We Are Cities

February 24, 2015

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 We as a country view ourselves, talk about ourselves in a way that no longer represents what we are, how we live.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

Life On The Streets

September 27, 2010

Off the top of my head, this weekend saw the following list of events in, on and around the streets of Toronto: the Waterfront Marathon, Word on the Street, PS Kensington, a grand opening at the Evergreen Brickworks, Harvest Day at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, the last weekend home stand for the 2010 Blue Jays. And that’s just off the top of my head. Next weekend comes Nuit Blanche and Picnic at the Brickworks. That’s before I put any thought into it whatsoever.

City’s that are in the kind of dire, downward spiral shape as Toronto’s being depicted by four of its mayoral candidates seldom display the vibrancy on show this past weekend. They’re usually too busy dealing with matters of urban decay to put on a host of festivities. Or maybe Toronto’s simply whistling past the graveyard; playing and cavorting while the city burns. Rather than expend its energy and precious resources making whoopee, it should be concentrating on fixing the basics like streetlights and potholes. That whole Rudy Giuliani Broken Windows approach to city building.

False dichotomy aside, the question begs to be asked. When was the last time you came home from a place you’d never been before and that really caught your fancy, and the impression it made most on you was, the street surfaces were impeccable? That’s not to say infrastructure maintenance is unimportant. It’s just not the difference between merely a livable city and one that is exceptional.

In an interview last week, architect and author (Cities For People), Jan Gehl said, “The number one attraction in any city isn’t the buildings, the parks, the sculptures or the statues. It’s people.” What we witnessed and took part in here over the past weekend was gatherings of people. Thousands and thousands of people running, mingling with authors, drinking overpriced beer and eating overpriced pulled pork sandwiches. Together. We congregated at various locations throughout the city not only to enjoy the events but to be a part of them with others. That’s what happens in dynamic, lively cities.

So when Rob Ford pronounces that events like the Waterfront marathon should be moved from the streets and into parks for the sake of relieving traffic congestion, he displays a staggering, life-killing amount of ignorance about what makes cities actually work. Never mind that he seems preeningly boastful about not even knowing that the marathon was happening on Sunday – a suggestion to Councillor Ford? Maybe if you used some of your office expenses to keep your constituents updated with what’s going on around the city, you might learn a little something yourself – his knee-jerk pro-car stance reveals a mind utterly out of step with the trajectory of how 21st-century cities should be evolving. He is a 1950s man campaigning 60 years behind the times.

Ditto, all those candidates simply mimicking his regressive, throwback views. You’re floundering because you’re simply offering up a pale imitation of the real, Paleolithic deal. The city’s already outgrown your antiquated ideas of how to help it, build it. The people out on the streets, participating in all the things Toronto has to offer, are waiting for you to catch up.

chastizingly submitted by Cityslikr