[Guest post] Two tales of a city: converging realities of culture in Toronto

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This blog post was written by Kelsey Spitz, a Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation. It has been reproduced with the author's permission.

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting – Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of the Lion

How do we imagine this city?
What are the rumours and tall tales charting…?
Tale One: The Soho Effect

Artists bring vibrancy, cohesion and activity into our neighborhoods – Yorkville (1960s); West Queen West (1990s); Regent Park (2000s). Real estate prices go up. Artists – often renters – get priced out, along with other low-income residents. Artists drive the yuppification of our communities, inspiring demonic growth and displacement, the hapless victims of their own success. We are more shallow, disconnected, and cold for the loss.

 Here’s where the wrecking crew tore out the heart of the ward
No street signs remind you that a neighborhood died here before 
But things are working out well
Don’t believe what you see on the streets
No threadbare armies of men broken and dead on their feet 
No more bending your back to the weight of the world
No more sorrows, no setbacks, and no more diving for pearls in the ditches and drains
All our history’s remade and no memory remains of us now
- “History Remade” by The FemBots (2005)

“Evolution of Graffiti and Revolt” by EGR

Tale Two: Artistic Antidote

Artists are the antidotes to the homogenization of place. We have the knowledge and practice to leverage the power of the arts to both help artists and inclusively build the city. We can leverage ‘growth’ – the dynamism of a growing city – to counteract the displacement of artists and low-income Torontonians. We can not only creatively ‘make place,’ we can creatively keep what artists and neighbours have already made, through a combination of tenacity, collaboration and strange bedfellows, charting a real city imagined over time through deep connection and relationships.

Talking about a new way
Talking about changes and names
Talking about building the land of our dreams
His tightrope’s gotta learn how to bend
We’re makin’ new plans
We’re gonna start it again

(Rise up rise up) Oh rise and show your power

(Rise up)
Time for you and me
- “Rise Up” by The Parachute Club (1983)

ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒋᓐᓂᖅ - Piliriqatigiingniq Mural Project (Follow on Instagram @thepasystem)

On November 26th, Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, shared both of these tales of Toronto during his MaRS Global Leadership and SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk.

The first tale is a story that happens to us. The power to shape the city lies with amorphous forces of real estate, gentrification, homogeneity and private profit. The city grows itself mysteriously around us, burying the sincerity of neighourhoods with ever-rising towers of glass and concrete, enriched by the cultural roots that others – now displaced – nurtured.

The second is a story that we co-author, where the tools of the arts empower us to be savvy, thoughtful brokers of the value that rich artistic communities create; we know, appreciate and foresee the value of deep, cohesive place-based culture and leverage it to creatively, deliberately and inclusively ‘keep place’ as the dynamism of city-building introduces new energy, offers, interests and investments into neighborhoods.

Both tales are true. Because these stories not only reflect what is happening, they actively generate and construct reality by shaping what we believe to be true and therefore, how we act in response.

Through the experiences of Artscape, a broker in the manner of the second tale, we learn about practical, actionable approaches and prototypes to inch away from lamenting the Soho Effect to embracing and reclaiming the artistic antidote.

While there is nothing simple about the Artscape model, in its simplest form it honours artists’ natural tendencies – to cluster, to collaborate, to invest locally and in each other, and to engage as changemakers – as a critical city-building asset and community development force.

It stands to reason that when a critical mass of people come together in a neighbourhood, everyone is drawn to this, creating a strong, powerful push for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

This powerful push for residential development that follows where artists thrive is the carrot for development deals to accommodate artists, make space for low-income residents and accommodate urban growth at the same time.

In other words, it is an opportunity to innovate urban growth that Artscape first began playing with in the 1990s. Their innovation: work with the city, community members, and developers together to manifest prototypes of creative place-keeping into public-private development deals. How? By taking advantage of a little extra density, inclusive zoning and a new tale about the imperative role of cultural value-creators –artists – to ensure they and other low-income community members remain in community.

You can build all kinds of social capital and social infrastructure, because in part together we are creating a multibillion-dollar market for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

If we understand how culture creates value for urban development (and if we know that the value is predictable, as it has been throughout Toronto), we can shift from advocating for creative place-making as an endangered need to deliberately and effectively appreciating culture as a critical lever for creative place-keeping – a fundamental case for more community and artistic ownership in public-private development deals.

Tim calls this engaging in culture as a form of “urban acupuncture” – engaging in small- scale, neighbourhood-level innovation to have a city-wide (city-building) impact.

There can be healing in cities by stimulating ‘nerves’ (creative, original expression) and ‘releasing pressure’ (through unusual partnership or collaboration) to create transformation…charting a new reality where self-interest compels policymakers, developers, community activists and artists to put culture at the heart of city building.

Let the beat of the drums harmonize with the beat of your soul
And let it travel miles.
Even if you are spiritually drained as you dance, as you dance, just smile.
Smile until you forget sadness and laugh at anger.
Until you can look into the eyes of anyone as a future brother
And not a stranger.
To invest in relationships you don’t need to be a banker.
- “Spectrum of Hope” by Mustafa Ahmed

Art – music, poetry, installations, painting, craft, writing – is “the quickest and easiest way to get back to something that makes you feel tied to where you are, and who’s around you, and who came before you, what they were doing” (Philip Churchill, The Once). It is how we imagine the city, how we engage in it, understand it and connect to a through-line of histories woven into this place.

Converge the realities.
Ice, wind, pain
Love, sun and rain.
Converge the realities.
Past, present and future.
- “Converge the Realities” by Charmie Deller

Watch Tim’s Talk: Culture as Urban Acupuncture (Full Video)

MaRS Global Leadership: Culture as Urban Acupuncture from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Bringing laneways to life: a recap of Toronto’s “Laneway Confessions”

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When we think about a city’s public spaces, what comes to mind? Parks? Public squares? Neighbourhood meeting places like a library or cafe?

We don’t necessarily think about the narrow spaces that parallel our main streets – the laneways that often serve as the city’s “backspaces”, holding garbage and recycling bins, used as transportation shortcuts or as loading docks for businesses. Can we rethink laneways as part of the mesh of publicly accessible spaces that forms our civic commons – a subject on which we have been exploring with the Municipal Art Society of New York and other partners? If so, what steps can we take to reimagine laneways as vibrant and attractive places where we want to spend time rather than pass through?


Last Thursday, Toronto’s Laneway Project hosted a second annual laneway summit, bringing together five speakers from Toronto and Montreal to discuss five approaches to bringing our laneways back to life – from greening, to art, to housing. Laneway Confessions was hosted by Denise Pinto, Global Director of Jane’s Walks, who introduced the speakers and facilitated an animated discussion that drew out myriad opportunites and challenges of adding life to our laneways.

To kick things off, Elly Dowson and Christine Liber representing the Kenwood Lane Art Initiative shared their approach to laneway animation: “fighting graffiti with art”. Faced with a neighbourhood that had turned its back on laneways and garages dominated by graffiti tags, they took on the ambitious project of painting 21 murals in 21 days, using mainly donated materials. While most residents were pleased to have art added for free to their garages, some older residents weren’t so sure. However, Dowson and Liber eventually won them over with their cheerful imagery and having conversations with neighbours to explain what they were doing and why. One key element to their success was engaging early one with a local businessperson, who agreed to donate leftover paint for the beautification cause. The Kenwood lane Art Initiative is a shining example of using low-cost supplies and a “get ‘er done” approach to make visible change in a neighbourhood that lacked a relationship with its laneways.

Check out a slideshow of all 21 murals, courtesy of the artists and Torontoist.


A burst of colour in the Kenwood Laneway (Image: www.kenwoodlaneart.com)

Next, we met Roberto Garcia from Écoquartier Rosemont - La Petite-Patrie, the Montreal district with the highest numbers of green alleys. In fact, this year alone, 15 new green alleys opened up in RPP, bringing the borough’s total to an incredible 81. It was fantastic to hear from a Montrealer’s point-of-view, given that it was a mainly Torontonian crowd. Toronto could certainly learn a lot from the grassroots approach taken in RPP and other Montreal boroughs: Garcia shared many photos showing residents of all ages literally digging up the concrete to open up spaces for planting and play. It was also an interesting contrast from the other presentations in that there was a strong greening focus: Montreal ruelles vertes use greening as a catalyst for public space animation, whereas in many of the Toronto examples, greening was a secondary focus.

If you’re inspired to visit some of Montreal’s incredible network of ruelles vertes, visit this interactive Google map


One of the many green alleways in Montreal's Rosemont-la-Petite-Patrie borough (Image: www.soverdi.org)

Howard Tam of ThinkFresh Group then presented a contrasting approach to that of laneway greening: fostering a micro-enterprise bazaar to animate laneway space behind the iconic, soon-to-be-demolished Honest Ed’s building (the redevelopment [proposal would more or less maintain the building footprint). What exactly would that bazaar look like? ThinkFresh’s proposal would set aside ground-unit space in the mixed-use redevelopment (led by developer WestBank Corp.) in Toronto’s Mirvish Village for small businesses in order to incubate “emerging and socially innovative retail ideas”. With the city’s thriving culture of creative small businesses, yet rapidly increasing commercial rents, having a dedicated spaces for retail start-ups would be an asset to Toronto’s cultural and economic development. The kind of fine-grained retail proposed by ThinkFresh would give commercial tenants the flexibility to have access to a public-facing storefront in addition to office space and shared community space to build networks and develop fresh ideas. We are excited by the idea of using this method to revitalizing laneways as it integrates historic forms of public space (the open marketplace) with emerging socially-oriented businesses.

It will be interesting to see how ThinkFresh builds on the work they have done with Market 707 – a street food and retail market based out of shipping containers near a local Community Centre – to enrich the Honest Ed’s redevelopment.


ThinkFresh's proposed layout for the Honest Ed's site, incorporation micro-retail units (Image: www.thinkfreshgroup.com)

Next on the packed agenda was Jo Flatt from Evergreen, who shared insights about laneway housing to this group of laneway enthusiasts. Given the interest in many Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto, for creative solutions to downtown housing shortages, it was great to hear about Evergreen’s progress in Toronto’s University of Toronto neighbourhood. Housing is perhaps one of the most contentious uses of laneways, as it tends not fit into current zoning regulations, despite being in line with Official Plans that suggest that growth be directed to infill development (in other words, adding “invisible density” to already built-up neighbourhoods with servicing in place). Evergreen is taking a grassroots approach to building support for and consensus around the shape that laneway housing in the U of T neighbourhood could take, by partnering with local residents and affordable housing advocates. They have already made progress on designing three prototype laneway houses that could become a model for efficient urban housing that complements the architecture already in place.

We are confident that with Evergreen’s expertise in housing and an engaged group of residents, these prototypes will lead the way on shifting policy to allow for more flexible forms of housing. Click here to read more about Evergreen’s Housing Action Lab: which is working towards increasing the supply of affordable housing through intensification.


One example of a laneway unit in Midtown Toronto, built on a compact 40′×18′ lot (Image: www.superkul.ca)

Last but not least, Al Smith and George Millbrandt from the St. Lawrence Market Business Improvement Area (BIA) put on a funny skit showcasing just how many city departments and community partners must be involved to get a laneway project going. With a focus on expanding the public realm in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood – a vibrant area anchored by the bustling St. Lawrence Market, yet lacking the kind of infrastructure that can bring laneways to life – Al and George shared a practical perspective to getting all players on the same page by clearly communicating the benefits of opening up these hidden public spaces. The renderings they shared of what St. Lawrence’s laneways could look like one day were inspiring.

A promising development: Sixty Colborne, a new condominium being built by Freed Developments will include a publicly-accessible laneway!

Laneway revitalization is already happening in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market neighhourhood - pictured here is Market St. (Image: www.denbosch.ca)

Do you know of any other approaches to laneway revitalization? Working on a laneway project of your own? Please share with us by email, Twitter, or Facebook, as we are keen to continue learning about this subject!

We Are Cities Day: Highlights!

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Did you participate in a roundtable or online conversation during We Are Cities Day? Wondering what key priorities and narratives emerged? Evergreen CityWorks shared a few highlights from all you engaged Canadians had to say! Visit the We Are Cities website for detailed recaps of last spring and summer’s roundtables.

From Evergreen CityWorks:

Thank you, Canada! You heard the We Are Cities call to action and responded by standing up for your cities.

On October 8th we hosted We Are Cities Day with conversations taking place in over ten cities across the country: Calgary, Halifax, Hamilton, Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatoon, St. John’s, Toronto and Trois Rivieres. The core question we were asking: did we hear you correctly?! Based on all of the content gathered to date – from dozens of roundtables, online and from key stakeholders – we designed a process for you to help us further define what our cities need.  Thanks to everyone who participated in WAC Day and our first set of roundtables, we’re distilling your feedback now and drafting the Cities Action Agenda.

In the meantime, we wanted to share a little of what we heard. Out of the 5 Big Opportunities that We Are Cities articulated, Power and Revenue seemed to resonate the most. From transforming community engagement, to increased Federal expenditures on transit, housing and public space, we got lots of great feedback. And it seems like not only did we hear you correctly but we’ve also sparked a different kind of conversation – a conversation now taking place nationally, city to city and of course locally.

On WAC Day in particular the conversations were not limited to local roundtables. We also connected coast to coast on Twitter. National Tweet-ups were hosted in both English and in French and in total the hashtag #WACDay had 765 Tweets and 190 contributors.

Here’s a sampling of what people had to say about the Big Opportunities:


About Local Challenges:




And testaments to the campaign:


The We Are Cities campaign was a great success. 75 roundtables were hosted in 33 cities and WAC engaged over 2,500 people. None of this would have been possible without the help of our partners, convenors, roundtable hosts and participants. So THANK YOU ALL! And stay tuned for the release of the We Are Cities Action Agenda in the coming months.


Cities in Imagination

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This article by David Maddox originally appeared on The Nature of Cities as part of their Just City Essays. It is been re-posted with the author's permission.

Resilience is the word of the decade, as sustainability was in previous decades. No doubt, our view of the kind and quality of cities we as societies want to build will continue to evolve and inspire new descriptive goals. Surely we have not lost our desire for sustainable cities, with ecological footprints we can afford, even though our focus has been on resilience, after what seems like a relentless drum beat of natural disasters around the world. The search for terms begs the question: what are the cities we want to create in the future? What is their nature? What are the cities in which we want to live? Certainly these cities are sustainable, since we want our cities to balance consumption and resources so that they can last into the future. Certainly they are resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next 100-year storm, now due every few years. And yet…as we build this vision we know that cities must also be livable. Indeed, we must view livability as a third indispensible leg supporting the cities of our dreams: resilient + sustainable + livable.

A key problem for the idea of a “just city” is that it works so well in metaphor. Making a reality of justice is harder.

But we have to hope that justicehasn’t gone out of style. Because while resilience is the word of the decade, we’ve struggled with just cities for a much longer time. Largely we have come up short.

So this imagining needs a fourth leg. These are the cities of our dreams: resilient, sustainable, livable, just.

Let’s imagine.

We can imagine sustainable cities—ones that can persist in energy, food and ecological balance—that are nevertheless brittle, socially or infrastructurally, to shocks and major perturbations. That is, they are not resilient. Such cities are not truly sustainable, of course—because they will be crushed by major perturbations they’re not in it for the long term—but their lack of sustainability is for reasons beyond the usually definitions of energy and food systems. We can imagine resilient cities—especially cities that are made so through extraordinary and expensive works of grey infrastructure—that are not sustainable from the point of view of energy consumption, food security, economy, or other resources.

We can imagine livable cities that are neither resilient nor sustainable.

And, it is easy to imagine resilient and sustainable cities that are not livable — and so are not truly sustainable.

Easiest of all is to imagine cities of injustice, because they exist all around us. The nature of their injustice may be difficult to solve or even comprehend within our systems of economy and government, but it’s easy to see.

The point is that we must conceive and build our urban areas based on a vision of the future that creates cities that are resilient + sustainable + livable + just. Noone of these is sufficient for our dream cities of the future. Yet we often pursue these four elements on independent tracks, with separate government agencies pursuing one or another and NGOs and community organizations devoted to a single track. Of course, many cities around the world don’t really have the resources to make progress in any of the four.


A key problem for us, in all of these concepts, is that they exist so beautifully in the realm of metaphor. They work in metaphor. Everyone can agree that “resilience” is a good thing. Who wouldn’t want that? Raise your hand.

I thought so.

But an operational definition is really about difficult choices. Bringing a word like resilience—or sustainability, or livability, or justice—down from the realm of metaphor is hard because it quickly becomes clear that it is about nothing else but difficult choices. Choices that often produce winners and losers. We have to be specific about the choices involved in resilience or sustainability or livability or justice, and the trade-offs they imply. As societies we have to be explicit about these trade-offs—about their consequences. I think often we don’t have open and fair conversations about these issues because we don’t want to know about these trade offs, maybe not so much because we care about the losers, but because the winners of the world have so much to lose. Think developers who consume green space—often with the government’s blessing—without concern for sustainability issues or accommodations for the less wealthy. Or the growth- and consumption-obsessed nations driving the climate change that may destroy communities around the world, communities that have little responsibility that climate change.


Most people in my circles make strong claims about the critical value of nature and ecosystems. Nature is thought to provide key benefits for resilience, such as technical aid to storm water management. Nature—and we way we use it—is the key foundation to sustainability. Nature cleans the air and water. It provides food. Nature provides beauty and serenity for people. This is all to say that nature and “green” provide immense and diverse benefits to societies, cities, and their people.

Do we believe these benefits are real? Are true? I do. If we believe in these benefits, then who should have access to them? Everyone. Does everyone have access to these benefits? No. That’s as true in Cape Town as it is in Los Angeles or Manchester.

If the benefits of green are true—in the broad sense of nature and in our approach to the built environment—then it is clear that issues of green and nature are also questions of justice, and that there is a key and essential role for nature to play in the notion of just cities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long had a definition of environmental justice. It intends to specifically address the fact that environmental “bads”—dumps, incinerators, legacies of industrial pollution, and so on—are disproportionally placed in poorer neighborhoods. That’s a fact that results from a host of reasons: inadvertent, economic, political and sometimes more cynical. Here is the EPA’s definition. Environmental justice will achieved:

…when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.

Many have written about the limits of this definition, although to me it is pretty strong and progressive, especially the part about decision-making. But it lacks the idea that everyone also deserves equal and fair access to environmental “goods” and the services they provide: healthy food, resilience to storms, clean air and water, parks, beauty. So an improvement to the definition, a more complete manifesto of belief, would be that environmental justice is achieved:

…when everyone enjoys the same degree of strong protection from environmental and health hazards, the same high level access to all the various services and benefits that nature can provide, and equal access to the decision-making processes for both to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, work, and prosper.

Although some of the world’s cities are better than others in fulfilling this dream, probably none fully achieve it, although more embrace the idea of it. Most don’t even come close.

For example, there is a crisis of open space in many of the world’s cities. My city, New York, offers about 4m2 of open space per capita in the form of parks and plazas. Although the distribution of this open space is not entirely equitable (and some of the parks in poorer neighborhoods are of less quality) New York is to be commended for an explicit PlaNYC (New York’s long term sustainability plan) goal that says every New Yorker should live within a ten-minute walk of a park. We’re about 85 percent of the way to achieving this goal. This is the kind of specificity that can take green’s contribution to livability down from the level of metaphor and into on-the-ground evaluation and action.

Many of the world’s cities don’t fare so well. Although New York is a fairly dense city, Mumbai has 1 percent of the open space per person that New York has, its public commons gobbled up by cozy and opaque relationships between government and developers.

Not that the United States has so much to brag about. The Washington Postreported that in Washington DC there is a strong correlation between tree canopy and average income — the richer people get the benefit of trees. In Los Angeles, areas dominated by Latinos or African Americans have dramatically lower access to parks (as measured by park acres per 1,000 children) than areas dominated by whites. Countywide only 36 percent of Los Angelenos have close access to a park.

These are patterns the world over: when there open spaces and ecosystem services at all, they tend to be for the benefit of richer or more connected people. This has to change in any city we would call just.


“It is difficult to take in all the glory of the Dandelion, as it is to take in a mountain, or a thunderstorm.”

Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) is legendary for his watercolor landscapes, painted near his Buffalo, NY, home. He was also a great journalist and over his lifetime wrote over 10,000 pages in various handmade volumes. It was there, on 5 May 1963, that he wrote the quote above.

DandilionSeedHeadAndTheMoonBirchfield2And so they are difficult to take in, both for their beauty and their complexity. How can you describe and assess them? Convey them to one who hasn’t seen? You finally stumble, awestruck, into saying that they are “beautiful,” or “majestic,” or just “amazing.” But all of us—as scientists, decision-makers, participating citizens—typically have to comprehend, describe and quantify such entities and then communicate the results in ways that aren’t hopelessly obscure—that are somehow specific and not just metaphorical. That is, we need to communicate a very complicated thing in a simple, essential and, above all, useful way.

We need to communicate what we value and build our cities accordingly.

Words like improvisation and imagination and intuition can sound awkward in the context of city-building and policy. Yet these are the very abilities that we require to be able to see past and beyond the details—this object is here, that process is there—to create and understand how a vast and majestic thing works and how it might change.

Perspective is another important word—a sense of what you value in the vision you are creating. The Dandelion seeds are close up in Burchfield’s picture. He values them. The sky is there too. You need to see the patterns and perspective and not only the details—the beating of the heart and not just the heart’s location in the chest.

How do you “take in” a complicated multidimensional thing like a mountain? Or a park? Or a community garden? Or a city? Or justice? It starts with an act of imagination.

It is this act that requires of us that we imagine, in specific terms, what the just city would look like. I think it would look something like the modified EPA definition I presented above. We already know what this just city doesn’t look like. You probably just have to drive around your own city. (My apologies if your city has solved this. Shout your solution from all the rooftops and soapboxes. The world needs to know.)

We need the imagination to dream about what this just city looks like, the nature of it, if you will. And then we need the courage to make it happen on the ground, by creating actual urban plans that address justice explicitly, that put justice into literal practice, in law and regulation and real action, the imagining of, say, the EPA definition, in detail, in all cities around the world.

To say this requires a sense of hope. Given the distance we have to travel to achieve just cities, in greenness or most any other sense, we have to hope.

A closing idea from Buzz Holling

One key [to resilience] is maybe best captured by the word “hope.”

Although Buzz Holling was an original elucidator of the ecological resilience concept, here he used a word that is fundamentally a human concept. What does it mean to hope? At its most basic, it is a desire for and the belief in the possibility of a certain good outcome.

So, here’s my vision of the just city. It’s green. It’s full of nature’s benefits, accessible to all. It is resilient, and sustainable, and livable, and just. It is a city that has a clear and grounded vision of what these words mean. It acts on justice and the place of nature in the city. It has the hope to believe that these things can can be achieved, and the courage and faith to bring them to life.

David Maddox
New York

The Just City Essays is a joint project of The J. Max Bond Center, Next City and The Nature of Cities. © 2015 All rights are reserved.

Cities for People: An education in collaboration across distances

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Sarah Bradley, Assistant Curator, Cities for People

Note: This piece was originally written for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog. . 

While I became an intern for Cites for People last winter as a recent urban planning graduate, I had been so immersed in concrete, place-specific issues that I lacked the kind of broader-picture thinking necessary to tackle the sort of multi-dimensional problems that this initiative aimed to reconceptualize. I think that coming from an urban planning background can put one at a disadvantage for being able to grasp the roots of problems common to Canadian cities: thorny matters with convoluted histories, like affordable housing, public transit, and urban ecological systems. The tendency is to want to problem-solve through policy change or some sort of place-based intervention – both of which have limited impacts if they fail to apply pressure to a lever of change at the systemic level.

One important series of lessons I learned was about the power and challenges of collaboration.

I have realized that collaboration does not have to mean working in close quarters.There are so many ways to work at a distance, especially with online platforms and conferencing technologies like WebEx, Skype, and Google Drive. However, there are also frustrations that arise when the time commitments expected to maintain a platform like Cities for People become a strain on organizations. Tasks like participating in weekly calls, contributing to our internal bulletin, and updating our global work plan can seem minimal from a time perspective, but actually require that at least one staff member have the capacity to contribute outside of their busy jobs.

The first lesson I learned about collaboration is the importance of flexible coordination. Establishing a body responsible for developing structures that support joint work without asking that all participate to the same extent and in the same way is crucial.

Cities for People experimented with a new mode of project delivery that integrated learning and evaluation, both within individual networks and across the Cities for People network. Curation was a way for the McConnell Foundation to test an alternative grantor-grantee method by funding four thematic curators, as well as a national curator playing a coordination role, who then allocated “demonstration project” funds to organizations in their respective networks (for more on the Cities for People network and curators, please click here). The tension between each organization stretching themselves to work in new ways while continuing to do work within their respective mandates was something the Cities for People collaborators recognized, but we struggled to come up with a viable way to balance working together and apart.

So, my second lesson was that it’s important to give organizations time to figure out in what ways they can contribute to a learning network, and that a collaborative platform like Cities for People must make room for differing interests and capacities.

One curation-related question I am left with is: would it have been better to focus on scaling efforts either up, out, or deep, rather than each curator doing a bit of everything (as identified by our Developmental Evaluators)? My initial thoughts were that curators could work more effectively towards the larger changes we’re yearning for in cities if they scaled up by focussing on collaborative projects that harnessed many small energies. Campaigns like We Are Cities (stewarded by Evergreen CityWorks and the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre) and Transforme ta ville (a micro-grant program to encourage active citizenship at the neighbourhood level by supporting a network of projects across Montreal) resonated with me, and evidently, a lot of other engaged urbanists, in their ability to connect and support projects and ideas for a greater impact. However, these unifying campaigns are not the be-all, end-all. It is unrealistic to expect curators to all work in this vein given the differences in each domain and its maturity.

Leading from this, the third lesson is that learnings and collaborations can also surface from seemingly divergent work. Given the complex challenges that cities are facing, there is immense value of connecting thematic areas, often in unlikely ways. As individuals and organizations working towards change in cities, it is valuable to both build on natural connections and contribute to field building by re-situating one’s work within broader process and narratives that contribute to societal change.

From One Earth’s Urban Sustainability Directors Network to Musagetes’ place-based collaboration with artist collectives, many new ways of working both within and across domains were tested, and continue to evolve. This dance between looking inward and reaching out, I think, is field-building work that has the potential to shift cities’ approaches to problem-solving.

There is much more I could share about collaboration as an integral part of the Cities for People experiment, from how to combine multiple narratives into a Joint Report, to maintaining public-facing communications, to negotiating power structures in a decentralized network. However, for now I’ll leave those stories for another collaborator to tell.

The Coffee Cup Revolution: Binning For Used Paper Coffee Cups

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On Thursday, September 10th, the second Coffee Cup Revolution was held, with 130 binners participating. In four hours, 31,300 paper coffee cups were redeemed for 5¢ each at Victory Square.

This is the only public event in Vancouver that brings binners together and celebrates the work that binners do. The event also highlights the generation of non-recycled waste in the form of paper coffee cups in Vancouver (they are recycling since 2014 for residential waste only). Binners and volunteers gathered to demonstrate the importance of binning and the BC refund system for used conLogo-green-typo-20150515tainers from both environmental and social justice perspectives.

The Coffee Cup Revolution featured two roundtables bringing together community activists and experts in wide ranging discussion. More specifically, the roundtables focused on: 1) new environmentalism in the City; 2) new economies in the City.

“The Binners’ Project, generally, and the Coffee Cup Revolution, more specifically, are exciting developments in the civic landscape of Vancouver. The energy generated towards recognition of the key role binners play in a sustainable urban environment and towards empowering the Binners’ community is remarkable,” says Margot Young, Professor, ALLARD School of Law, UBC. “Leveraging the recycling of the hundreds of thousands of coffee cups that now go into our landfills weekly is a worthy goal. And, increasing the profile and economic well-being of binners is equally impressive.”

The Binners’ Project is a group of waste-pickers dedicated to improving their economic opportunities and reducing the stigma they face as informal recyclables collectors. The Binners’ Project is supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the City of Vancouver.

It is a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform, which supports on-the-ground efforts to create uncommon solutions for the common good. Tides Canada is a national Canadian charity dedicated to a healthy environment, social equity, and economic prosperity.

Find out more about the project: binnersproject.org and the Coffee Cup Revolution.


URBAN TOMORROWS: Share your vision

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How can we, as an increasingly urban-dwelling citizens, collectively imagining our futures with cities as the backdrop?

URBAN TOMORROWS is a research project whose goal is to collect ideas and visions on future cities.

A research team at the Institute of Urban and Regional Planning at the Technische Universitat Berlin has developed a crowdsourced research project to encourage individuals to share what cities might look like, and how to get there. Their goal is simple: to collect the ideas that people nowadays hold about the future of our cities, and through the lens of these visions, gain a better understanding of our world today and the possible future worlds we may create. Because of open-ended nature of this subjet, the research team is seeking opinions on anything and everything that relates to cities -- this encompasses discussions of the technological, environmental, architectural, economical, political, and social aspects of future cities.

From their project description:

"Cities, by nature, are forever "in the making" – never quite reaching the utopic visions and scenarios that we may dare to imagine for the world around us. Despite this reality, humanity's visions for an urban future (have and will) provide the basis for the cities that we create. At the same time, such visions mirror the hopes and fears, doubts, and foresight of today’s society. The aim of this project is to create a compendium of these visions and ideas in order to discuss their social, environmental, economic, and political consequences for future urban design while exploring the implications for the cities we inhabit today."

Click here to share YOUR vision by filling out a short questionnaire.

The team plans to update its site in winter 2016 with research outcomes, so be sure to follow along to find out what others are saying.

The Sacred in the city: Escape and Enchantment in Everyday Environments

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Note: This piece was originally published on The Nature of Cities . It has been posted here with permission from the author.

The late Robin Williams famously quoted C. S. Lewis in the film Dead Poets Society: ‘We read to know we are not alone.’ This aphorism resonates for me the meaning of the sacred in the city: that is the spaces, places, and experiences where individual revelation connects with collective meaning, and which enable escape and enchantment in city life.

The sacred conjures notions of mysterious powers, human flourishing, the search for nature within ourselves, biophilia, oikos—or home. Being at home with ourselves. Home in the city, in our everyday urban environments. We may find the sacred in places where we escape—a quiet, contemplative garden or eave on a highrise roof where there is life around, not too far away, yet distant enough to not force interaction. Or where one steals a magical kiss with a lover in a busy alleyway so lush with vegetation that it provides secret nooks at twilight. Or in places with intense visual stimulation. The sacred, and sacred landscapes, can give expression to an essential nature—of an individual, of a collective, of a place, of a city—where we engage with others or where we retreat to in order to nourish our spirits, regenerate our souls, and reconnect with primal instincts and forces. The sacred in the city is also about a sensibility that heightens awareness of the emotional dimension of humans; of sensory perceptions (smell, sound, sight, touch and taste); of desire, spirituality, enchantment and conviviality.


The Mud Maiden, a living sculpture by Sue Hill and Pete Hill in collaboration with nature. This site in Cornwall, England is sacred to me because of her ever-changing beauty and symbolism. Photo: Jayne Engle.

How can we design and manage urban spaces to nourish the sacred and enable enchantment in everyday environments and contribute to more green and livable cities? Here are four ideas.

  1. Treat space as sacred. Every site matters. Sacred spaces can flourish if we have the mindset that ‘the site is to the city as the cell is to the body’. Land should not be commodified or consumed, but cherished. Truly valuing space in cities calls for us to consider the use and evolution of sites on a case-by-case—rather than a formulaic, traditional zoning—basis.
  2. Make visible in urban space stories of the past, values of the present, and possibilities for the future. Elucidating temporal dimensions in space involves elevating the imagination—individual and collective—into action, through citizen expression and movements such as Jane’s Walk and 100 in 1 Day Festivals. Artists can engage with people to invent ways to more meaningfully symbolize in urban space what was sacred in the past, represent what nourishes spirits of people now, and what possibilities people dream of for the future.
  3. Articulate and map what is sacred. Through participatory planning and active citizenship people can acknowledge the sacred and decide what is worth preserving. Examples are: 1) participatory mapping, photography, video and crowd-sourcing of sacred spaces that identifies places or environmental elements that people care about and want to keep; and 2) storytelling and local lore—constructing livability narratives that reveal the sacred place of nature in the city and precious natural places that are nourishing to the spirit.
  4. Relax rules to let people create. Citizens can collectively create and dream together in spaces of their cities when regulating bodies relax the rules at times, such as by supporting urban experimentation throughpop-up urbanism installations, guerrilla gardening projects, and human-nature collaborations, and by not thwarting spontaneous street celebrations.

The nourishing of the human spirit needs daily space and has everyday expression, and can flourish when people imaginatively—and often collectively—appropriate space in parks, coffee shops, asphalt plazas, rooftops, wherever.

At the end of the day, to find the sacred in the city is to know we are not alone.

You can read more from Jayne Engle on The Nature of Cities.

Musikiosk: Adding new layers to our sonic environments

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Our experiences in cities touch upon all five senses. Yet as planners, achitects, urbanists, and the like, we often fail to consider the element of sound. When we think about changing the built environment - adding a new building, streetscape, or park - we often limit our perspective to things like building height and massing, light,  shadows, wind, smells, microclimate. These are all important considerations, but the auditory effects of the spaces we inhabit, spent time in, and move through, may be neglected. We think it's vital to bring sound into the conversation, particularly when it comes to the public spaces that make up the shared fabric of our cities. A recent project that examines the effects of sound in urban environments is Musikiosk, a collaborative research project between the École de technologie supérieure (ETS), McGill University, the Plateau borough, and Montreal residents.


Image courtesy of McGill University, 2015

From Daniel Steele, Musikiosk research lead:

The opportunity to purposefully add sounds to the urban environment with the intention of improving quality of life is rare. In our cities, we spend lots of resources targeting and reducing sounds that we find unpleasant (noise), but an environment with no sound at all isn’t all that pleasant either, especially in the city centre. A growing movement, called soundscapes*, focuses on understanding and promoting the sounds of the city that we find positive: people laughing on the sidewalk, children playing in the park, music performances while we are eating. Good soundscapes can contribute to a sense of place and quality of life, especially when they are appropriate for their location and activity. But more research is needed to understand these links and how we can apply the lessons in the domains of urban design and planning.
*Soundscape is defined as the acoustic environment as perceived and understood and/or experienced, by people or society, in context.

Installing the Musikiosk speakers

Using the soundscape approach, a team of researchers from McGill and ÉTS worked with the Plateau Borough to animate the Parc du Portugal with sound. The researchers provided a system, named Musikiosk, that lets park users play DJ. Park users needed only bring their music devices and connect them to the provided cables or Bluetooth, then play whatever they want. (It’s that simple!) Users have had picnics, dance parties, and sing-alongs, and many more types of activities are possible. In the end, the researchers hoped to be able to enliven our small parks with the potential for more activities for users, provide the city with information about how to improve noise regulations, and contribute to the scientific understanding of the role of sound in urban places. Musikiosk ran every evening from July 31th- August 31th in Parc du Portugal.
musikiosk night

Musikiosk in the evening, bringing new sounds to Parc du Portugal

What's next for Musikiosk? The research team is interested in getting more details from you, our user, on your experience with the system and, for example, how you think it can be improved for future uses. We invite you to take part in a follow-up interview (30 minutes or less) in the Musikiosk gazebo in Parc du Portugal this coming week. This invitation is also open to those who have already taken our questionnaire – these questions are different. To thank you for your time, we will offer you a delicious gift!

So if you’ve used the Musikiosk system and you’re interested in talking to us (either in English or in French), please email musikiosk@gmail.com or reserve a time slot.

musikiosk logo 2
Cities for People was proud to support Musikiosk by facilitating some early neighbourhood outreach. As Parc du Portugal is an important gathering space for Portuguese communities in the area, the research team subsequently strolled the neighborhood with a Portuguese translator to talk to folks about their musical tastes and make sure they felt included by the system. While most Musikiosk users were not from this community, Portuguese neighbours actively participated when Portuguese folk music was played, and lit up the park with singing and dancing! We certainly think this was a worthwhile experiment in adding new sounds that add experiential value to a public space, and look forward to following this cross-disciplinary research team's work.


Find out more about Musikiosk:

You may also contact the Musikiosk researcher team:

Daniel Steele, daniel.steele@mail.mcgill.ca, soundscape researcher, Musikiosk research lead
Romain Dumoulin, dumoulin.acoustics@gmail.com, acoustician, Musikiosk technical lead
Jaimie Cudmore, jaimie.cudmore@mail.mcgill.ca, urbanist, participatory design researcher
Edda Bild, eddabild@incas3.eu, soundscape researcher
Prof. Catherine Guastavino, catherine.guastavino@mcgill.ca, soundscape researcher