What I Did This Summer

So comes to an end my summer sampling tour of what our prime minister once proudly referred to as Northern European welfare states.  Stockholm and environs. North eastern Netherlands. Helsinki. With a couple stops along the way in latitudinally similar if politically divergent Edinburgh, Scotland and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Expecting a wish list I hope Toronto should adopt in order to become a better city? Not this time although it would be surprisingly short in words if longer in action. Invest don’t divest in the public realm. Public spaces and transit namely. The rest sort of falls in line from there.

No. Whenever and wherever I go, I always look forward to getting back home. Toronto is doing something right and has been for some time. Numerous lists and indices attest to that regularly. Which makes the last couple years so mystifyingly troublesome.

Why the retrenchment? Why the fiscal self-immolation? Why all the apocalyptic talk of out of control this and excessive that? All of which needs a healthy dose of restraint and rollbacks.

This is the talk of those who lack an understanding of what makes a city function. Those dedicated to bolstering the private sphere at the expense of the public.  People living in the city but not loving it.

Toronto does not need to be tamed or constrained. If anything, the exact opposite is true. It needs to be embraced, its potential tapped and expanded.

With the exception of St. Petersburg, the other cities on my recent travel list are small in comparison to Toronto. All of them including St. Petersburg possess a far more homogeneous population. Both factors make it easier to arrive at a consensus than the divergent opinions and varying approaches to city building Toronto faces. Instead of seeing that as an obstacle or crisis, however, what’s that about diversity being our strength?

Toronto is a big city. It is an international city. By many, many measures, it is a flourishing city. It has to start acting like one rather than some sleepy backwater burg afraid of its own shadow. There are solutions to the actual problems we face. Invented bogey men looking for quick fixes only add to our woes rather than seek to reduce them.

What differentiates great cities from, well, just run of the mill cities is a dedication by its inhabitants to creating a place people want to live not where they have to live. It’s about delivering contentment as well as opportunity. In a word: liveability.

Much of the material attraction of Toronto for people from all over the world over the past 70 years or so – wide open, seemingly unlimited space to live, to prosper, to raise families – has now become problematic. In some ways we have built strong communities at the expense of the greater whole and left it vulnerable to the pressing needs of a big city in the 21st-century. We are now squabbling siblings fighting over what we’re told are dwindling resources, convinced the only way to make things better is to take more off the table. Addition by subtraction. However that math works.

Cities, world class cities at least (just to make Edward Keenan’s head explode), don’t simply spring up to greatness. They aren’t branded or marketed into Top 10 lists or desirable destination spots. As Toronto’s new chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat wrote today in the Globe and Mail, “Creating great places to live – which includes investing in the buildings and spaces we share in common – is imperative in ensuring that people seek out our cities as places to learn, visit and raise families.”

It’s a matter of rolling up our sleeves and attempting to capture that spark, the essence drawing people to a city. It isn’t solely about aesthetics, beautiful buildings, gorgeous parks and green spaces, humming and alive streets. All that fancy stuff proud penny-pinching politicians decry as wasteful gravy.

It’s about providing people a home that, again to quote our new chief planner, offers ‘beauty and inspiration’. Neither comes cheaply or easily. Greatness rarely does. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, nor was it built on a dollar. Demanding less can only amount to expecting less and, ultimately, getting less.

Beauty, inspiration and opportunity never arise from that.

autumnally submitted by Cityslikr

Minneapolis Cycle City USA

There must be some sort of mistake. A typo or something. This just can’t be possible.

Minneapolis named America’s best bike city.

Or maybe there’s a Minneapolis in some other state outside of Minnesota. California. Oregon. Arizona. You know, where they can ride their bikes all year round.

Because in Minnesota, man, you wouldn’t waste the time, money or effort to build and design a crackerjack bicycle system that people would use for just part of the year. I mean, that would be insane, an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money, some sort of socialist plot to steal our cars from us.

That’s what we’re told up here in wintery Toronto when bike lane opponents have run out of other arguments. As recently as a couple weeks ago in a Toronto Sun editorial, huffing mightily in indignation about the proposed trial run of bike lanes on University Avenue this summer, we’re warned that “… council needs to remember that what may work for 12 weeks in the summer from July to September could prove to be a disaster in the dead of winter.

Not just unworkable, you understand, but a disaster.

Bike lanes are for more temperate climes. Vancouver. Portland (a previous winner of Best Bike City in America). Europe. You mean like balmy locals such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam? They don’t count. They’re European. They like biking because they’re effete, cheese-eating car haters.

We here in North America take to our bikes only recreationally and only when weather permits. Hardy means shivering in your car before the seats actually warm up. Nobody in their right minds would choose to bike in the winter which is why there’s usually only couriers out on the road between November and April.

Apparently, no one’s informed the people of Minneapolis about that. The city is strikingly similar to Toronto weather-wise, averaging slightly less than one degree colder in its daytime highs throughout the winter months with an almost identical amount of snowfall. Yet, there it is, the newly crowned America’s Best Biking City. Yes, they experience a drop off of bike commuting when the temperature plummets and snow falls, as much as 2/3s by an estimate a couple years ago. But this does not stop them from investing in, promoting and encouraging cyclists.

So, it’s not a question of can you create a positive biking culture in cities afflicted by inclement winter weather. Minneapolis proves that you can. It’s all about will you.

bipedally submitted by Urban Sophisticat