Cities Building

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by cheyanne turions

 

This article is based on an interview conducted with Lisa Baroldi on 30 June 2014. Baroldi is the founder and director of Progress Unlimited and a member of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.

A city is more than the organization of space, more than its connecting infrastructures. Vibrancy is laid out in social fabrics, mixed and overlapping, rich with divergent ideologies if not always also multi-lingual. To build a city is to construct homes and schools, to account for places of commerce and public squares, to ensure delivery of utilities and access to transportation. In equal measure a city is built from the minds of its citizens who are constantly in relation to each other. It may be that this expansive understanding of the life of the city is the reason the term “city builder” is so often spoken now where once the term “urban planner” was once used. In her work, both independently and in consort with Edmonton’s city government, Lisa Baroldi suggests that this shift recognizes a democratization of transformation.[1] In its looseness, “city building” describes civic projects as much as it does grassroots initiatives. In her practice, Baroldi works from both perspectives. She is the founder and director of Progress Unlimited, an organization she describes as creating and marketing social movements to affect positive change. She is also a member of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) where she manages portfolios focused on Aboriginal Business Development, and Arts, Culture, and Design. Central to the success of both positions is her ability to foster connections between people and places, linking energy to resources in order to make a world, or a part of one, by creating the conditions for ideas to live.

Perhaps it would be more proper to refer to the work Baroldi does as “cities building.” Cities, despite their population and resource density, are not silos. Rural agricultural lands supply food to urban centres, industrial and commercial goods circulate globally, and human resources follow opportunity. A city’s identity is formed through its navigation of these factors, and in relation to its neighbours. What makes Guelph different from Toronto, or Edmonton different from Calgary? Or, what can Guelph and Toronto learn from each other, and from cities in the west? Baroldi suggests that it is through a spirit of collaborative competition that cities can not only better understand their own identity, but develop the resources needed to affect change. To a certain extent then, city building is knowing what doesn’t work for the citizens of a place and looking within and, importantly, elsewhere for inspiration and wisdom. To build cities is to link between them.

In 2013, through Progress Unlimited, and in partnership with Media Architecture Design Edmonton and Edmonton’s NextGen, Baroldi organized a pan-Canadian Pecha Kucha event on how to shape urban cores as vibrant and diverse spaces. The live-streamed event joined a dozen Canadian cities in one of the country’s largest public conversations about urban design and development. Speakers came from across the country. Thirteen hundred Edmontonians attended, sharing their downtown experiences and ideas for change through art and design installations, interactive media, videos, and dialogue.

The result of the event was the national Designing Downtown movement, “a vehicle for inter-city exchange for partnerships that seek to enrich and advance the conversations and actions we take to shape downtowns as spaces for everyone. Designing Downtown is an experiment and exchange; an opportunity to create dialogue that celebrates and critiques; and a space to be a fixture in and designer of the urban experience.”[2] It is born out of discomfort with city building conversations and actions being largely top-down. Working across geographic boundaries, the hope of Designing Downtown is to foster connections across communities in cities to make these spaces spirited and contemporary.

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Edmonton’s downtown empties come the end of the work day. Calgary’s downtown, for instance, suffers a similar kind of 9-5 exodus. This narrative is not unfamiliar, and yet many cities are characterized otherwise, their downtown cores teeming with life day and night. In light of looming redevelopment projects in Edmonton[3] and elsewhere, Baroldi created a context for the exchange of ideas about the opportunities and challenges of using design to make place: “Let’s not pretend downtown is great, or that our conversations are. And let’s not pretend this is a local conversation.” The lessons of Winnipeg or San Francisco become fodder for the development of Edmonton, not as a straight replication of strategy, but as inspiration or even webs of collaboration, drawing on the circulation of resources (human, material, and creative) that exist already.

This focus on interpersonal exchange across cities continues to define the work Baroldi does through EEDC, which is somewhat rare for the institutionalized type of economic development. Working between Aboriginal business development and the creative economy, Baroldi’s strategic agenda is motivated by inclusivity. Edmonton’s previous civic identities—as a city of champions or as a cultural hub for theatre and festivals—no longer hold as they once did. At this moment of re-articulation, listening to the desires of the city’s citizens is as important as putting forward visions for the future. Baroldi’s job, in part, is to act as an advocate for Aboriginal and cultural concerns in creating the infrastructures that will shape Edmonton’s future. For instance, what if urban planning in Canada moved beyond the consultation model to seriously consider what it would mean to co-create cities alongside Indigenous populations? What would Edmonton, Winnipeg, Guelph, or Toronto look like then? A major project of Baroldi’s through EEDC is the development of Aboriginal Hubs: “Edmonton, home to the second largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada, is poised to be a leading Indigenous-inclusive city with assets, opportunities, and experiences that come from the full participation of the Aboriginal community in economic development, governance, land use, urban design, and culture and heritage. Through the Aboriginal Hub initiative, EEDC is collaborating with political, corporate, and community stakeholders to establish Edmonton as a progressive contemporary city with the right conditions to produce, in the long-term: a) more opportunity for Indigenous peoples and for Edmonton as a whole, b) increased tourism, talent, and investment coming in to Edmonton, and c) improved relationships with each other and the urban environment.” [4]

In proposing social, environmental or structural changes to urban centres, city building seems to operate counter to resilience theory. Resilience is about the capacity to return to a stable state after disturbance, but city building is about shifting the stable state to something else entirely, something better, or so we hope. As Baroldi understands it, city building involves listening to people to see if there is a way to cobble together a grander vision of what cities can be, and so it is a practice that recognizes potential in moments of daring dreaming. It is about unmaking the way things are now, or in the language of resilience, crossing a threshold into new a basin whose unique conditions support the visions of how else we might be together.

In city building, as in resilience theory, there are periods of stability and processes of flux. Social systems bear a resemblance to natural cycles of adaptation, passing through phases of rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. The term “creative destruction” is often used in economics and the sciences to “describe the disturbances that periodically punctuate the adaptive cycle. It breaks down stability and predictability but releases resources for innovation and reorganization.”[5] It is an easy jump to apply the metaphor of creative destruction to culture. However, while city builders obviously benefit from social stability to a certain extent, their work nonetheless has the capacity to encourage transformation and thrive within the release and reorganization phases, which allow for new systemic organizations to take hold.

The excitement that attends these periods of remaking or making anew can often be intoxicating, an idea becoming its own justification. To protect against evangelism, Baroldi believes that it is vital to ensure spaces of dissent and criticism, early and often. In a city known for its entrepreneurs, a democratization of city building does not necessarily equate to diversity. Robust diversity means to take seriously these voices of concern, paying attention to who and where a conversation is being had. Resilience theory teaches that diversity is strength, and reducing redundancy puts systems at risk of collapse.[6] Collaboration, which is key in building a city, can operate in service of this diversity when difference and disagreement are acknowledged, respected, and confronted. City building should not be about trumped up narratives of greatness, but rather founded on ongoing situations of dialogue.

In the end, city building appears to be a quality of life, a feeling, where you understand the city as your own with the mutual recognition of how it belongs to others. These others are your conspirators, helping ideas accelerate, incubate, and stick. So what are you going to make?

 

[1] Baroldi recognizes the distinction between urban planners and city builders as such: “Urban planning is a distinct field and profession. So, there are still urban planners, of course. An urban planner is an urban planner, but an urban planner is also a city builder. The thing is that an urban planner is no longer perceived as the only city builder. Neither is a mayor or a developer or an architect. Anyone can be a city builder.” From an email correspondence with Baroldi, 01 July 2014.

[2] “About Designing Downtown,” Designing Downtown, accessed 07 July 2014, http://www.designingdowntown.ca/contact/.

[3] Some of these redevelopment projects, concentrated along the 104 Avenue corridor, were recently announced by the City of Edmonton: http://www.edmontonsun.com/2014/02/14/the-evolution-of-downtown-edmonton-is-an-impressive-sight. The larger redevelopment plan can be seen here: http://www.edmonton.ca/city_government/documents/CCDP_Executive_Summary.pdf

[4] From an email conversation with Baroldi, 15 July 2014.

[5] Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (United States of America: Island Press), 75.

[6] Walker and Salt, who outline overlaps in governance as a key feature of what a resilient world would look like, say that “a resilient world would have institutions that include ‘redundancy’ in their governance structures and a mix of common and private property with overlapping access rights...Resilient social-ecological systems have many overlapping ways of responding to a changing world. Redundancy in institutions increases the response, diversity and flexibility of a system (Ostrom 1999).”

Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (United States of America: Island Press), 148.

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