Redefining Spaces: Three innovative methods of using public space

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston

The role a city plays in the life of a citizen is a central one. A country can work to define the overarching politics of a person – can make them look at the world through a particular lens or contemplate their place in it. But a municipality makes the critical political decisions that touch your life in the most intimate way. In a real sense the city is the clothes that you wear, the water you drink, the food you eat; buildings and taxes, streetcars and school zones. That’s the attitude I had when I sat down in a drafty event room at the Harbourfront Center to hear Ed Keenan and Ivor Tossell host a panel called “Toronto Talks: The Future of our City”.

Keenan and Tossell are longtime columnists for the Grid and the Globe and Mail newspapers (respectively). Keenan writes about the political life of the GTA, and has penned books on the same subject. Tossell writes about technology and culture for the Globe, but has also written a book about the Rob Ford mayoralty. He introduced the evening with questions: “What kind of city is Toronto? Well, we’ve taken to look at the city as a bunch of megaprojects. We are talking about two or three big things at once right now and that’s all. We’re talking about whether or not we’re having a casino, and about transit funding, and not a lot else”.

He divides the way we think about the City into two camps: city builders and city managers. The city managers are the ones who come from the perspective that the City is “a collection of services that are paid for by the taxpayer and delivered by the municipality”, and they think about the way to maximize those services. City builders think about building a city “in a concrete way: about creating solid things – streetcars, transit, buildings; they also think about creating a city humanely”.

Ed Keenan comes from the same tradition of humane and people-focused political action as Tossell, but from a bottom-up, realistic approach to municipal action rather than the prescriptivist method favoured by city managers or builders. His guests for the night were David Buchbinder founder of Diasporic Genius, Mike Labbé of Options for Homes, Kristi Herold of the Toronto Sport and Social Club and Boris Chan of XTreme labs.

Diasporic Genius is a group that works to bring cultural events to the parks and greenspaces of Toronto. Buchbinder seeks to unite people through storytelling, through a “shared warmth and trust”. Kristie Herold describes her group the Toronto Sport and Social Club as an “intramural league for adults”. Both organizations find existing public space and work to use it at minimal cost. She works with the City of Toronto to secure permits for fields, often “recording the dimensions of fields and gyms” that simply weren’t initially recorded by the City, and submitting them for permissions thus opening the range of fields that can be used for play. By simply looking at City spaces, finding those that are underutilized and organizing them for the sake of efficiency, Herold has let thousands of adults find fun at a very reasonable cost to the City.  Both Diasporic Genius and the Toronto Sport and Social Club are examples of community action finding extremely cost-effective ways to drive municipal policy – in both cases made easier because the outcomes required very little funding for the benefits provided.

The last two speakers represented the same kind of action – redefining spaces and searching for new efficiencies – but in more large-scale ways. Options for Homes is a fascinating non-profit project designed to provide homes in the middle of Toronto for those who aren’t in a financial position to own their homes. Effectively this means people aspiring to middle-class lifestyles who haven’t chosen lucrative careers. Increasingly people are priced out of the center parts of a city, and pushed to the urban fringes where development is cheap.

“There used to be a lot of non-profit housing development companies in Toronto, and a lot of non-profit rental development… as we know affordable housing is a critical problem in the City but somewhere around 1993, the Government decided it wasn’t important enough and turned the taps off, and most of those organizations disappeared” Says Mike Labbé. “We came from there, but went into a totally different direction: to produce home ownership”.

Options for Homes stays out of traditional development areas but instead pursues developments from a price perspective of the end-user. They develop condos without amenities in urban sites that are underdeveloped by commercial developers and using those savings, sell condominiums for a tremendous discount to the home owners. As Labbé is quick to tell you “60 to 70% of the wealth of a society is generated in real estate development. We started to realize that if we are creating this wealth, how do we approach it?”. As a non-profit company Options voluntarily sells their homes at the low end of the market, takes the difference between the cost of production of the condo and what the homeowner pays and channels that wealth into a loan to the homeowner for as long as they live in the unit.

Urban densification is one of the hallmarks of proper city planning: it makes large-scale transit projects feasible and creates livable neighbourhoods. Studies from the Ontario Growth Secretariat estimate that after infrastructure and transportation costs are factored in it is 70% less expensive to develop a home in the middle of a city compared to a new development on the fringe; as well as the vast environmental and health savings of cutting down on traffic and congestion. Using these spaces effectively and sustainably is as important as any other major policy issue and since regular commercial endeavors are largely pursuing profit, it falls to conscientious developers and government agencies to try to innovate new initiatives.

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston is a 2014 MPP candidate at the School for Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor of Humanities, and a Master of Arts in Literature from Carleton University. His writings have been published in the Ottawa XPress, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail and The Awl. His policy interests are arts, culture and municipal affairs

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