Time To Rave Not Rage

March 3, 2014

Point 10. At last.

happycity(Points 1-5 here. Points 6, 7, 8 & 9, here, here, here & here.)

“…a city is really just the sum of what people think about it. The city is a subjective thing.”

— Ricardo Montezuma, National University of Colombia

[Please note: I will be freely quoting from and riffing on — more than usual — Charles Montgomery’s Happy City. Most of these ideas aren’t my own. But that’s OK because, well, a city is a ‘shared project’.]

When all is said and done, after the political posturing and ideological framing is set, the issues neatly packaged and properly charted out, what we really should be looking for in our municipal candidates is their promise to make the city dance. Dance and sing or at least hum a jaunty tune.

We want a city that vibrates with life and activity. A place made up from communities built on optimism and aspiration not fear, anger and division. A city where people want to live not one where they have to live.rave

Now, this isn’t some airy-fairy, arty-farty, New Age-y, dream-weaving utopian wish. It is the end result of down and dirty, nitty gritty, hands-on toil and nose-to-the-grindstone hustle. It’s about relentless but positive civic-mindedness.

It incorporates all the previous points we’ve written on this. In fact, a city can’t dance without serious consideration of each and every one of them. A frank and honest discussion about taxation. Improved public transit, public spaces, public realm. A dependable business and work environment that provides opportunity for every resident. A keen eye on social justice. Increased civic engagement.

Let’s umbrella it all in under the idea of civic audacity.

igotnothingCharles Montgomery referred to the former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa’s urban vision and city-building as a ‘grand experiment’ requiring ‘even grander rhetoric’.

Toronto has been severely lacking in either of those impulses lately. For 4 years now, all we’ve heard is about stripped down governance and need-to-have services and programs. You know what the gravy train is? The nice-to-haves that make a city dance and instill an inclusive sense of civic pride and belonging regardless of where your address happens to be.

Sadly, an argument could be made that kind of thinking and city-building vision was soundly rejected by Toronto voters in 2010. Pocket book issues won the day. We were busy looking after our nickels and dimes.

But I’d argue this.

There was no strong standard bearer for the Miller administration’s pro-Happy City brand of city-building. Joe Pantalone failed to enunciate exactly what they had been trying to do for the past 7 years. The others chose the easy and well-worn path of appealing to our worst instincts as city residents. Me, me, me. Mine, mine, mine.

More importantly, I believe the biggest mistake David Miller made during his time in office was to try and go it alone. communityTo try and infuse a new civic sense in the city solely through City Hall not city streets. Inspire change with leadership but not necessarily wider public engagement. So when he stepped aside, there weren’t enough people to champion what his administration had accomplished.

The only way meaningful and long term change happens is with more hands on deck, with more people participating and pitching in, with wider and deeper civic engagement. We don’t need one heroic mayor to build us a new transit system or get our potholes fixed. Vote for me. Call me. And then, sit back and let me sort everything out.

You don’t make a city dance just by providing excellent customer service. You do it by encouraging and demanding persistent resident participation and civic engagement. rollupyoursleeves1Candidates seeking city council offices should first be asking voters what they want on their streets, in their neighbourhoods, their communities, their city. And then, offer up ways to make everyone an actual agent of the changes they want to see.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” Charles Montgomery quotes Jane Jacobs from her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

This election needs to be about more than simply building a voters’ and donors list, a team of volunteers or a winning margin. It has to be about building a civic movement full of people who, again to quote Charles Montgomery one final time today, are “… emboldened by the notion that anyone who cared enough could change the way the city worked.”elainebenesdance

Such a movement doesn’t get started on the scrawny legs of what can’t be done or what isn’t possible. It’s encouraged by bold ideas and a strong sense of inclusiveness. If we’re living in a city together, we really should be working on it together.

You dance alone, you’re Elaine Benes. But if enough of us get up on our feet and start hopping up and down — we’re not talking ballroom dancing here — we’ll eventually have a rave on our hands. I think it’s time Toronto starts to rave.

ecstatically submitted by Cityslikr


Vision Quest II

September 24, 2010

The journey continues.

Up this week: Sarah Thomson!

I must write this quickly as rumours build of Ms. Thomson’s imminent departure from the mayoral race. Or maybe not. Maybe in two weeks. But then again, maybe not.

Which encapsulates her candidacy perfectly.

When I initially saw Sarah Thomson at a live debate all those months ago, I was immediately reminded of the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. After she expresses outrage at the personal nature of some of the questions asked during her job interview, the crusty Mr. Grant tells Mary that he thinks she’s spunk. When Mary mistakenly takes that as a compliment, Mr. Grant barks, “I hate spunk!”

Now replace the word ‘spunk’ with ‘pluck’ in order that I stop giggling like a grade schooler, and that’s how I best describe Ms. Thomson. She’s got pluck. She left home at the age of 15 and by the time she was 30, Ms. Thomson had made herself a small fortune, “turning around failing service stations and making them successful” by getting them to sell chips and stuff and not just gas and oil. She then went back to school, got herself a degree in English and philosophy which she used to begin a new career of buying rundown houses, renovating and then flipping them, I believe the term is. Moving on from there, Ms. Thomson then took on the mantel of ‘social entrepreneur’ and started up the Women’s Post media empire in 2002.

Pluck by the bucketful.

And all very Horatio Alger which could only be made more storybook perfect with a successful run for political office. So Sarah Thomson screwed on her pluck and set her eyes straight for the top. She would become mayor of Toronto!

I mean, how hard could it be to a person who’s turned service stations around and made old houses new again? What’s a city if not a place full of old houses waiting to be flipped and stations of services in need of a little entrepreneurial giddy-up? If you treat the levers of governmental power like a business then, dognabit, the levers of governmental power will start behaving like a business. And isn’t that what we all want from our government? For it to be just like a business?

There were two very likely fatal flaws in this thinking of the Sarah Thomson campaign. One, actually government isn’t just like a business. Two, there were a couple other candidates thinking just the same thing. One had bigger name recognition and the other had more money to spend.

So Ms. Thomson veered rudderlessly from fiscal conservative to social progressive, trying to recreate the John Tory formula except for the non-winning part. It even went so far as to have a couple of the Tory offspring on her team. She tried presenting herself as a no-nonsense business manager who would ferociously cut to the bottom line while maintaining a beating heart toward all the things that made a city great. Arts and culture. Architecture, heritage and forward-thinking urban planning. That the two impulses have never quite meshed into a seamless vision was not the fault entirely of Team Thomson. The exact problem has plagued both the George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi campaigns as well.

Sarah Thomson boldly introduced the idea of road tolls into the mix. Unfortunately, the implications of her idea weren’t well thought out. In addition to which, it was part of a transit plan that insisted on building subways. That Ms. Thomson as recently as last night’s debate was rethinking the matter and publicly admitted that the planned LRTs might be the best way to go goes as both a credit to her personally but a detriment to her campaign. She appears willing to listen to others and reposition herself accordingly which might make for good mayoral material but undercuts her campaign by making her look like a wishy-washy flip-flopper.

Taking us to the overarching problem of Ms. Thomson’s candidacy. Perhaps she should’ve taken the time to ground herself more thoroughly in the issues facing Toronto before jumping into the fray. Pluck was simply not going to be enough. Too many times during debates, she was caught flat-footed and at a loss for answers. Responding to questions about urban planning and design, she constantly said, “I love Jane Jacobs” and little else.

Well, everybody loves Jane Jacobs, Ms. Thomson (except for maybe Rob Ford). So what? An inability to follow up on that epitomized a candidate who hadn’t really thought much past the platitudes and therefore couldn’t generate a base willing to believe she was up to the task of running a city.

So, perhaps prematurely but quite possibly long overdue, R.I.P. Thomson For Mayor. You were plucky. Everybody hates pluck.

crustily submitted by Cityslikr


Political Thoughts From The Love Shack

January 30, 2010

For those of you assigning my absence at this site to being lost in pursuit of pure and utter carnality, having last seen me being carted off a dance floor tucked under the arm of… how was it described.. ? “… one of the [statuesque] blondes just as Come Sail Away by Styx kicked into high gear”, allow me to set the record straight.

1) While it was Styx that played me out of the bar, the song was Lady not Come Sail Away.

2) The [statuesque] blonde in question is named Cerise and while she is on the tall side, statuesque may be somewhat hyperbolic. In bare feet, she is no more than 4 inches taller than I, and I am certainly not a tall man.

3) That most definitely was an impersonator of my person in this week’s comment sections. I have remained faithful to my vow of abstinence with KFC since the retainer incident. So I would hardly be gallivanting around the countryside with a bucket by my side. Also, I have no idea what a ‘speedball’ is.

4) Holed up as we have been in her quaint farmhouse all by its lonesome in the hinterlands of Dufferin County, our intercourse, as it were, has hardly been to the exclusion of anything outside of the primal kind. After all, we aren’t base animals, blind to all but our corporal desires.

In fact, over the past week, Cerise and I have discovered a mutual love of municipal governance and civic legislative structures. (I think this one may be a keeper!) Between mouthfuls of bonbons and tankards of merlot, we debated the merits of prescriptive versus permissive powers, the nature of the so-called ‘in between’ cities, the ridiculously inflated rock star persona of Richard Florida. And, of course, we both mooned over Saint Jane Jacobs.

More to the point, it was during a heated discussion about Thomas J. Courchene that I was struck by an idea that is pertinent to the discussion here over the last few days. In his June 2005 IRPP Working Paper entitled Citistates and the State of Cities: Political-Economy and Fiscal-Federalism Dimensions, Courchene suggests that, traditionally, municipal governments – deprived of actual fiscal and legislative powers by their respective provinces – have been little more than caretakers or purely administrative units. That is to say, doing the grunt work for their superiors.

Think the British Raj in India. Local government answerable ultimately to their political masters in a faraway place. Or to bring it closer to home, as Professor David Siegel has framed it, municipalities are merely vehicles for decentralized provincial service delivery. Provinces say “jump” and cities ask “how high”. From that vantage point, Rocco Rossi’s Empire Club speech should be seen as merely an extension of that mindset.

And who’s to say that the voters of Toronto don’t share Rossi’s point of view? If the newspapers and polls are to be believed, we no longer remain in thrall to Mayor Miller and his minions’ (again, borrowing from Courchene) ‘policy-intensive and participation/accountability-enhancing’ approach to governing this city. Perhaps, Rossi simply recognizes our latent desire to want someone else to tell us how to live our lives and therefore rid ourselves of the responsibility to accept the consequences of our own decisions. Maybe deep down in our heart of hearts, we Torontonians are simply of the administrative sort; reactive rather than proactive.

There’s no shame in that. Unfortunately, little excitement either. But hey, what are you going to do? Unburdened by responsibility, we have more leisure time to eat bonbons and drink merlot.

satiatedly submitted by Acaphlegmic