What I Did This Summer

September 10, 2012

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


You Can Run But You Can’t Hide

July 30, 2012

Turns out, even for a somewhat political obsessive like me, it’s remarkably easy to switch off the electronic gizmos and happily walk away without so much as looking back. Head off to some place where people haven’t the foggiest idea what #TOpoli means and might just stare blankly at you when you respond to their query about where you’re from. “You mean, New York?” Places our country itself is but a vague notion. “It’s big, yes? With big mountains?”

Admittedly, it wasn’t complete cold turkey. I did find myself on occasion plopped down in a fully licensed free wifi zone, casually, very casually, checking in on what was going on back here. More disconcerting gunplay. More a-one diplomacy with the province from our mayor. The mayor’s big birthday surprise.

All the important stuff.

Still, despite such self-imposed exile (yeah, that’s what we call ‘vacations’ in these parts), politics does seep in, largely unnoticed at first. Knocking around Madrid and then more southerly spots in Spain as well as unOlympicized parts of northern Great Britain, it’s difficult not to see the economic distress. En alquiler, en venta, for sale, to let. Precio reducido. We won’t be undersold.

Everywhere. Along with boarded up storefronts and abandoned buildings. I tweeted about a moment in Grenada. Wandering through some alleyway, we encountered two bins on wheels outside a five storey walk up building. Both were full to bursting with what could be seen as stuff pulled out as part of some pre-renovation demolition. But it was all too intact and too many personal items for that to be the likely case. Repossession and salvage was our guess.

A man walked up the stairs past us and, very likely hearing our English prattling, turned back in our direction as he passed the bins and said, This Is Spain. Twice. Not necessarily angrily although it wasn’t simply a passing remark. Sad wouldn’t be how I describe it either. Resigned? Disappointed? Disbelieving? How the hell did it come to this?

Sitting in one of Madrid’s main squares, Plaza Mayor, we chatted with our waiter about the quiet atmosphere of the place. Granted it was a Monday night and it was only midnight or so, things do generally pick up later in Spain than they do here, but it was July. It was a gorgeous evening out. Que pasa?

Apparently, the place is packed and jumping on weekends but come the week nights? Nada. Unsettlingly subdued. On the upside… yeah, no. There is no upside.

The parts of northern Wales and up into Scotland we travelled didn’t look a whole lot more robust. Plenty of places for rent or sale, deserted and derelict properties. Sales galore! Of course, all that gloominess could’ve been on account of the greyer skies and cooler temperatures.

For its part, Edinburgh seemed chock full of vital with infrastructure construction going on all over the place. Sure, most of that was to do with the building of a tram system but even that will sound familiar to those of us who’ve been living in Toronto for the past 5 years or so. Initially, the system was supposed to run from the airport down through the town centre and onto the portside community of Leith. The whole enterprise was put on hold a couple years ago due to concerns over funding. A more modest version is now well underway. What was once a War on Cars has been scaled back to a mere skirmish.

Hanging over all of the UK now is the shadow of a double dip recession. It seems the austerity measures of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition haven’t quite worked out as hoped. Or, depending on your political perspective, it’s all gone swimmingly. Growth is down, unemployment is up and angry eyes have turned toward the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Fortunately for him and his government, the Olympics have got Britons’ hearts a-beating and their flags a-waving; their minds momentarily diverted from the economic crisis taking firmer hold of their green and pleasant land.

(That’s not hokey now if Danny Boyle used it.)

I couldn’t have been happier travelling in my relative Canadian anonymity than I was during the past two weeks. Who wants the rest of the world to know what our government is saying about their situation right now? Smugly tsk, tsk, tsking the Euro-region for the dire condition of their books and urging more, deeper austerity despite all indications pointing to this being the worst thing we can do at this moment. It’s working so well for us, right? What’s that you say CIBC?

Thank god I didn’t have to explain to anyone the nonsense going on here in this city where we’ve had to fend off a faux-financial crisis entirely manufactured by those who see almost any government spending as the root of all evil. Fiscal dimwits gravely invoking the names of Greece or Spain every time they sense any pushback to a proposed cut to services or programs. As if library spending rather than LIBOR fiddling was at the root of the global economic malaise. (Woo! Did I have to work for that one.)

It’s ugly out there which causes me to think the situation isn’t nearly as rosy for many of us here as we’re trying to convince ourselves. Pretending that it is, pretending all that stands between us and future prosperity is a tax cut here, a service efficiency there is nothing short of fucking delusional. Delusional, and if you’re an elected official, bordering on pure negligence. No, we’re not Greece or Spain. We’re not Great Britain. But the surest path in that direction is to advocate slashing and burning as the way avoid their grim fate.

*sigh*

Vacation’s over, I guess.

grumpily submitted by Cityslikr