From home builder to community builder: alumnus establishing healthy communities professorship

Greg Christenson (centre left), celebrates with Dean of Engineering Fraser Forbes, City Councilor Mike Nickel, Alberta Minister of Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson and University of Alberta Vice President (Advancement) Heather McCaw. Christenson is establishing a professorship in Building Sustainable and Healthy Communities in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

(Edmonton) When Greg Christenson talks about homebuilding, he’s really addressing the creation of sustainable communities and neighbourhoods—planning the ways that buildings, services and gathering places will serve the families making it their home, knitting people together in a community that thrives and endures over generations.

“I’m more interested in the whole spectrum of development, from the raw land all the way to densification, to building a community, to creating something more than buildings,” said Christenson, who graduated from the University of Alberta with a civil engineering degree in 1979.

He’s so interested, in fact, that his charitable foundation is establishing an endowed professorship in the Faculty of Engineering to research and educate the next generation of engineers in sustainable and healthy community  development.

The Christenson Professorship in Building Sustainable and Healthy Communities will explore life-cycle costing and the entire spectrum of community development. Christenson is especially excited about the possibilities this work presents in revitalizing mature neighbourhoods or creating new communities within the city.

“The idea is to advance the science of urban villages and do feasibility studies in brown and greenfield markets,” said Christenson, who is president of Christenson Developments and an active member in the city’s social and affordable housing advisory groups.

The professorship’s research and planning activities will examine hard and soft data related to building resilient communities. On one hand, analysis of the capital costs of incorporating alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy and the use of innovative materials and construction practices need to be examined; but other less tangible characteristics of development need to be considered as well. Seniors should be able to age in their own communities and have the services they need nearby. Similarly, young families need their own amenities.

“Community building plays on a number of levels and as engineers we sometimes think too much about bricks and mortar,” Christenson said. “We can go through numbers like cost and what people are willing to pay for certain features but you also need to think of how happy the people who are living in a community are going to be—having nearby services like grocery stores and schools and health care are important too, and we can quantify that.”

From working on seniors housing with non-profit groups like Lions Villages in the past, Christenson has now become actively involved in wellness and community care models working together with Lyn Krutzfeldt of Advantage Assist Group, and now with Dr. Karen Lee, noted walk and public health design advocate.

“I want to see our industry move from doing transactional work to doing transformative work,” he said.

The Christenson professorship will be a part of the Nasseri School of Construction Science and Engineering established in 2015 to support research into more environmentally friendly construction practices.

Dean of Engineering Fraser Forbes noted that Christenson’s gift is by its nature, sustainable.

“Endowed gifts such as this ensure that teaching and research programs continue in perpetuity,” said Forbes. “The Christenson Chair will establish a legacy of advancing the engineering and science of community building, giving generations of engineers the tools they need to improve the ways our communities and cities work.”

Reza Nasseri, an Edmonton-based homebuilder and namesake of the Nasseri School for Building Science and Engineering, said the professorship is an important part of the school’s ethos.

“It’s a perfect fit,” Nasseri said. “What Greg is doing is going to be a big component behind the Naseri School.”

Christenson says the Nasseri School is just one of the characteristics of the city and the University of Alberta that make it the best place to advance sustainable and healthy community building practices.

Equally important, he adds is the fact that members of Edmonton’s homebuilding industry are also colleagues who have grown together and are working together to improve quality, overall affordability and sustainability.

Alberta cities, he notes, have land where urban villages could be put to the test. In Edmonton, that includes areas such as Blatchford Field and potentially, the Northlands Park area in Edmonton. Cities are encouraging inward growth aimed at rejuvenating mature neighbourhoods with housing and services that appeal to young families and seniors alike, and the professorship can help advance research supporting this style of growth and community building.

“We’ve got all the ingredients in place in Edmonton,” he said. “And members of the building community here—we truly aspire to build communities.”

Christenson is creating the endowed professorship through a donation from his charitable foundation and a planned gift that is part of his will.