Cities as Places of Transformation

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Last May, Jayne Engle gave the keynote presentation at the Montreal Urban Sustainability Experience (MUSE) Symposium on the enormous transformative potential of cities - and the thorny obstacles that are preventing the kind of wholesale changes that would allow cities to be liveable, resilient, and inclusive.

Here is the introduction to her presentation: Cities as Places of Transformation.

1. City Song Lines

Has anyone heard of something called ‘Songlines’ in Aboriginal culture?

Songlines are the long Creation story lines that cross landscapes and put geographical and sacred sites into place in some Aboriginal cultures. They are both inspiration and important cultural knowledge.

I’d like to start by reading a ‘City Songline’ by Leonie Sandercock, from her book Cosmopolis II.

“I look into my crystal globe, and I dream of the carnival of the multicultural city…. I don’t want a city where everything stays the same and everyone is afraid of change; I don’t want a city where young African Americans have to sell drugs to make a living, or Thai women are imprisoned in sweat shops in the garment district where they work sixteen hours a day six days a week. I don’t want a city where I am afraid to go out alone at night, or to visit certain neighborhoods even in broad daylight; where pedestrians are immediately suspect, and the homeless always harassed. I don’t want a city where the elderly are irrelevant and ‘youth’ is a problem to be solved by more control.

“I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are seduced by it; where only after consultation with local folks could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barb-wired fence around carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no-one is without authority.

“I want a city where people can cartwheel across pedestrian crossings without being arrested for playfulness; where everyone can paint the sidewalks, and address passers-by without fear of being shot; where there are places of stimulus and places of meditation; where there is music in public squares, and street performers don’t have to have a portfolio and a permit, and street vendors co-exist with shopkeepers. I want a city where people take pleasure in shaping and caring for their environment and are encouraged to do so; where neighbors plant bok choy and taro and broad beans in community gardens. I want a city that is run differently from an accounting firm; where planners ‘plan’ by negotiating desires and fears, mediating memories and hopes, facilitating change and transformation.”

This ‘love song’ as Leonie calls it, is about naming existing narratives and expressing desired ones.  I’ll come back to the topic of city narratives a little later on.  First, I want to share a hypothesis based on the title of this talk -- that is that Cities can be Places of Transformation.

Read on! 

CLICK HERE to see the accompanying slides.

Why We Should Care About Zoning

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By: Jesse Darling, Evergreen CityWorks, Urban Project Designer

Canadians cities have been shaped by numerous influences. Natural assets such as waterfronts, canals and mountain ranges have always, and will continue, to play a role in molding the urban fabric. Infrastructure such as ports and railways opened up the door to economic development. But above all, zoning and land development has shaped the built form and morphology of Canadian cities.

While the patterns of land development vary throughout Canada, one unifying theme exists: planning has always been altruistic. Planning is an endless pursuit to preserve public good. The desire to improve economic prosperity, the health and quality of life of all city residents are the pillars of city building.

Planning emerged as a profession to combat urban challenges such as the quality of housing, congestion, urban design and zoning. Almost a hundred years later, these issues still resonate in city building conversations. Affordable housing, congestion and public space are the forefront of debate in municipalities across Canada.

Despite its profound role in shaping not only the physicality of a city, but also its character, zoning evades public interest. Zoning is an omnipresent force that holds political, economic, environmental and design-related implications. It is important for city residents to understand the power and influence zoning has on a wide range of municipal issues.

In the 19th century, zoning was predominately used as a tool to protect the economic interests of landowners. Consequently, comprehensive zoning was enforced to ensure neighbourhood stability and to protect land value from the threat of undesirable development. This resulted in entire parcels of land, whether vacant or pursuing development, to become pre-zoned. Cities remain constrained by these zones today. But, why does this matter?

While the intention of zoning is to take public safety, environmental preservation, community aesthetics and economic development into consideration, most of the time, zoning limits the potential of a place. One of the best examples of this is within Toronto's inner suburbs. Despite being neighbourhoods with high density and diversity, zoning bylaws have prohibited tower block apartment buildings from having farmer's markets, public health services or day care on site. These archaic laws have stunted the growth and potential of these communities.

Mixed-use development is an integral part to building sustainable, vibrant neighborhoods. Having healthy food options, public transit, parks and community centres within walking distance of residential areas are essential for the economic, environmental and social longevity of Canadian cities. While some cities have taken prudent steps to reform restrictive zoning, there is more work to be done.

By allowing different types of zoning to work simultaneously, it encourages strong development around transit routes, reduces reliance on the personal automobile and maintains the vibrancy and safety of communities. Strategic zoning can act as a source of municipal innovation and serve as a mechanism to introduce novel planning ideas to the city landscape. The challenges of our urban regions are interrelated and complex. Creating flexibility in the laws that determine their built form and character will create more creative, interesting and meaningful places.

100in1Day

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100 in 1 Day banner

What if hundreds of people united, each putting in place the changes they wish to see in their city, all on the same day?

100in1Day is a citizen-driven festival that unites people across the city by engaging them in a common city-wide project to transform their community—raising awareness of urban and social issues, inspiring new ideas and solutions, and motivating leaders to consider new approaches to old problems.

100in1Day began as an idea and quickly became a global movement. Launching in 2012 in Bogota, Colombia with 250 urban interventions and over 3000 participants, it has since inspired citizen-driven transformative change in 15 cities around the world. On June 7, residents in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax will join the movement and re-imagine how they live, work and play in their city.

What is an intervention?

An urban intervention is a one-day community-based project, led by an individual, group of like-minded residents and neighbours, or an organization. These projects, be they whimsical and fun or advocating for social justice and change, are a simple, low-cost way for people to showcase their ideas for a better city. Not only do they transform the city, they inspire and engage participants and onlookers alike—fostering a strong sense of community and positive change.

How do I get involved?

You can volunteer to help co-create the event, or visit 100in1day.ca!

You can also check out this great video by Legato Productions highlighting Montreal’s 100in1Day event: 100in1Day Montreal