Germanically Speaking

March 9, 2010

Zwischenstadt. One of those malleable German word/phrases that can be both laser-like in its specificity and so hopelessly ambiguous as to be utterly meaningless when translated into English. Like gestalt. Or fahrvergnügen.

Coined by German architect and urban planner Thomas Sieverts, zwischenstadt originally referred to the newer outlying sections of European cities that were built around the old historic centres, largely after the Second World War. The places where urban and rural meet; the ‘sprawl’ on the margins of a city. Adopted and then adapted for a wider non-European meaning, zwischenstadt came to mean the Edge City to Joel Garreau and a Technoburb for Robert Fishman. Ed Soja’s zwischenstadt was Exopolis.

For our purposes here, let us think of zwischenstadt as what is called an ‘in-between city’. These are the largely residential post-war suburbs that sprung up around the inner downtown core of Toronto and once were on the edges where urban met rural but are now sandwiched between the downtown core and the newer, more prosperous suburbs that make up the 905 region. Places like Scarborough and North York that, to borrow a phrase from Julie-Anne Boudreau, Roger Keil and Douglas Young in their book Changing Toronto, operate “in the shadows of Toronto’s glamour zones…”

What’s that? Markham, Pickering and Vaughan? Glamourous?! Yes 416ers, for a good many people, you are not the only game in town as much as that may bruise your collective egos. The in-between city possesses neither the allure of downtown gentrification nor the shiny newness of big houses on big lots in the exurbs.

While both the outer ring and inner core of what is now termed the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have generally flourished overall during the era of globalization and neoliberal economic policy rule, large sections of the in-between city have fared less well. We now talk of the frayed suburbs and their high priority neighbourhoods that are underprovided with both resources and organization. These are the parts of the city hit hardest when the economy nosedives and the last to reap any benefits that trickle down when times are good. When talk turns to the in-between city, it usually involves crime (Summer of the Gun) or economic insecurity.

A school of urban thought believes that the in-between city suffers from the consequences of our adherence to “… the myth of the ideal compact city…” as Boudreau, Keil and Young refer to it in their book. The suburbs seen as mere satellites of the central core, providing space and more affordable living to those who serviced the needs of downtown. Now with the phenomenal growth of the regions even further on the periphery, the in-between city is neither here nor there. It just is. Its needs and issues, as usual, subservient to those of the core or lost in the tug of war between powerful 416 interests and those in the 905.

Certainly the inner-ring suburbs are receiving little attention so far in the municipal election campaign. The battle lines have been drawn between the wealthier enclaves of midtown Toronto, Etobicoke and North York versus those living between St. Clair and the lake. In the increasingly vigorous move to the right by the leading candidates for mayor and their calls for cuts and freezes at City Hall, the needs of the in-between city like public transit and affordable housing are, in fact, coming under threat.

Mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi has touted his City Builders Fund where he would direct 50% of additional fees that the city receives whenever a development goes beyond existing zoning laws into community projects in high priority neighbourhoods through the Toronto Community Foundation. This is fine as far as it goes but it is simply more of the same approach; public financing dependant on private money and will. It’s highly discretionary and often times a one shot deal that undercuts the notion of an overall plan. There’s no vision.

Without vision, Toronto will continue to stumble along with the increasingly familiar widening gap between the haves and have-nots. There will be those living in the city and those who live in the in-between city. Such an imbalance can only adversely affect our ability to contribute to the region’s growth as a vital economic and social centre. Moreover, by giving into the fiscal pressures of naked self-interest, we are undermining the system as a whole and threaten the very, as I think the Germans might say, gestalt of our city.

Teutonically submitted by Acaphlegmic