A growing group of city-builders have taken to Facebook to wax idealistic about the fate of Toronto.
Rachel Lissner is nursing a broken foot when we meet in her Annex living room. It’s been six weeks since she fell off a neighbour’s step while trying to pet a cat, and now the dedicated cyclist (and occasional Torontoist contributor) is resigned to asking for carrots and water refills. Lissner may be couch-bound, but she’s hardly immobile. “With [the Young Urbanists League], I see myself as a windmill,” she explains, “in that I harvest all of this information, and I just gather everything, and process it, and churn it out into energy. Then I tell people to take what they can from this, and to use it.”
It’s a process that’s being replicated by many of her Facebook group’s 1,200-odd members, whose ranks keep ballooning as word-of-mouth spreads. YUL (pronounced “yule”) is an active and open community of urban planners, community organizers, and municipal-policy wonks—plus a mixed bag of artists, students, journalists, and other ardent fans of the city. In just over a year, the group’s become a vital resource for them to exchange job opportunities, event listings, and their own visions for Toronto’s future development.
Lissner knows firsthand how valuable this type of community can be. Born in Washington, D.C., she arrived in the city without knowing a soul. “This was 2007, and it was a real renaissance for the city,” explains Lissner. “You could tell that Toronto was just starting to discover itself, especially in regards to the Internet. It was so exciting to be able to read and learn about the city online. And there were all these free lectures and events. At university my major was Urban Studies, but I learned infinitely more by going to these events and reading these sites then I ever did in books.”
After graduating, Lissner began to miss the city-focused conversations she’d become accustomed to and wanted an outlet for meeting new civically engaged friends. So she started an urbanist book club, recruited a couple of acquaintances, and selected, of course, Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Except no one, host included, actually read the thing. Undeterred, Lissner successfully relaunched the group in 2013 with a roster of seven dedicated urbanists. Interest quickly began to grow inside her larger social circle, but Lissner didn’t want to mess with her new group’s precisely chosen dynamic. Instead, she formed a Facebook group for interested people to start their own urbanist book clubs. From there, the Young Urbanists League was born.
By Lissner’s own admission, not a single book club has been formed out of YUL, though people have gotten jobs, started projects together, and filled board positions as a result of their participation. Lissner’s main point of pride, however, is the hook-up of two YUL members earlier this year. “My greatest accomplishment,” beams Lissner. “They’re just friends now, but I’m still very excited.”
In addition to its online presence, YUL’s hosted events such as bar nights, public art crawls, and documentary viewings, as well as a group excursion to Hamilton and a summertime bocce session (which Lissner watched from her wheelchair). She admits the YUL crowd can turn into a bit of “schmoozefest” if left to their own devices, so organizers try to include participatory activities like decks of “Cards About Toronto”—a Cards Against Humanity knockoff—to help get any wallflowers talking. It’s proven to be a fruitful formula: Daniel Rotsztain’s project to sketch all 99 branches of the Toronto Public Library project was inspired after a bunch of YUL-ers gushed over the TPL during a pub night.
YUL’s membership is a motley crew, but Lissner admits that it ought to better represent the entire Greater Toronto Area. “In YUL, I really like to post bike tours and walking tours to encourage people to go look at the city, the entire city. It’s really easy to sit in the Annex and pontificate on what makes a good city, only to find that when you’re at Black Creek and Weston that it’s totally different.” She’s currently exploring ways of expanding (and possibly monetizing) the group as a way of reaching more users in underrepresented communities.
“We’re all going to inherit the same city—’same’ with massive quotation marks and a huge grain of salt—and it makes a lot of sense that we all get on the same page and get to know each other and understand who’s doing what, where, and when. Because then down the road, it’s a much more holistic approach to city building…one that we all can be a part of.”