
  • Urban design
  • Urban morphology
  • Housing morphology
  • Indigenous housing
  • Indigenous planning
  • Participatory planning
  • Research methods
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution
  • FRAIC, Fellow, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada
  • OAA, Ontario Association of Architects