We Are Cities

We have a “lack of urban narrative in Canada”, Charles Finley said at a roundtable meeting of the We Are Cities last Thursday.


Think about the image we project to the world and each other. Mountains, wilderness, lakes and rivers, wide open spaces, coureur des bois and moose. How about a little game of pick-up shinny on a frozen pond?

Yet we are decidedly an urban nation with 80% of us living in some variation of a city configuration. Such dissonance, the past prevailing over the present, hampers our ability to adapt for the future. We as a country view ourselves, talk about ourselves in a way that no longer represents what we are, how we live.

We Are Cities is an attempt to address that imbalance. An initiative spearheaded by Evergreen Cityworks and Cities for People, the project is the first step in developing a nationwide agenda for cities by encouraging people to sit down together and talk about the places they live, the places they call home. rockies“We Are Cities is a new campaign to engage Canadians across the county to shape a vision and an action plan for how we can build liveable cities – exciting and healthy places to live, work and play.”

To create that missing ‘urban narrative’ and to use it to redefine how we see the country, and how we can go about better tending to it. Update and upgrade. Canada 21st-century.

At the roundtable I attended – the first Toronto one, I believe – enthusiasm for the undertaking was in clear evidence. Thirty people or so gathered in a room at MaRS, the event organizers with a tightly structured program for participants to follow and adapt. “What were the strengths of Toronto?” we were asked. The Challenges?

Answers were many, varied and, at times, contradictory. The expected population growth the city expects to see over the next 20, 30 years? A strength or a challenge? Depends on who you ask. More importantly, depends how we prepare for it. The only definitive on the issue was that population growth was coming.

So it went.

One of the interesting things that caught my attention occurred during the Define Your City segment of the session where we were given 5 city archetypes – Les Grandes Dames, Small City Labs, Hippo Cities, for example. backbaconOne of the defining features of one archetypal city, a Swan City, I believe, was an inferiority complex about the city. Are you sort of embarrassed about your city?

This lead to a wider discussion about whether or not Toronto operated with an inferiority complex. If you want to talk about your city archetypes, how many times have we heard from Canadians (mostly who don’t live here) about how Toronto sees itself as the centre of the universe? A massive superiority complex, am I right?

My experience, however, doesn’t really jibe with that. How often do we find ourselves unfavourably comparing Toronto with other cities around the world? We lack the weather and self-love of Vancouver. New York? Come on. New York. Don’t even get us started about Paris, Barcelona. Amsterdam and Copenhagen have all that cycling infrastructure. Have you been to Melbourne?

We obsess about being world-class. How is that not a red flag for an inferiority complex? Even at a micro level, we’re pissing away tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, in order to placate a handful of insecure politicians who feel they are being treated as 2nd-class citizens because we don’t want to build subways to where they live.beaver

Everyone can rhyme off a list of what’s not working in this city but ask what is working? That’s not as easy. But as the roundtable slowly revealed, lots of stuff in the city works, there’s much to be positive about. Toronto has a strong base of institutional knowledge and know-how. Civic organizations are plentiful. Despite the lack of diversity in official circles, Toronto has plenty of it even if it hasn’t learned to effectively tap into and encourage it.

In the end, there was a degree of consensus around the idea that Toronto was an adolescent city. Comparatively, it is still quite young. There is a solid foundation for a good quality of life here. We just haven’t figured out what kind of city we want to be when we grow up.

Given the wide views about the state of Toronto in this one room at this one roundtable, it becomes obvious what a massive undertaking the We Are Cities project really is. If there’s such a lively debate about just one city, how do you corral a workable urban platform for cities nationwide? beerWhat are the things that unite people living in Calgary with those in Montreal and St. John’s? Few of us may be hewers of wood or bearers of water anymore but what is that line drawing somebody in an apartment in Winnipeg together with someone in a detached home in Oakville? How can we make both of their respective lives in their respective cities and communities better?

As seemingly theoretical and perhaps abstract as those questions might be, it’s important that we try to not only answer them but act on those answers as well. More to the point, it’s important that we do it from the ground up in the way We Are Cities is working toward. The sad fact of the matter is, few of our politicians want to work toward such a goal. Stoking the fires of regionalism, pitting urban against suburban is a divide-and-conquer tactic that brings to power those who exploit it best.toothless

That’s how Toronto got Rob Ford as mayor. The federal Conservatives finally gained their elusive majority government in 2011 by playing to the GTA suburbs. National strategies in transit and housing founder on the shoals of provincial-federal jurisdictional turf wars.

The sad irony of all that is, it’s the cities that ultimately suffer, and the cities are where the overwhelming number of Canadians live. We have to work together to establish a city-friendly agenda that our elected official cannot stand in opposition to without fear of being voted from office. We have to work together to establish an urban narrative that reflects the reality of the type of country Canada actually is.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr

2 Responses to We Are Cities

  1. GW says:

    There no contradiction between the same group of Torontonians fretting about the city’s lack of status or distinction in comparison to such culture-rich Old World capitals as Paris or such dynamic New World behemoths as NYC while at the same time looking down their noses at pretty much any other city or town within Canada’s borders. Think Adam Vaughan talking about the GTA.

    Toronto is simultaneously a big fish in a small pond (Canada) and a small fish in a big pond (the so-called “world cities”).

    “Oh, who cares about Montreal or Vancouver, much less Winnipeg or Regina? It’s all about how we rate next to London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney. What’s our ranking, dammit? Have we overtaken Madrid?!”

    It’s that kind of civic social climbing and dismissive attitude toward the rest of Canada that triggers the “Centre of the Universe” remarks. “Hey, we might not be Dubai, but at least we’re not Hamilton or, ugh, Sudbury.”

    And are you really looking to edit the history of our country to airbrush out the contributions of those Canadians who lived off of or worked the land and paved (well, not literally – other people did the actual paving) the way for those shining cities full of glass condo towers, art galleries, coffee houses and pedestrian scrambles? Sorry, but I’ll take the coureur de bois as a symbol of this country over the Queen Street hipster anyday.

  2. Ron Wm. Hurlbut says:

    We’re all Coureur de bois and Voyageurs at heart.

    Slaving away at menial jobs with the hope that we can get away to the lake on weekends and maybe a couple of weeks in the summer.

    It’s the frontier mentality that drives urban sprawl. The quest for living on the open range.

    Really, the NORTH American Dream.

    Boggles the mind, to a City Boy, that people in the rural reaches of Sutton would have cottages that are even deeper into the bush… But they do…

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