Embracing the opposition

A conference I’m attending soon in Toronto* that revolves around the increasing urbanization of the world and related issues, asks the question “How can citizens most effectively be involved in this massive re-shaping of the urban environment?”

As it happens, this relates to what I’ve been asking myself for the past year or so: “How can we motivate citizens to get effectively involved in the planning and development of our neighbourhoods?”  I spend more time thinking about this every week, because it seems more urgent to me all the time.  (Density vs. environmental damage from suburban sprawl etc.)  Of course the harder it is to get people involved the more urgent it seems, but that’s the way life is.

A small group of us in the neighbourhood are  trying to develop a pro-active approach to ‘urban planning’ policies around our little neighbourhood.  And as we chat, I am increasingly convinced that such explorations alone will not be enough to bring about change.  Not without some kind of communication strategy.

Urgency makes me think in terms of ‘shortcuts’.  So on the subject of motivating people to start thinking about urbanism with an open, creative mind – I begin to muse about communication shortcuts.

There are such ‘tools’ in the field of psychology.  Like “dialogues”.   It may sound cold and manipulative, but needn’t be at all.  Structured dialogues can be learned and used to reduce conflict in communication, so what harm could there be?  (I know, sounds like ‘famous last words’).

‘Active listening’ dialogues, for example,  can help us hear and understand the fear or stress someone is feeling, and actually make us more compassionate and accepting  of the  ‘other’ — less threatened ourselves by their opposition.  And there are experiments in communication among ‘opposites’ taking place.**  What an exciting world is possible, thanks to the internet!

When all is said and done, the greatest barrier to progress will really come down to the non-threatening communication of ideas.  It’s not  really about whether a ten storey building is appropriate for our community.  It’s not about whether it’s dangerous to welcome supportive housing next door for people with psychoses.  It’s about fear, and how to deal with it.  It’s about helping others buy into our dream, instead of seeing it as a nightmare.

To reach ‘the opposition’, we need to welcome it, embrace it.  At the end of the day if we don’t get better at that, we are lost.

*   http://www.cityage.tv/toronto

** http://www.livingroomconversations.org/about

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Classical Revolution + Measha – Really!

Sometimes, you’re just in the right place, at the right time.  And last night was one of those times.

The place was Toronto’s Tranzac Club, and not ten feet from me was  soprano Measha  Brueggergosman, transforming the room, entertaining, teasing the musicians, educating.  Oh that voice!  In the background, the occasional piercing squeal of her baby caused chuckles, and her smile widened in obvious pleasure.

This was not a formal concert, planned months in advance.  It had been organized on Facebook, by an informal group known as Classical Revolution Toronto* (if you’re on Facebook, you can search for their name).  The event’s main organizer was violinist Edwin Huizinga*, who was part of the original Classical Revolution start-up event in San Francisco years ago.

Some of the best musicians in North America gave the concert out of the goodness of their hearts.  Measha Brueggergosman joined them — yes no charge —  to share the music they love.  Other musicians won’t soon forget the experience of  playing with these wonderful artists, led by none other than TSO’s guest conductor James Gaffigan.**

Surrounded by other musicians, music lovers, and some surprised, delighted beer drinkers, the room came alive the way it does sometimes at Classical Revolution events – with laughter, musicians of every stripe crowded together, informal clothing, cello cases scattered about, occasional pauses, adjustments, mistakes and more laughter.   It’s reminiscent of ‘jamming’, but with classical music.

In Classical Revolution events,  great music meets people close up and personal, intimately, in a way that never happens in a concert hall. There’s something precious about seeing the great opera singer teasingly offer her glasses to a violinist, impulsively hugging the conductor, who turns and reaches for his drink, which happens to be on our table.  It is magical to see up close the physical power of a great soprano, as her rich voice surrounds you.  My tears welled up.

You can feel the strength of the cellists sweeping their bows across the strings, your diaphragm vibrating with the music.  Up close, you can see this is not effortless work. You can hear details in the playing, individual styles. You can see the look of admiration one musician has for another.  In this case, we could also hear the baby’s squeals – and actually see Brueggergosman’s passionate love for her child.

And was all that not part of the origin of “chamber” music?  Chambre is French for bedroom – where music in that era was played amidst children and perhaps aunts, uncles, grandparents, coming and going.  It was not so much about the precision or perfection of the composed music, listened to in formal silence, but about a total experience.  I imagine such children grew up with that music a part of their souls.

Yes, not like any concert I ever attended.  Here the “vibe” of living happens, leaving us with an unforgettable memory.  Now that’s a world class moment.

* http://www.colineatock.com/1/post/2013/04/in-praise-of-bad-music.html

** http://tso.ca/Concerts-And-Tickets/Events/2012-2013-Season/Measha-Brueggergosman.aspx

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Rachel + Jane

Two important  books  seem to be meeting each other in my mind these days.   Almost as though the two authors began with a conversation in my head about the environment vs. urban planning, and they’ve gradually come to embrace each other as two sides of the same coin.  Or perhaps two chapters in the same book of life.

Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, was published in 1962.  She could probably be credited with almost single-handedly making the environment a public concern.

In 1961, writer Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities  was published.  The book critiqued urban development trends of the day and attributed the decline of many great neighbourhoods to those trends.  Her ideas for improved urban planning have become the “bible” to many urban planners today.

Today, most people seem to realize that environmental degradation and climate change are now a serious threat to human survival.   Most people I know try to do their part by recycling or reusing, and many are even trying to be less materialistic.  Some have watched http://www.storyofstuff.com and felt appropriately shocked or shamed.  So Rachel’s book has had a significant impact.

But Jane’s book, less so.  Is that because it’s easier to make amazing documentaries about wildlife and the ‘natural environment’ than about urban development?  Is it easier to have TV shows like CBC’s The Nature of Things, than to televise concepts of densification, or how we live together in the ‘built world’?

It just doesn’t seem to register at the level of citizenry, that our negative impact is about so much more than recycling a few million tons of tin cans and bottles.  It’s not just about using dishwashers, instead of handwashing dishes because that uses less water.  It’s not because I buy liquids in glass bottles instead of plastic.

No.  It’s also about looking around and seeing how we ‘grow’ and expand our accommodation, our habitat, and how we use far too much material and space and vast excess miles of infrastructure that shouldn’t exist.  It’s about urban density vs urban sprawl.  It’s about using sustainable energy instead of petroleum products, creating high-speed ‘environmentally friendly’ transit, and so on.  And we need to cuddle up and intensify the way we build our neighbourhoods – more people per meter of sewer, might be one way of looking at it.

I find that even well educated, caring people seem to look at environmental issues and urban planning/development issues as if they were unrelated to each other.  They can care passionately about polar bears and the Amazon Rainforest, but just can’t get into urban densification or affordability.  I guess it’s hard to relate to, compared to the antics of lovable bears.  Or the visible, concrete horror of cutting down trees.

Much of the world has recognized links between sustainability and poverty (and affordability).*  The UN has established goals for “sustainable urban development,” monitoring hundreds of world cities.**  Many cities in the world are busily pursuing progressive goals for sustainability, like high speed electric transit, “green” buildings, etc.

Where are we locally?   It’s hard to know there’s a problem.  Federally, it’s “studies” and “analysis” and “monitoring”.   Ontario’s ‘green belt’ seems awfully flexible, and Toronto sounds like it’s mainly about tin cans.  There appears to be no marketing the densification idea and turning it into new bylaws.  Raising alarms seems to be the job of voluntary organizations.  Otherwise, it’s business as usual. As long as my house is worth $100,000 more than awhile ago, and I can walk to cool restaurants and clothing stores, everything is fine.  Writer X had to move away?  Not my problem.  The more shopping I can do, the more interesting my city is.

Is the whole ‘urban thing’ just not exciting or entertaining enough?  We are fed a constant diet of more dazzling stuff.  Are we entertaining and consuming ourselves to death?  I wonder what Rachel and Jane would think….

* http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/03/21-3?

**http://www.unhabitat.org/content.asp?typeid=19&catid=10&cid=927

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Walkability and Livability

I think a lot about the question of what might make my neighbourhood livable and thriving long term.  And how does that relate to affordability?  And the environment?  I’ve been trying to get my mind around some of Jane Jacobs’ and others’ thinking about urban planning, in an attempt to understand and change my neighbourhood.  Why?  Because middle- and lower income people have been leaving.  They can’t afford the rent. They can’t afford to buy.  And that is changing the character of the place.

I’ve been trying to imagine what might enhance Roncy and prevent it from becoming just another expensive but perhaps less creative community.  This might seem counter-intuitive to some, but after a lot of reading, I think we need many more diverse people, densely “packed” into much more ‘mixed-use’ development.

One of Jane Jacobs’ points is the need for lots of pedestrian traffic in a neighbourhood, for as many  hours of the day as possible, for safety and  “walkability” and potential to thrive.   Densification benefits the safety of residents. It benefits the environment + development costs as well, with more people per unit  of  infrastructure.

Even 15 years ago, countless homes in the neighbourhood consisted of three or more apartments, often with a basement unit as well.  There were many ‘rooming houses’ as well as duplexes, triplexes and so on, not to mention socio-economic diversity.  There were industrial and semi-industrial buildings most of which have now been replaced or renovated into residential.

With so many renters – as opposed to merely owners – there was probably a greater variety in lifestyles and hours of work, for starters. There was much more foot traffic throughout the area, with many working night shifts.  Today, when my daughter waits for a streetcar before sunrise, the streets are virtually deserted, thus a safety issue.  Deserted streets are not ‘walkable’ streets.

Local access to doctors, drugstores, community centers, restaurants, all accessible on foot, also translates into walkability and less greenhouse gas.  I expected that the local population would be less now, but it has apparently increased.  Would that be mainly due to the condos built in recent years?  If so, I would also guess that the lower income residents who lived in rooms or basement apartments may have been replaced by ‘high-end’ residents with significantly greater incomes. What can we do about that?  Why should we care if artists, musicians, teachers, social workers, retail clerks, and writers can’t afford to live here?  Because they enrich our lives.

Does anyone do the actual arithmetic?  If we anticipate an increase in an urban population over five years of, say, 20,000 residents, can we estimate how much and what sort of construction it will take to house that many people while maintaining a rental vacancy rate of five  per cent?

Vancouver’s former mayor Sam Sullivan did do some math according to journalist Daniel Wood.*   He estimated the number of people on his block to be about 1,000.   “So one residential block downtown equals 30 West Side blocks,” Sullivan says.  “All those boomers in expensive Dunbar homes that young families can’t afford.  Doesn’t make sense.  Schools there are closing.  The whole West Side needs density!”

He could have been talking about Roncesvalles Village/Parkdale – except that our schools are supposedly bursting at the seams.  I’m guessing many of the homes that used to contain singles, ‘roomers’, and little old ladies, now contain families with children.

Daniel Wood also comments, “Most people understand that urban densification is necessary.  Globally, suburbs are an environmental catastrophe.”   While I wholeheartedly agree, I’m not sure this understanding is that widespread.  And certainly, most people I know seem to feel it’s not necessary in my neighbourhood.  They don’t seem to get the connection between climate change or affordability and the everyday choices they make.

Will a relatively conservative culture encourage more affordable development, evenly integrated into increasingly denser neighbourhoods?

Back to Jane Jacobs, people might argue about what she would support or recommend.  Some talk of her as if she were a “NIMBY” type (not in my back yard), but she apparently supported the St Lawrence neighbourhood development.  This is a mixed-income, mixed-use development, with a certain percentage (about 30% at the time,  I think) subsidized.  The development was to enable people of quite different socio-economic backgrounds to live together as a community.  Diversity.  One of the operative theories was that this would help break cycles of poverty.

In my view, that happened in a more socially conscious period that has completely disappeared – replaced by a strong anti-government sentiment that almost precludes any government involvement or influence in humane activities like housing.

The St Lawrence development was not only beneficial socially and economically. Ideally – for reasons from walkability to climate change – we’d build many like it.

Urban hubs.  Clusters of mixed-use buildings and diversity, created around the shared infrastructure, reminiscent of the way people might cuddle up together to share a campfire.

It would mean an adjustment.  But we’re human. We can do that.

*http://www.straight.com/news/vancouvers-density-debate-pits-sullivanism-versus-ideas-jane-jacobs

**Greater Toronto Area

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Gentrification in Roncy….

One of my favourite rants – as some would call them – is about “gentrification” and its painful side-effects.   The Guardian recently published another article on the subject.*  One reader’s comment says it better than I could:

“Gentrification sucks because you end up with these arty media wankers who not only, day in day out, look the other way and ignore the suffering around them, but end up pricing the long standing residents out of areas their family have lived for generations.”

And truly, this is a large problem, one that most wouldn’t spend a moment thinking about.  But if we do, surely we can acknowledge the distress of an individual whose identity is very much connected to where he lives.  He knows where to find his food; how to get to his doctor; how to get to the train, the bus, to work – if he works; to his pub; and above all, to visit his friends and neighbours he’s known what seems like forever.  Basically, he is bonded to it.

Suddenly he can’t afford to live there anymore.   And a new home, ideally, would not disturb access to all these destinations – for example if there were adequate public transit.  Ah, but he may have to go a very long distance to find something affordable.  The familiar will be unfamiliar.  He will see those people less and less often.  He may have to find a new doctor.  He may have to get on a bus to buy his groceries.  Yes, any one of these things might have changed even if he stayed there.  But the distress comes from everything in one’s life suddenly becoming strange, unfamiliar, challenging.  In short, stressful.  And much more time-consuming.  And if he finds himself sitting around in front of the TV more now, and feeling a little depressed, it may not even occur to him that these are natural byproducts of such a move.

He might find himself slow to make new friends – especially if he is shy or reserved.  If he has children, he also has to get them into different schools, and deal with their feelings about it all.  Or not – and therefore, is it extra hard on the kids?  He’s become impatient with them.  A tiny part of what it means to leave your community.

Gentrification is not just a label.  It’s a description of a process.  And it has an up side – for some.  It also has real consequences.   For this guy, the meaning of “community” changes forever.

As for me, I’m observing my Roncy in this process now.  Here I sense ‘seeds of hope’ for a slightly different outcome.  I’m not saying we can prevent this cycle.  But I do believe together, with a little caring and creativity, we can change some of it….

*http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jul/07/chatsworth-road-frontline-hackney-gentrification

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Urbanism 101- evolving

I am “Fearlessanalyst” for a reason:  I just had to keep on compulsively analyzing after my December 21 post, reacting to the ‘Turner + Porter meeting’.  Reflecting back over the decades, I thought about how my perspectives on development and urban planning have evolved.   Decades ago while living in Kensington Market, I joined the opposition to the proposed “Doctors Hospital” development on the north side of College St.   I was in a panic, felt like the end of the world would come if we lost.

We lost.  We went into mourning. The beloved Victorian homes and other charms were ‘brutally’ shaved off the old block, and the new mixed-use development is now a major part of a thriving community.   It is right, and I was wrong.

That was decades ago.  My resistance to such changes, and the desire to preserve what we love,  has changed somewhat.  My perspective on development has become more tentative and open to new ideas, and more accepting of necessary architectural changes and mixes.  My “preserving what we love” became a relative thing – relative to the realities I was gradually becoming aware of.  Like the needs of neighbours which had nothing to do with architectural aesthetics.

“Heritage” architecture is important, but a healthy mixed community is relatively more so.    For me, now, if the architecture can be saved and included in new mixed-use developments that contribute to ‘the greater good’, I am content.  (By ‘the greater good’ in this case I mean especially more affordable rental housing.)  What I love, now, is bigger and broader – and maybe deeper.  I love a heterogeneous neighbourhood, the stimulation of differences: in ethnicities, races, designs, socio-economic levels, abilities. I love that among my neighbours are professors and people living with ‘schizophrenia’*; students and teachers; technologists working from home; elderly widows living on pensions; writers and lawyers; bank managers and servers.

But it’s evolving so subtly into what would probably be called a “class divided” community.  Before long there will be two classes: the wealthy and those in public housing.** And when that happens, the inevitable result is ghettoes.   The result of ghettoes is polarization, between people who don’t “get” each other.

Resist change?  The reality is, everything changes, nothing remains the same.  But we can have an influence on the quality of the changes.  We can decide, pro-actively, what kind of community we want this to be, and make compromises for the sake of the greater good – which is ‘for our own good’ in the long run.   More on this later…-

* – now that’s another story….

**  http://m.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/01/class-divided-cities-new-york-edition/3819/#.URbf4ELrhOE.mailto

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Living in the shade of progress

Someday we’re all going to have to learn to live in the shade of tall buildings, is what I’ve been saying for the past decade, to anyone who would listen.  They tend to shut down when they hear that.  It’s the sort of silence that arises when people don’t like what you’re saying, but because they haven’t thought about it, they don’t have anything to say – until you’ve left.  Then they might start with eye-rolling.

But if we put together the arithmetic of the increased and increasing population, with the environmental need for density and ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ (a la Jane Jacobs), it’s obvious we need more mainstreets intensification.   In this 21st Century,  that means more condos.*   Especially in an ideal location like Roncesvalles Village, where several streetcar lines meet the subway system and GO trains, and a recently modernized and expanded underground infrastructure.  The latter ingredient was purposely installed with intensification in mind.  The map of Toronto tells the story – that there are few locations where such “hub”-development would make as much sense.

‘Crowded’ some would say.  But with open, creative minds, I am sure we can come up with new mixed-use developments where smaller spaces are designed in a way that makes people happy.  No doubt, that would be in the aesthetics as well as the efficiency.

“Urban hubs” are the most logical next step, at least in my mind.   At an intersection like Bloor  and Dundas West, it is easy to imagine an amazing futuristic development that integrates thousands of people with retail, transportation, school, community spaces, and an intertwining (green?) pedestrian experience few have even dreamed of.  Architecturally exciting of course.

Developing such a new and dense mixed-use community would go a long way towards creating a more “level playing field” too.  The alternative: forcing middle-income people to spend hours every day driving, because they can only afford to live 50 kilometers away.  I love that my daughter lives a 10-minute walk away.  But increasing inequality will mean eventually she has to move much further out.  I know a young woman# living alone in Mississauga, who would benefit in every way from inclusion in our community – an impossible dream now.

The alternative might mean some of the neighbours have to live in the shade of it all.  Yes this means “sacrifice”.  My experience of human beings is that they are capable of adjusting, and even eventually embracing things they once found loathsome.  And is there any justification for keeping all of this spacious, green, convenient, beautiful neighbourhood to ourselves?  Would that not be, at the end of it all, a self-destructive selfishness?  And what’s a little shade, if the result is thousands of people living happier lives because of it.  Fairness is important too, in a healthy community.

I am not imagining the homogenized vision of Christopher Hume, Toronto Star’s “Urban Issues” columnist in describing West Queen West: “The franchised forces of urban homogeneity — Shoppers Drug Mart, Tim Hortons, Subway and so on — have yet to make their deadening presence felt. They will, of course, as inevitably they must. And as Toronto’s streets are taken over by the officially sanctioned mixed-use condo complex — commercial at grade, residential above — this process of retail sterilization has reached into almost corner of the city.” *** (sic)

Hume illustrates exactly why we need to pro-actively talk about the great importance of the quality of the mix.  We also need to ‘spread the word’ about the importance of bearing “the greater good” in mind, in all urban planning – not just the individual building as a developer’s investment.

As I commented online:

“I don’t buy the “inevitability” of it all. Things only change because those who see the need for it, get organized and work at influencing change. We need dense mixed-use development to accommodate the population, but the bylaws need to acknowledge the tremendous importance of the QUALITY of the mix. We need pro-active neighbourhood groups willing to do the work of understanding the complexities of urban planning in our socio-economic context, then deciding together what kind of community they want, longterm. Last but not least, do the “politics” of it. And that would make all the difference!”****

I’d add that our socio-economic context must include the real environmental and social needs, relative costs and benefits and (wait for it) – happiness.

Imagine that!

* http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/it-takes-a-condo-to-make-a-village/article791793/

** http://www.insidetoronto.com/news-story/1938411-realtors-reflect-on-the-changing-nature-of-roncesvalles-village

***http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/02/08/art_flourishes_in_old_buildings_while_chains_hold_condo_neighbourhoods_in_bondage_hume.html

****(relevant) http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/walkonomics/118726/walkability-proximity-shops?

# http://thinkinganddreaming.ca/2013/01/29/desperate-need/

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