Gillian Mason on ‘Governing and planning districts’

In 1961, Jane Jacobs said: “if only [decisions-makers] knew… what the citizens of that place consider of value in their lives and why”. Further, she affirms that “Much of what [decisions-makers] need to know they can learn from no one but the people of the place, because nobody else knows enough about it.”

What Jacobs described in 1961, I see as still problematic in Toronto today. In fact, perhaps the problem is even more acute since the amalgamation of the six local governments and the one metropolitan government into one single-tiered government, the City of Toronto, in 1998. Fifty years ago, Jacobs asserted that we “do not have the means of gathering and comprehending …. big cities.”

Amalgamation of Toronto

In the 1970s in the former City of Toronto (the downtown portion of what today is the City of Toronto), the people of this city arguably had greater access to planners and plans through storefront planning offices. Jacobs had a broader view of what storefront offices such as these might offer in terms of access to city hall: that they would include other city services. But she also noted that, in the ideal governing and planning world, there would be “planning staff…. serving the city in [a] decentralized fashion… at the only scale where planning for city vitality can be comprehended, coordinated, and carried out.”

Jacobs affirmed that the bigger city government becomes, “the more blurred …localized issues, needs and problems become…. [the] more attenuated and ineffectual…. citizen action [becomes].”

Today, we often find ourselves, as residents of Toronto, without clear means by which to express our likes and dislikes about the neighbourhoods in which we live, to bring to bear our deep knowledge and interest in the future of the city in which we have lived our entire lives or have only recently chosen as our own, nor a way of building on that knowledge for the benefit of the whole city.

We used to have storefront offices into which any member of the public could wander to have a direct conversation with the planning staff. It is a more intimidating business accessing a City planner today. Planning staff used to have ongoing scheduled and unscheduled interaction with the people who lived in the community. They worked and did business in the neighbourhoods, and thus had the opportunity to get to know the community not only from their own daily observations but from people with a deep personal commitment to its success. Or as Jacobs put it: “staffs usually know a place as thoroughly as they know their jobs” in this decentralized scenario.

Today, it is unlikely that funds will be found to operate such neighbourhood-based planning offices again. The good news is that, in the 21st Century, we have many more means to seek and secure input from community members in the neighbourhoods of Toronto, many of which are being employed by decision-makers.

Actually, perhaps there are too many ways and means to distribute and collect information if we think of them in relation to the decisions-makers’ capacity and ability to integrate the sheer volume of information that could be made available to them about any given community.

‘Information overload’ by Flickr user verbeeldingskr8

But we know there is a growing interest in city building in Toronto. We at the Centre for City Ecology witness it daily (to wit: the number of people not only in Toronto, but around the world, who are participating in this book club). Simultaneously, there is greater range of vehicles and thus a greater capacity to have your say in the public domain (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging, web sites, etc.). We have still not found the balance between ‘gathering and comprehending’ so we are still left with a community that, in Jacobs’ words, “cannot maintain the complexity on which it is built and on which it depends.”  As a community, we still have not found “reliable and sensitive channels of [deep community] understanding.”

At the Centre for City Ecology we continue to seek ways to raise the level community members’ urban literacy so that they can articulate for themselves what they want to see in their neighbourhoods. As Jacobs said: “The vital time for coordinating intelligence is before and during the time that even tentative proposals are conceived… in any specific place.” We at CCE happen to agree, and are working to unleash the ‘genius of the people’ [quoting Joe Berridge, Urban Planner, Toronto]. Or as Jane Jacobs quaintly described community members: “very plain people… [have within them] grains of greatness.”

The NFB’s One Millionth Tower project, helping communities envision change for our highrise towers

We now have greater access to mapping, publishing, connecting, networking, drawing, and interpreting than we could ever have imagined. We have the means to overcome distance, language, and socio-economic barriers, and we should be able to access and engage community members like never before. And we must. The social and environmental challenges facing us are too great; the need for their resolution is too urgent; the number of groups springing up to leverage social media is too widespread, and the sheer will of the people to make a difference in their lives, their children’s lives and their community’s lives is too great for us to continue to muddle along.

Myself, I am indifferent as to whether or not a decentralized form of administration and governance as Jacobs discusses, is best. What I do know, to the core of my being, is that until and unless we are truly harnessing the knowledge and concern of the people who spend their days, their lives, in the community, we cannot build great cities.

One Comment Add yours

  1. It’s interesting that you note your indifference to a decentralized form of administration in your last paragraph. In my limited experience with urban affairs in Toronto, it seems to me that our robust urban culture acts as a limited prosthesis in the place of any kind of formal government structure.

    We may not have access to official city-planners, but some neighbourhoods certainly have access to community-oriented professionals and academics that eloquently advocate for them side by side with city councillors. Without getting too political, the limited number of changes that have actually happened under the Ford government, despite their ambitions and the great influence the mayoral position has in this city now, speaks to the power of Toronto’s communities to fend for themselves.

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