The Vision Thing
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The Vision Thing

The Canadian Urban Institute brought four city builders together to discuss whether Toronto has lost its way.

photo by {a href=""}Michael Tunney{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}

After several polls showed Rob Ford and his plans for Toronto are becoming deeply unpopular with citizens from all areas of the city, the mayor came out to say that he was going to “stay the course.” But what exactly is that course, and is it the right one for the city? Does Toronto have a vision, or has it stumbled blindly into a dark spot? And maybe most importantly, how do we get out of it?

This question was put to four city builders yesterday at an event organized by the Canadian Urban Institute and hosted by the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre. The panel consisted of Geoff Cape of the Evergreen Brickworks, University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski of “the three cities” fame [PDF], Julia Deans of Civic Action, and John Van Nostrand of planningAlliance.

There has been much hand-wringing over the state and direction of Toronto during the last 10 months since Rob Ford stood in the front of the council chamber and officially became mayor. During this time it seems many people have gathered at events, much like the one put on by Canurb, to basically ask the question: “How the hell did this happen to us?”

One of the answers to that may be found in something that former mayor David Crombie said at a discussion of the work of Jane Jacobs last week when he spoke about the gap in dialogue between the old City of Toronto and the newer amalgamated city with all its suburbs. One can’t help but reflect on this gap after attending several of these events, which all happen to take place in the downtown area and are attended mostly by downtown residents. “There’s a real need to get to know each other’s city,” John Van Nostrand said. In fact, several of the panelists at yesterday’s event spoke of the need to provide spaces for discussion in suburban areas, where members from across the city can gather to share exactly what kind of city they want. Or, in other words, talk about that vision thing.

Many times at these events it’s easy to come away with the unsatisfying feeling that, although many interesting things were discussed and debated, real, practical solutions remain slightly out of sight. Sure, it’s great to speak about the need to create wider dialogue and spaces to connect, but when the inevitable questions arise during the Q&A period about how to actually achieve these things, the discussion becomes a lot more difficult.

However, two ideas emerged, not from the panelists, but from audience members during the question period, that present a real, practical way to work toward building a new vision for the city. One was presented by a member of the Annex Residents Association who said the ARA hopes to “twin” with another residents association, such as one in Scarborough, and will hold several joint meetings in both neighbourhoods. This idea has enormous potential to get residents from different areas of the city to meet and share.

The second idea, which built on the first, came from a woman who wondered how to engage Toronto’s youth from across the city. She suggested a similar “twinning” program for school classrooms, where downtown classes travelled to meet with classes from suburban areas and vice versa. David Hulchanski spoke about the need to create spaces where ideas can happen, spaces of compromise and discussion. This “twinning” could be one way to create such a space.

Visions are not something formally bestowed upon a city from above; they come bubbling up from underneath, from the, as Geoff Cape put it, “patterns of actions” of different communities.

We are at a perfect point in Toronto to discuss the vision thing. Rob Ford has done much for civic engagement in this city by forcing many people who perhaps don’t engage often in civic issues to become deeply involved in things like the core service review, or the plan for the waterfront, or the TTC. We are gathering and discussing and debating big civic issues almost monthly. And this engagement will hopefully continue now that the City’s Official Plan, the document that sets out the course of development in the city over the long term, has come up for its five-year review.

Over the next few months, Torontonians will be meeting across the city to discuss exactly what kind of Toronto they envision. Planning is done best when it’s done not just by “experts” at the top but through facilitating discussion with the very people who live in communities all around the city. John Van Nostrand said yesterday that “we have a potential plan lying beneath us.” We just need to all figure it out together.

CORRECTION: September 22, 2011, 2:10 PM This post originally stated that the ARA had already “twinned” with a residents association in Scarborough, when in fact the idea has not been formally adopted by the association.