Not So Much Where You Live

November 16, 2010

Leisurely making my way through Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution when the concept of “city consumers versus trained urban citizens” stopped me up. Three weeks after the election that made Rob Ford Toronto’s mayor-elect and with much chatter about the divide revealed by his win, here to me was an idea that transcended mere geography. Could this be an insight into the core political sensibilities of the two camps?

Anybody who’s been following along with the post-election analysis knows of the downtown core/inner suburb, old city of Toronto/other places that weren’t Toronto but are now divide. We examined Edward Keenan’s article about here last week. Marcus Gee did as well over the weekend in the Globe and Mail although he failed to cite Mr. Keenan as his primary source material. The general consensus is that there were enough exceptions to prove the rule that it was suburban Toronto alienation from City Hall over the past 7 years that led them to vote for Rob Ford in droves while downtowners thought anyone voting for Ford was an idiot.

Here’s another take on it. “City consumers versus trained urban citizens.” Rob Ford supporters, regardless of where they live, think of the city only as far as what it gives to them personally. A place to live and work. Getting between those two places easily and safely is of primary importance and should be the main thrust of what a municipal government does. Pave the roads. Fix the streetlights. Clean the streets of garbage, both literal and figurative. Do it as cheaply as you can especially in the short run. Almost anything beyond that is simply ‘The Gravy Train’.

Trained urban citizens, on the other hand, see the city not so much as a set place on a map (that’s GPS to you city consumers reading along) but more as an entity that morphs along with its residents. The city extends beyond our backyard or office lunchroom or driver’s seat. It is a collective organism living and dying by the actions of those who are a part of it. What makes a city truly livable is when a majority of decisions made, from the corridors of City Hall right down to even personal ones, have a net positive effect on a majority of its citizens. An impossible goal to achieve, perhaps, but a better one to aim for than simply an every man for himself free-for-all.

There are more than a handful of credible theories about the origins and development of cities. At the core of each of them, however, is the inherent social nature of the human species. Push comes to shove, we basically like to hang out with each other. Arguably, we need to hang out with each other. Not everybody, of course. There will always be that one neighbour in the apartment above you who cannot get enough of Bon Jovi at top volume. Or the couple across the street who don’t think they have to clean up after their dog that makes a habit of pooping on your front lawn. But overall, we thrive and prosper with positive interconnectivity at all levels of our lives, and that is made much more possible when more of us have the opportunity at that positive interconnectivity.

That’s why 53% of eligible voters in Toronto didn’t vote for Rob Ford. Cities seldom flourish with short term solutions. Rob Ford is all about short term solutions appealing to our least likeable and most anti-social trait. What’s in it for me?

So, the upcoming battles that will be waged at City Hall won’t be fought along where you live lines although, clearly, the maps suggest they will be. No, it’s going to be about the overlap between what some think is best for themselves and what others see as being best for the city. Streetcars versus buses? Green initiatives? More cops at the expense of social services cuts? No longer mere campaign slogans, these are now items that very well may be put on the table for debate. You know, the whole ‘Vision Thing’ that was raised and summarily dismissed during the election race. An approach to city building that goes beyond the end of our own laneways, neighbourhoods and even outside ward boundaries.

That is the difference between trained urban citizens and city consumers. It isn’t just about my house or my bike lane. It’s our community, our roadway. A vital difference in the general well-being of any city, and one that must be overcome if this whole notion of an amalgamated Toronto is to work for everyone who chooses to call it home.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Science and the City

November 10, 2010

Sitting, hanging out with my 1 geeky, egg-head science acquaintance who also serves as an official nerd football pool advisor with his fancy-schmancy algorithmic predictive powers (he got me on the ground floor of the Cowboys-certainly-aren’t-going-to-the-Super-Bowl-this-year), he reaches into the tattered plastic bag he uses to carry his belongings and hands me a magazine. Yeah, I know. What’s with the plastic bag? You’d think with all conferences these science folk attend and the canvas sack swag that’s tossed around at such gatherings, there’d be no shortage of non-plastic tote bags. But these scientific types, they think differently from normal people.

The magazine handed to me is Nature, one of the preeminent science publications going. Its October 21st issue is labeled: Science and the City/How cities nurture research – and how research can sustain them. Huh, I think. How does he know this is something that might interest me? I like to keep our relationship on a purely professional level. He tells me what teams to pick and I pick them. Clean. To the point. Uncomplicated. What other information about me lies, lurking, waiting to pop up from behind those thick, horn-rimmed glasses of his? Somehow, this friendly gesture on his part has now become creepy and full of suspect intentions.

But I’ll leave that to sort out away from public scrutiny. What you should know is that, according to Nature, the scientific community has decided that cities, and the studying of them, is becoming increasingly important not only for the cities themselves or the scientific community but for the sake of humanity and the fate of the planet. Why? Well, because of the numbers. More than 50% of the earth’s population now lives in cities. That’s up from only 29% just two generations ago. 40 years from now, the estimates have it somewhere in the neighbourhood of 70% urban population. Cities around the globe are growing at a rate of 1 million people per week!

Problems, of course, arise with such growth, much of it unplanned and uncontrolled, not the least of which is climate change. Cities already account for more than 70% of “the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions”. But as Jeb Brugmann writes in Welcome to the Urban Revolution people don’t come to the cities because of the problems. They come because of the opportunities. And opportunities grow along with a city’s population. Personal opportunities as well as those that can help fix the problems we face. If cities have become the largest contributors to climate change, they are also on the forefront of the solutions, darting ahead of provinces, states and countries who are hamstrung by a toxic combination of disinterest, self-interest and mistrust.

I could hardly do justice in trying to fully explain all the information that Nature’s 9 or so articles and editorials presented, suffice to say that it all got me thinking about what we as a city went and did a couple Mondays ago. While great thinkers in a multitude of studies have turned their attentions to the well-being of cities and how to plan, design and build them in a sustainable, livable and equitable way, the good people of Toronto have decided to turn their backs on all that. With a new mayor waiting in the wings, I wonder about the fate of the Tower Renewal Program. Lawrence Heights redevelopment. Transit City.

We, as a city, seemed poised to take a step back from any sort of forward thinking at a time when we can least afford it. As an urban agenda gains more traction throughout the world, Toronto now is without one unless you count filling potholes and fixing streetlights and customer service as an agenda. If you do, you suffer from a severe lack of imagination as well as nerve.

I will refrain from pointing fingers and casting aspersions at those who felt justified enough in their anger toward the outgoing administration to vote for Rob Ford. It probably felt really good. Enjoy it while it lasts. The pleasure of vindictive voting is fleeting and I’m guessing about 20% of you will be very sorry very quickly for what you did. The change you’ll see probably won’t be the change you thought you voted for.

No, my beef is with all those opinion makers and editorial writers who should’ve known better. Those whose job it is, those with the time if not inclination to see above the fray and to have a wider scope of what was at stake, what the city really needed to be focusing on, and who didn’t do it. Instead, you took the easy route and pandered to personality and campaign tactics. You went for the simplest to follow narrative and in the process, revealed your contempt and disdain for this city.

So if you ever wrote or said something out loud for other people to hear or read suggesting that Rob Ford would be a good mayor or would be what Toronto needed right now, maybe during the course of the next 4 years, you can do us all a big fat favour and just be quiet. Maybe what you need to do is take some time, look around and see what’s happening in other cities around the world, cities that are responsibly facing future challenges, cities prepared to be global players. Do some homework. Read Nature. Whatever. Just shut the fuck up and let the people who really care about Toronto go about their business of making it a better place to live and not just somewhere you report about.

pleadingly submitted by Cityslikr


Mayoral Endorsement III

October 24, 2010

My Endorsement For Mayor: HiMY SYeD.

He calls himself The Peoples’ Mayor. It is not empty campaign rhetoric. As Mr. SYeD correctly points out, this race has been all about things. Tax cuts, subways and gravy trains. Where are the people?

Semantics, you say? A little, perhaps. But our front running candidates have all been talking about what they are going to do for people, to people. HiMY SYeD talks about what he’ll do with people. Civic engagement sits at the very core of his campaign. While Mr. Smitherman has attempted to buttress his left flank by rolling out the likes of John Sewell and David Crombie as his emissaries on the local democracy front, HiMY SYeD represents the very essence of it. Inclusion isn’t something he’ll seek to do as mayor, a single plank in his policy platform. Inclusion is the engine that drives his candidacy.

The sad irony of that is just how excluded Mr. SYeD has been during the course of this campaign. No bigger travesty manifested itself over the last 10 months than how independent voices – not just HiMY SYeD – were so summarily and systematically shut out. Well into the proceedings, with a majority of Torontonians expressing immense discontent with the gang of 6, then 5, then 4, then 3 candidates on offer to them, no one with the power to do so thought to address those concerns. Not anyone in the mainstream media who could’ve simply said (after a quick look at Mr. SYeD’s campaign material), what the hell, let’s try this one on for size. Instead they held onto the term ‘fringe’ right to the bitter end. Not any of the front running candidates who could’ve flashed a sign of selflessness to the electorate by demanding a seat at their debate table for HiMY SYeD. Choosing their self-interest above the interests of the general public, and letting us know in a not very subtle manner exactly the kind of mayor they will be.

Mario Cuomo, a leading candidate of ours in the Best President of the United States Who Never Was race, said “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Well, HiMY SYeD was our bard in campaign 2010. In a wave of turgid, uninspiring, squalid, vacuous words, he spoke to us, no… dare I say it? Fan by brow. I do declare we find ourselves becoming a little flushed… sang to us in beautiful, elevated language, with his vision of empowerment and hope.

Because of HiMY SYeD I now know about a place called Curitiba, Brazil and its former mayor, Jaime Lerner. Curitiba was a city facing much more dire problems than Toronto is (or will even come close to having to face regardless of Monday’s election outcome) with much fewer resources to deal with them. But with the guiding hand of Jaime Lerner the city transformed itself into a modern urban centre, brimming with innovative ideas on public transit and sustainability.

Because of HiMY SYeD I now know about a man named Jeb Brugmann and his book, Welcome to the Urban Revolution. I now know how little I really do know about how cities function, develop and grow (and somewhat depressingly, I realize just how little many of our candidates running for municipal government know about new urban ideas as well). But I also now know that there are many smart and original thinkers and activists, contributing mightily to the public discourse. HiMY SYeD is one of those people.

Most importantly, because of HiMY SYeD I have not grown disenchanted or disillusioned about the political process or prospects here in Toronto despite overwhelming proof and evidence that I have every right to be one or both of those things. Witnessing his resilient spirit and indefatigable sense of civic duty in the face of shameful inattention and even hostile disregard on the part of serious opinion makers, buoys me with hope and resolve. In this campaign, the battle for the heart, soul and mind of Toronto has been rancorous, divisive and not a little disheartening. Unless the unexpected happens on election day, it certainly doesn’t promise to be any less so as we settle back down into trying to build a better city.

I want to be part of that because I know HiMY SYeD will continue to soldier on and contribute to the ever evolving urban fabric of Toronto regardless of the outcome on Monday.

The lunatic ravings of a cock-eyed optimist, blind to the realities on the ground? Nope. I’ve thought long and hard about this and am fully cognizant of the repercussions of my decision. While I always vote in the hopes of casting my ballot for the winning candidate, that urge must be tempered with the fundamental reason we participate in the democratic process in the first place. To publicly declare what kind of city (province, country) we want to live in. Let it to be known here and now that the kind of Toronto I want to be part of is one where HiMY SYeD is mayor.

My heart tells me it’s a vote for 2010 but my head says 2014 and the future. But the future will actually come much sooner than that. October 26th, to be precise. When we wake up to see what we’ve created and a majority of us won’t be at all pleased. The work to make it right will begin immediately. HiMY SYeD will be there, on the frontlines to battle back those forces who will be bent upon, will believe they have a mandate to pull apart everything that has been accomplished over the last 7 years.

That’s a fight I want to be a part of and which is why I, Cityslikr, am endorsing HiMY SYeD for mayor of Toronto.

endorsingly submitted by Cityslikr