Urban Defender

Urban Defender: May 2005

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Doors Open 2

Also on this past weekend UD had the chance to see the Roundhouse in the aptly named Roundhouse Park, which besides containing Steam Whistle Brewing Company also contains what will, if the long-suffering and dedicated efforts of volunteer activists with the Toronto Railway Historical Association have anything to say abut it (and they do), become a proper and fitting museum of railway history in Toronto.

On Sunday past the Doors Open festivities at the site included a live steam train (powered by coal) running around the grounds just south what we used to know as the Sky Dome but now (thanks Ted), just when we were getting used to its passé monumentalism, must call the Rogers Centre. The large doors of the Roundhouse were flung open to reveal old locomotives, a 1930s Streetcar, and other treasures waiting to be fully restored and put into an accessible and curatorialy engaging context.

If Vancouver can renovate its old downtown roundhouse (and it did this some years ago now) as a valued community arts and recreation centre, with an old locomotive in situ et al, surely Toronto can pull of an urban railway museum!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Doors Open 1

It was nice to see Union Station in its gentle state of disrepair and borderline decay this past Doors Open Weekend. Why because despite all the hand wringing, the yelling and screaming, the accusations of scandal and the musings of the aging Yoda of old fashioned “reform” (yes Mr. Sewell), the City has actually got a plan that is going to work: that is restore the station to its former glory and add lots of new public transportation space (a new GO Concourse for example) and new commercial space al.

And this is going to be done yes by a dreaded P3 but one that will save Toronto’s beleaguered property tax payers $150 million in costs that Union Pearson Group will have to fork over on the gamble (and UD wishes them well) that they will make money out of it over an admittedly long term lease. And they probably will but at this point there is no viable alternative whatever one might feel about Public Private Partnerships in general.

This P3-type deal, which of course sees Union Station stay in public hands, despite its highly problematic origins that did give some encouragement to conspiracy theorists and ranters everywhere, has actually come out, at almost the end of the beginning, with something good, workable and necessary. Indeed a rare victory for the City in the current climate where the municipal fiscal imbalance seems to all-too-often mean that "nothing can get done."

For more information go to

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hands Off Nathan Phillips Square

To look at modernism's gifts as if they were some latent Trojan Horse come to unload their pernicious inadequacies is a lame and woebegone response. Nathan Philips Square, as Globe and Mail columnist John Barber recently pointed out, is not a wasteland in need of remediation: City Hall wants to know what Torontonians would do to ‘revitalize’ Nathan Phillips Square, the iconic heart of their city. What a mistake!”

Still with an open, if one-sided, mind Urban Defender will surreptitiously attend the creative workshop on June 4th to lend a word or two to the process that contends that it is a public space that is broke and in need of fixing.

But why can we not address its raised walkways and long forsaken outdoor deck that the twin curved towers that rise through it and still resist the need to cleanse and refashion this modern Toronto UR-space? Is it all about liability insurance and fears of some hooligans jumping off the edge in a show of ego-driven freak show glory?

Let’s get with John Barber's admonition and find ways to make it work and not tear it down. The problem is what we have done to it (The bloody Peace Garden) and what we have not (maintenance!).

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Chicago visits Toronto

Well Mayor Daley is in Toronto to share and care with Mayor Miller. In some way it strikes Torontonians as a good visit, of course one is often loved more abroad, as the Chicago Sun Times reports not all in his home city view Mayor Daley with such approbation. As suggestions of favoritism track closely to the Mayor of Chicago one wonders if this troubles Miller whose campaign logo was the broom with which he was to sweep Toronto clean of suggestions of corruption and strong hints of insider privilege. Not that Mayor Miller has not delivered at all, just perhaps more slowly than his biggest fans would have liked, after all he has reengineered the City’s administration and let some of the former Commissioners go, with grace if not expediency.

Of course here we know what we find sexy about Chicago, it’s bigger, it has a better waterfront (corruption or not Daley and City Council got that done), and it has more songs written and sung about it. Seriously though, there maybe something in learning from Daley as Toronto, assuming current growth projections (which is of course a dark art in itself), is likely to surpass greater Chicago in population in the next ten to fifteen years.

When would be social democrats join hands across the lakes there may be something in the knowledge transfer that will matter. Let’s hope so or the cost to Chicago and Toronto taxpayers will be for naught.

Monday, May 23, 2005

What next?

Living in the city is often a question of what next? Looking forward. The next night out. The new play. The development down the street in what used to be a parking lot. The impossibility of doing it all, seeing it all, knowing it all. Intoxication of riches. Abundance.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Fireworks yes but don't light the candles quite yet: the Money isn’t here & Toronto is still a creature of the Province.

While the Victoria Day weekend – The Queen’s Birthday – is traditionally celebrated in Ontario by fireworks and this weekend in Toronto will see huge displays of pyrotechnics every night, it may be too early for a companion celebration for the recent 2nd Reading passage of the Federal Budget bills. So here at least we are keeping the cake in the freezer and the candles in the cupboard

It is certain that the sentiment that moved Toronto Mayor David Miller , as reported at cbc.ca on Friday, to say that Chuck Cadman should be given the keys to the City was right and good. After all Mr. Cadman in a refreshing display of populist integrity befitting his Reform roots did vote to save the day for the Martin-Layton budget that promises more millions for City of Toronto, and cities across the country, for housing, transit, child care et al.

And Belinda Stronach surely deserves a Metropass for her convenience when she comes down into the City from her perch in the Newmarket-Aurora Electoral District.

Far more significantly, as reporters on both CTV Newsnet and CBC Newsworld noted immediately after Thursday's budget vote, it was Jack Layton and the NDP’s budget deal that made the down-to-wire vote even possible.

Predictably, today such august journals as the Ottawa Citizen are reporting the bleating of the boys in red suspenders to the effect that the Layton-Martin budget will imperil Canada’s fiscal position. This will of course only reinforce Harper’s determination to prove he is right and the rest of us are wrong, and as the Toronto Star notes in its Saturday edition the budget is far from passed. But we can still be glad that momentum seems to moving in favour of funding the needs of our cities again, even if the money is still far from being in the bank.

Just as recent news about the Province of Ontario’s progress toward delivering a new City of Toronto Act, to give Toronto broad new powers (really powers that most progressive municipal jurisdictions in North America already have), is a not a whole loaf. Though the process aims high by seeking to provide:

. . . Toronto with governmental powers with respect to city purposes as well as natural person powers would give city council significantly more flexibility than it now has to (i) legislate, (ii) raise revenue, and (iii) organize itself to provide local services and good government.

Staff Progress Report - Joint Ontario – City of Toronto Task Force to Review the City of Toronto Act, 1997 and other Private (Special) Legislation, May 2005

One among the issues is that while new Act would look to providing Toronto with the means to raise revenues, it has been widely reported that Premier McGuinty is not willing to consider allowing Toronto a share of Provincial Sales Tax or Income Tax – the supposed Holy Grail for the City.

While it is almost tedious in the extreme to keep repeating the basic truth, as so many have done like the Mayor, the Toronto City Summit Alliance, the Board of Trade, and the United Way, that the City of Toronto needs to have a stable revenue base that expands as the economy grows and is sufficient to meet its responsibilities. It is by no means clear that we want to let our political representatives off the hook for being directly responsible for the taxes they raise in our name.

So while it is too soon to celebrate anything, it may not be such a bad thing that the Province is reluctant to hand over a slice of its income tax or sales tax. Rather what it may wish to consider is vacating room in the sales and income tax and permitting Toronto to not only occupy that room but be responsible for the determining the tax rate. Otherwise to ensure fairness and equity (which we can surely assume is their goal) the Province will have to take back some of the things that were provided as downloading gifts to Toronto when it was amalgamated in 1997.

Just because municipal politicians may be nervous in the extreme about being seen as implementers of a new tax, or having responsibility for part of an existing tax, does not mean we should abandon the principle of that our elected representatives should be accountable for the taxes they levy, and the revenue they control, so we may all enjoy a reasonably equitable and vibrant version of civilization.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Rabble Says: The best budget in 30 Years?

While UD is not sure it the claim made by Andrew Jackson, National Director of Social and Economic Policy for the Canadian Labour Congress and reported in Rabble is correct and that this Federal Budget is The Best Budget in the past 30 years but UD can certainly defend it and cheer it along. In particular its measures that will see an additional $1.6 billion for affordable housing and the one-cent increase over the next two years of the proposed gas tax share for cities (via the provinces) are most welcome.

But as is noted in the same Rabble article, and it is worth quoting it at length:

“Stable and predictable public funding is key to the long-term success of all policy goals, and this budget doesn't provide that,” said John Anderson, Vice-President of Strategic Partnerships for the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD).

Mr. Anderson is right. Cities like Toronto in particular are still struggling along from one budget disaster to another, being forced to play budget tricks and considering selling assets to pay for operating expenses when we all know that you should not be buying your groceries on credit.

But of course budgets are not the be all and end all of legislation and action, even if they are absolutely critical in defining what we will and will not do together.

What is required is a new set of arrangements (just shy of a constitutional amendment recognizing cities as third order of government which is, as any student of the Constitution Act knows, not worth wasting energy on) linking the federal spending power to communities and the non-profit sector in a framework that will address social, economic and environmental needs at the level of neighbourhoods, where we all actually live, play and work.

Of course when local services are being shut down and our cities are ramping up property taxes and delivering fewer services, it is hard to focus on grand arrangements. We are well served by those, such as the Canadian Council on Social Development, that do but the engagement has to be greater to make it work.

The whole discourse of the New Deal for Cities has been too elite to-date and involving people at the community level in meaningful policy development while a daunting task is certainly one that needs more work and energy devoted to it.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

THANK GOD FOR THAT!

The government does not fall!

Thanks to Chuck Cadman for being precisely a stand up guy on the right side of populism.

And thanks oh merciful lord, even though we know that it is wrong to enjoy the suffering of others, for the pleasure of seeing Harper's little smirk tighten up and shrink. Belinda was right from the inside, justifying what we have long known on the outside, Stephen does not get cities and he does not get Canada outside wild rose country (and that is even overstated).

Thanks to Jack Layton for not jumping on the punish the Liberals bandwagon and working mightily to see something positive come out of this Parliament.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Out At Toronto The Good

The good and the hip and the heritage bohemians were out in force at the Toronto the Good party last night at The Distillery District. Hosted by ERA Architects, it was part of Toronto’s Festival of Architecture and Design month, and it served as a fundraiser for Spacing magazine and the murmur project.

UD walked over to the Distillery District, across the edge of Brownfield dereliction that will soon be the new community in the West Don Lands. Once in the Distillery precinct (that was virtually empty of souls except those heading for the Toronto the Good party) it was a quick walk over to the Fermenting Room and into the warm embrace of free food (fabulous mussels but one could have done with out the noodles in the box) and free wine that tasted better with every glass.

ERA displayed a great deal of generosity and is to be praised for supporting two really interesting initiatives: Spacing magazine and murmur.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Two of our favourite things: Toronto Architecture & Urban Design Awards 2005

The City of Toronto has recognized two wonderful things for excellence in Architecture & Urban Design:

  1. The Ontario College of Art Design's Sharp Centre, by Will Alsop, that marvellous pencil box or tabletop that floats above the 1950's block that housed the art school for so many years (resembling a bargain basement psychiatric institute more that anything else).
  2. The West Don Lands Precinct Pan, which has already been discussed here, and is a really good piece of work mapping the way out of Brownfield stagnation to vibrant community.
All that can be said today is YEA!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The heart of the city?

The heart of the city is where you are. It is your neighbourhood, you, your neighbours, the park down the street that may or may not be in the best state of repair. It is that dog barking too loud (why don't they put in inside at night?) and the neighbours kids pressing every button on the elevator again, and that new store (Miguel opened it didn't he?), and knowing that 10,000 years ago the hunters walked these paths down to the lake or followed them upriver to find deer. And it can be too the new chain coffee shop, the place where San's grandmother fell, and where there used to be a sign saying no Jews or Dogs on the beach, and where the sign was torn down and forever made impossible to put up again. It is also the place where after all the long journey underground, Thornton & Lucy, free at last, bought title to some land that is now a school.

The heart of the City is where we meet to confront and engage each other, past, present and becoming, a subtle and outrageous mix of scale, style and speech.

Friday, May 13, 2005

10 Questions - How do you know its urban?

Caveat: There are many answers and there is much great writing on urban issues, politics, cultures etc; more than anyone person is ever likely to read let alone fully integrate in to his/her thinking. So when approaching the vast resource of urban studies it can be helpful to have some filtering questions, here is a try at some with no claims to originality or merit:

  1. How do we know we are in an urban place?
    • An independent bookstore?
    • Not Starbucks?
    • A pedestrian plurality?
    • Seeing a man walking down the street in drag is unremarkable?
    • Public space sans advertising?
    • Jane Jacob’s jumble old/new?
    • Multi-hued complexions noted but not noticed?
  1. If there is an "authenticity" factor?
    • Is it time that must be represented; can we say we are in an urban place if there is no physical record of time having passed?
  1. Is late 20th century "New Urbanism" simply a crude gesture of commodity fetishism: sprawl with a human face?
    • OR does the building of compact, pedestrian-friendly suburbs extend the urban outward?
  1. Paris or New York?
    • In North America, without tall buildings do we know where we are?
  1. In greening the urban space are we simply layering decorative artificiality on to a more honest, integral and human-madeness?
  2. Public Transit: is this an essential ingredient in defining the urban?
  3. A sharp edge or a gradual transition?
    • Which better says “Here is the City and there is the other?
  1. Without accident and surprise can there be anything remotely urban about a place that one is in?
  2. Is there a way to end the argument about market forces and simply accept that cities require design and governance to permit them to have creative anarchy within defined boundaries?
  3. Is it an urban life without participatory democracy?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No election: Call your MP and tell her or him to get on with governing

UD was happy to host friends from the Nation's Capital who came down to Toronto for an extended weekend and for a taste of urban civilization. While our lunch time talk ran from New Zealand's general acceptance of Proportional Representation (PR) after a shaky start to New Labour’s slightly less solid grip on power, a sense frigid ennui engulfed us as the talk turned to Parliament and the likely toppling of the Federal government.

A lack of concern was hardly the cause of the languor that followed our chilli and organic greens.

It was and remains like some minor case of food poisoning, the pain that comes from thinking that tax point transfers and tax cuts will somehow build affordable housing and transit lines in cities like Ottawa and Toronto. Or that a destabilized federation will help the Canadian economy (Harper appears to think the Bloq is about grievance politics and not ethno-cultural pur laine nationalism) and the cities that drive our economy.

UD does worry that the Harperistas and the Bloqueurs (for Québec everything and for ROC rien du tout) will succeed in mischief now or in a real vote on non-confidence at the time and day of the Prime Minister’s choosing: May 19th.

Of course maybe Toronto should declare independence if Harper wins (and become more than just a province as some suggest, see: http://www.provinceoftoronto.ca/) and declare the game up and move on!

Perhaps more realistically my dear Liberal friends should consider voting NDP this time and letting Jack Layton have a chance to run a minority government! At least Jack knows cities and has fought to push the progressive (and desperate) side of the Liberal party to accept the obvious (when voters want a real right wing party they will vote for one and the Liberals have more to lose than gain from governing from the right).

Ok UD and friends were and are pissed off and that translated for a day into numbness and hence ennui but once back at work UD's indignation has happily come back.

So what is to be done? No election. Pass the budget and let’s start re-invigorating our cities.

Call your MP and tell her or him to get on with governing. Harper and Duceppe can try to divide the country just as well after the budget is implemented.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Good Urban Initiatives In & Out of Town, Tony Blair, update on the West Don Lands

URBAN DEFENDER ATTEDED AN URBAN ISSUES CONFERENCE (THE POLICY WONK PERSONA IS OUTED) SO THE BLOG SUFFERED A BIT. LOOK FOR SOME NOTES ON FOOD, MARKETS AND SCHOOLS SOON.

IN THE MEANTIME SOME LINKS to some Good Urban Initiatives here and abroad:

Toronto:

The Stop Community Food Centre strives to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and challenges inequality.

At FoodShare we work on food issues "from field to table" - meaning that we focus on the entire system that puts food on our tables: from the growing, processing and distribution of food to its purchasing, cooking and consumption.

St. Christopher House Income Security Program: St. Chris has worked with the community to address inadequate income at many levels.

USA:

Project of Public Spaces is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities

Sustainable Communities Network: Linking citizens to resources and to one another to create healthy, vital and sustainable communities

UK:

Sustainable Energy Action: A not for profit company and environmental charity, working with businesses, local authorities, householders and communities to create a sustainable future for London through practical and sustainable solutions to the capital’s environmental challenges.

And Tony Blair:

Well UD's Montréal correspondent was desperately seeking to see Mr. Blair crushed--Galloway all the way--as were some of UD's friends and family across the Anglophone and Francophone world.

UD would have preferred a Labour technical majority or narrow minority because despite Blair's foul kissing partnership with that great enemy of urban and urbane cultures, Emperor Bush (look for his forthcoming Urban Revitalization in Iraq Made Simple), UD could never celebrate a Tory victory anywhere.

The urban agenda of the Blair (& Brown) government, which had its accomplishments (most notably the strides in raising millions of UK children out of poverty), will get a more of positive push from the Liberal Democrats and its own “Old Left.”

Of course the Lib-Dems have had the luxury, like Canada's NDP of saying all the right things without having to actually deliver them, as a national government. But Labour having to listen just a trifle to the Lib-Dems will be positive (especially on urban issues) but it might well have been more salutary if another 20 seats had shifted from Red to Yellow.

As it is some clever commentators argue persuasively that the old Labour left may have more sway than Mr. Kennedy in the new Parliament; and pace the guides at The Guardian, some think Mr. Brown will be PM within something between a fortnight and two years.

West Don Lands Update:

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A brief and grateful nod to the West Don Lands Committee

There has been a significant amount of GOOD URBAN NEWS & PORTENTS coming out of the weekend, and here are just two:

But with both the stories there is still a lot more hurry up and wait then full steam ahead, with one notable exception:

The West Don Lands, industrial Brownfield adjacent to Toronto’s Old Town neighbourhoods of Corktown, The Distillery District, and St. Lawrence, has its precinct plan going to City Council for approval this month, after a well regarded expert and public consultation process led by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC).

The West Don Lands, as reported in mainstream local media, such as
The Toronto Star, have been allocated money to proceed with the next steps, such as flood protetion, that will permit redevelopment to start.

The story of the West Don Lands has had many twists and turns over the past 15 years but one critical thing that has moved this matter forward in the past 8 years is the West Don Lands Committee (WDLC) a coalition of neighbourhood and business organizations and environmental groups that has worked steadfastly to keep the revitalization of the West Don Lands on the agenda, ever since they organized the November 1999 Obstacles and Opportunities public forum and workshop to create a vision of the area that came up from the community. Cynthia Wilkey has chaired the organization since 2000 and has been herself a force for positive change through her work with the WDLC, the Corktown Residents & Business Association (a WDLC founding member) and the Board of South East Downtown Economic Redevelopment Initiative (SEDERI) (of which the WDLC is itself a member).

As Ms. Wilkey has noted about the TWRC's approach to the West Don Lands:
"As promised, TWRC brought the community together with a top-notch design team and produced an outstanding precinct plan in record time,” said Cindy Wilkey, chair of the West Don Lands Committee, a group that represents thirteen local neighbourhood, environmental and business organizations. “This is exactly the kind of leadership that we need to make waterfront revitalization a success.”
The WDLC's work is a demonstration of just how critical it is for local communities to define their agenda and then come up with a practical vision of how to achive it.

The fact that the final Precinct Plan embodies so much of the community vision articulated in November 1999, is a tribute to participants who came together five and a half years ago, the ongoing lobbying, outreach and community leadership of the WDLC and its members, and to the wisdom of the TWRC for building on and enhancing the original community vision.

Urban Defender salutes the West Don Lands Committee for all its accomplishments!