Five Good Ideas
Five Good Ideas about building stronger and more resilient cities
Published on 02/10/2018
Across Canada, cities are at the forefront in dealing with today’s complex issues such as income disparity, affordable housing, mental health, and reconciliation. Newer urban challenges, such as extreme weather events due to climate change and the growing digital divide pose further threats to the social, economic, and physical fabric of our urban communities. None of these challenges have easy solutions. No single actor or level of government can address any of these problems on its own. In this special Five Good Ideas session, held at the Tamarack’s Community Change Festival, a panel of city builders talked about how we can work together to address these challenges. They presented five good ideas how we can engage with one another and build stronger and more resilient cities. They looked at new ways to engage the community, find innovation in unlikely places (and with unlikely people), and attract and grow a new kind of leadership.
Five Good Ideas
- Think about cities as “scales of urban resilience”
- Incorporate the experience of those facing barriers into our work on cities
- Engage with unlikely partners and allies
- Take advantage of the new opportunities and do not replicate old blind spots and biases
- Create more spaces for engaging with each other and build on each other’s work
Full session transcript
[Selena]: Thanks Markus for that introduction.
I’m going to start us out, thanks for having us here. We are here to talk about cities and urban resilience today. And I wanted to introduce the topic by telling you about a piece of art that changed the way that I look at and think about cities. Because I believe that what good art does is it pushes us to expand the realm of the possible; it challenges us to question the things that we take for granted — the compartments we use to organize our world — and it pushes us to stare, to listen, to think, to pull apart our life and our ways of life at the centre and in the margins.
So, a few years ago, the South African artist William Kentridge took over a stretch of the stone embankment along the Tiber river in Rome. It’s a pretty well-trafficked area of the city with a pedestrian and cycle path on either side of the river. And on those walls, he created a large-scale procession of eighty figures, stretching half a kilometre, three storeys high.
These figures represent important moments, real and fictional, big and small, which together narrate a story about the city across time. A bust of Cicero, the widows of Roman soldiers, Remo killed by Romolo, the firefighters after the bombing of the city in World War II, the refugees in Lampedusa. The piece is called Triumphs and Laments because every urban triumph comes at the cost of someone else’s lament. Power survives through the act of storytelling, through the process of history making, which is often not objective, not accidental.
Kentridge imagines these figures taking a stroll along the river together — what the Italians call a Passeggiata. What would they say to each other, to us? Let’s take a Passeggiata through our own cities. If our cities could speak, what would they say about us, their transient inhabitants? Well, a walk through our cities is, in some ways, a walk through the past. In Canada, our cities are bound by a structure of government, written into the Constitution and the process of Confederation. Those decisions made at a time when over 80 per cent of Canadians lived on farms, have profound and continued impacts now, 150 odd years later, when, over 80 per cent of us live in cities.
Today, our cities are at the forefront of addressing a lot of the intractable challenges of our time, yet, despite being a dominant political entity in this country, some have argued that our cities are facing 21st century challenges with 19th century tools. As Markus mentioned, the recent conversation about the number of wards in Toronto is one expression of that question. To what extent do our cities have the ability to control their own destinies; and to what extent should they?
A walk through our cities is also a walk through the future. Here in Toronto, we currently have more development happening than anywhere in North America. If you count the number of cranes in the sky, we have more development happening than New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles combined. And when we see these new buildings go up, of which there are so many in this city, we see visions of the future rendered on the hoarding around the construction sites. And you wonder, in those visions of the future, in our respective and collective visions of the future, whose lenses will refract our stories? Whose stories will be told at all? Whose triumphs, whose laments?
But of course a walk through our cities is also a personal journey. Simone Weil wrote, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” To be rooted. Our lives, our work, it’s often about growing these roots for ourselves and stretching them out towards each other. So close your eyes, imagine for yourself, what those roots look like, what does your vision of urban resilience look like?
Do you see a physical expression of belonging? The streets and sidewalks we share with each other, our public parks and squares, the places that we gather as community in sanctioned and unsanctioned ways. Do you see the icons of your city? If you’re a Torontonian, the CN Tower, maybe. Or your own skyline. Or do you imagine the city in its aerial form? Its borders and boundaries, drawn and redrawn over time, yet so recognizable that if you were to lift those lines off the page, and put them on a key chain, you would know — that’s my city.
Do you see your neighbourhood? Do you see the neighbourhoods you work in? Do you see people, or do you not see anything at all? Do you just feel?
Let me tell you about what I see, when I think about urban resilience. I close my eyes and I see, Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence, Italy. Now I’m not Italian, obviously, and I’ve only been there once, but when I saw it in person a few years ago, it was one of the most moving moments of my life. And it’s not because of the building. It’s not because of a trip. It’s because of a Puzz 3D that I had when I was a little girl.
Remember Puzz 3D? They were these three dimensional jigsaw puzzles of architectural masterpieces. See, when I was a little girl, my family — new immigrants — we moved around a lot. Over the course of my childhood, we lived in so many different parts of Scarborough, in North York, and we generally rented one room in someone else’s house, so there wasn’t a lot of space for us, and there wasn’t a lot of space for toys. So, this was my one toy and it was a good one because Puzz 3Ds aren’t small, and whatever place I was building and taking apart, and rebuilding — this gorgeous little thing — I could claim as my own.
Now at the time, you couldn’t Google things. I didn’t know the name of this building. I didn’t know, really, the city it was in. But I would sit there, day after day, and I would imagine a city all around it. And I would imagine myself and my family and my friends and their families inside this beautiful building. And inside this building, there were a lot of things that we didn’t understand, that didn’t have to exist.
Inside that building, above all, we weren’t scared. We weren’t scared of the things we didn’t understand about what it means to be poor. There wasn’t mental illness or violence outside or inside our homes; our parents had good, stable jobs. We didn’t have to watch the way that other people look at them in the world. The way that other people treat them in the world. We didn’t have to watch them get stripped of their worth in small ways and in big ways, every day.
For a kid, resilience is about your circumstances, but not really. In other ways, resilience is really about what’s around you. It’s about that feeling of safety. About not having to worry about the next thing around the corner because there are people to turn to. There are places to go that will help you, unconditionally; that see you, not for your circumstances, but for what you could do, for what you could be, for what you can do, for who you are.
What we were so used to seeing, were the adults around us just breaking one by one because those supports didn’t exist and we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t know what to do, other than to just make do. And so, even though I couldn’t put it into words, I was always afraid of that moment in my life when I would break too.
In this room, in rooms like this one, we gather to talk about how to build inclusion and resilience into our cities today and tomorrow. If our cities could speak, what would they say about us, their transient inhabitants?
Our cities are a reflection of a collective conversation that began long before us, and which will continue beyond the span of our lives — a conversation about who we are, about what we value, and about the lives that we wish to live and to give to each other.
Our cities are a conglomeration of public spaces, but they’re also deeply personal. Imbued with memory and with identity. And of course our cities are something that we build together with people we will meet and people we will never meet.
Think about that Florence cathedral. The real building was started in 1296. It took 140 years to finish; in fact, if you take the exterior decoration into account, it wasn’t actually completed until 1887.
Imagine that — generation after generation after generation of labourers, the literal city builders. Each working on a single piece of a whole, each contributing just something that they might not be around to experience, that they might not be able to see completed with their own eyes, but which they could imagine their children and their grandchildren and all those future communities sitting inside, living out their lives, imagining their own futures, and feeling safe and resilient.
If our cities could speak, what would you want them to say about us?
What I want to do now is introduce my accomplished peers and then pass it over to them for their ideas.
I understand you have their bios in your package, but, very briefly — Xavier Mclaughlin, to my right, is an entrepreneur and Programs Manager at the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. He has worked for over 10 years in our priority neighbourhoods and neighbourhood improvement areas, to create sustainable opportunities for youth facing multiple barriers.
Jamie Stuckless, to his right, is the Executive Director of the Share the Road Cycling Coalition, a preventional advocacy organization working to make Ontario a safer place for those who bike.
And Zahra Ebrahim on the end is a public interest designer who, for over a decade, has built and led organizations that work across sectors to co-design toward better social outcomes. Most recently, she built and ran Canada’s first corporate participatory design firm, Doblin.
So please welcome with me, Xavier, Jamie, and Zahra.
So we have five good ideas to share. I’ve kicked us off with a pretty broad one. Xavier, I’m going to turn to you first. What do you have for us and for the room?
[Xavier]: I’d like to preface what I’m going to say by stating the obvious. Well, one might not be obvious — I’m young, still. And the second one is that I’m a black male. So that does colour a lot of my views, my opinions, and my values towards city developments and city-building. So a lot of what I’m speaking from comes from not only personal experience, but also those I come across.
I will start by saying that at first I wanted to talk about building for the losers, or building for the lost. I think that I use shocking language sometimes by saying losers or saying lost because I want to be able to grab attention for what I’m speaking about. But, as I thought about it a little more, it goes deeper than just building for the lost or building for the losers.
I think it really comes down to moving the margins and being conscious about how we’re moving those margins. And also about macro solutions from micro inclusion. A lot of times, we look at organizations that are helping individuals, but ultimately they’re serving macro goals too. So how do we make macro changes that help to really include those on a micro level as well.
So, I will start by saying that there’s three ways that I think cities can actually help to do some of this work and actually plan or build it for those who are lost or those who are losing in today’s society. One of those ways is by being a matchmaker. Another one of those ways is by being a driver. And another one of those ways is by being an anchor.
When I talk about matchmaking, what I’m more speaking about are things like policies, investment, and also tech inclusion. So when we talk about policies, from a personal experience level, I look at Internal Community Benefits Network, which was able to secure a specific percentage of work for members of the community within Toronto for construction projects that are being done. That’s monumental for us and that’s something that really helps to drive economic indicators for folks as well. But that also comes from the city being a matchmaker and helping to create goals.
There’s also a report that we’ve recently done at CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals with one of the young ladies in the room — I saw her earlier, Dusha — that spoke about some of the work that other organizations are doing to help folks in a community who are sometimes furthest from the margins, especially when it comes to employment, to get actually involved in career building pathways as well too.
When I speak about investment, I think about things like the Poverty Reduction Fund and the different work that poverty reduction is helping to do across the city. And also, even some ideas around small business and small business supports as well. And how, as a city, we can invest in small business to create more opportunities for folks as well.
And then, as regards tech inclusion, just really understanding how, like you said before, we’re using 19th century ideas and solutions around 21st century problems and we do have technology available to us, it’s just about finding ways to incorporate it into what we’re doing.
When I talk about a driver in inclusion — and I’ll only take up two more minutes because I don’t want to talk too long. When I talk about a driver in inclusion, I am speaking about space in terms of housing and child care, which are two of the issues that really keep people furthest from the margins. We see that in a lot of our work at CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals.
When we talk about social inclusion, we talk about some very simple things sometimes. We’re talking about parks, markets, even very very cool things like Nuit Blanche which happened this past weekend, which you saw a great mass of the diversity of the city, as well, all coming out to enjoy art. And then economic inclusion, so those who are marginalized with some of the things that I stated above as well.
And lastly, just by being an anchor and providing ongoing support. So, a little lesson of the pilot projects — we’ve failed fast in a lot of ways but we’ve learned as well. So now anchoring some of those learnings and making them best practices that push forward all of the work that we’re doing. So a lot of what I’m saying comes from, also, the idea of winner and loser countries. It’s something that you can look up as well. And how we actually plan for those who we know might not be able to actually engage in society as much.
So those are my ideas, or not my ideas — taken from other places or conglomerated all together, but it’s part of what I think can help to move our city forward as well.
[Selena]: Wonderful, thank you.
Xavier, maybe I will ask you a follow-up question and then we’ll see if there’s any quick thoughts from the rest of the panelists on your ideas. So in your work with CEE and working with a lot of marginalized youth and user populations, consultation seems to be almost a matter of course in terms of how we do our work. What do you think we’re doing wrong right now about the way that we consult with community and work with community?
[Xavier]: One of the things that we’re doing at CEE is really trying to solidify our outreach strategy. So the work that we do, we work with black youth between the ages of 18 to 29 who are facing multiple barriers. That’s how we target them. How they target us, is by the industry-specific career opportunity that we have for them.
So what we notice is that folks who gravitate towards certain industries also display in a very different way and some of those things are about their resilience and that nature. So some of the things we use are empathy mapping tools, needs assessments, to really understand who it is we’re actually looking at a little bit more.
Another one of the things that we do is actually try to go out into community and speak with members from community. A lot of the solutions, though, around communicating with community, take time. When you look at any solution, you have to look at the pros and the cons to that solution. So that will take time on the front end. I do think it actually yields a lot of benefits on the back end and provides a lot more sustainability on the back end.
So I think a lot more consultation with community, and also informed consultation at the different levels of community, so there’s different levels of informed community members — those with ground truths, those with the theoretical level of knowledge — and I think we need to find a better way to match those two.
And I think technology can help with a lot of that. I’m not sure how many social campaigns I’m seeing on social media, even though we call it social media. I’m not sure how many things we’re seeing actually reaching where people are congregating themselves. So if we’re able to do that a little bit more, I think we’d have better informed decisions that we’re making.
[Selena]: Great, any quick thoughts from Zahra or Jamie before we move on?
[Zahra]: Just a couple of things in response to your question about consultation, which is my favourite topic to wonk out about, so I’ll try and be short.
The thing I think we’re doing wrong is we’re not challenging existing wisdom. There are all these baseline assumptions around how we engage people — like we engage people when there’s a project to reflect on. That’s an orthodoxy. We should be engaging people all the time and being proactive about what we want in communities, and creating — yes, I saw asset mapping on the tables — but not just at the moment of intervention where there’s a project or service or program, but an ongoing ritual and habit around building a collective intelligence around what we need from neighbourhoods and communities. So not reactive intelligence, but proactive intelligence.
And if you think about the unchallenged wisdom, which we call orthodoxies, the things that are not actually rules, that we just accept and do when we’re consulting. So, for instance, the idea that we’ve convened people for, is always presented first. I don’t really understand why that is. Consultations are three hours. I don’t get why that is, either. Why three hours for everything? Everything is three hours! Where did that come from?
So I’ll leave you to just ideate on that word, orthodoxies. And just to find them, what I would say is, when someone says, “Well, that’s just the way we do things,” the thing they said before was the orthodoxy. So just think about that as you’re having conversations today.
The other thing I would say is I really loved your point around we need to really understand people and that takes time. It reminded me of a story, where we were doing some research on community and trust. You know, really big themes, with a bunch of different people who were just at the edge of the poverty line in Toronto.
We do design research, and so we went in this woman’s home for three hours, after texting with her all week doing remote research. And she was a grad student, she was just around 30 years old and making around maybe, $27,500. And she’s like, “I’m new to the city, I don’t have community.”
We had been talking or engaging her for over a week and now we’re in her home having this conversation and I can’t seem to elicit a good dialogue and at one point, I look up, and I stare around her house and it’s covered in masking tape, with something I can’t understand written on the masking tape. And I was like, “So what’s that, what’s the deal with all of that?” And she’s like, “Oh, it’s Hebrew. Oh my God, I’m part of a community. I joined the campus synagogue when I came to do my master’s degree and that’s my community.” And she started talking about being part of a synagogue.
And I think it’s so interesting to me because we ask people what makes you feel belonging, what makes you feel community, but we don’t immerse ourselves in people’s lives. She would have never known to tell me about her campus synagogue, had I not been just hanging out with her, and having good conversation in her environment.
So we ended up talking for two hours about the signals of community within this campus synagogue, and using that to build a program and service that we were trying to get to. But you have to sort of think of these adjacencies, and you can only do that when you’re not just doing direct questioning and a consultation.
[Selena]: Really interesting. So Jamie, I’m going to move on to you next for a quick response and then over to your big idea.
[Jamie]: That’s a great point, about examining the ways that we do consultation.
But Xavier, I really liked the way that you framed the idea of anchoring and the role that our cities can play, especially in helping organizations like ours move beyond pilot projects. We have the good fortune of working across Ontario, so we see city after city piloting the same project and testing the same ideas, one after the other, because it’s often so much more accessible to get funding for a pilot project.
But then, three years later, none of those cities have that project moving forward. But in so many cases, we know what works, so what can we do to actually help fund and keep that ongoing, even if it’s not as exciting?
[Xavier]: I’ll go with a quick response. I think there is some support that we can utilize, not only from government, but again, from matchmaking and also through corporate as well. Because they do play a huge role in how cities economically function. I think one of the things that we do a lot is we rely on things like land transfer tax, which I think contributes like seven per cent of our budget. So those are things that I think we could do a little bit better, in terms of engaging corporations and also looking at the structures that we put around, even our taxing structures.
[Selena]: I think that’s the perfect segue to your big idea, about unlikely partnerships.
[Jamie]: Great, thank you.
My idea is around finding opportunities to work with unlikely partners, and kind of an example of how we’re doing that specifically in our work, at the Share the Road Cycling Coalition.
I have to say that my job is actually pretty incredible. I spend my days advocating for bicycling in Ontario. And I don’t do this out of a particular love of bikes. I actually don’t care at all about bike maintenance and I don’t collect lovely bikes.
What I do care about is livable, vibrant communities. And that first time I hopped on a bike, I really experienced my community in a completely different way than I was all the years that I was just driving around it. And so, I think that bikes and making it easier for people to choose cycling can really help us build more resilient communities.
Allowing people to cycle around their community can really create local connections to the environment and to businesses. It can build more affordable communities that people can move around in a way that is actually accessible. It can change the accessibility of your community, of your school, of your job, particularly for youth and people who don’t have drivers’ licenses. And I think, at the end of the day, there’s also something really special to be said about moving through your community at a human speed, as opposed to through a car. You just really see it differently.
So, we’re working on cycling for community resilience, as well as for people who love bike maintenance and collecting fancy bikes. But it’s not just me that’s really excited about cycling. We recently did a provincial poll of everyone in Ontario, and we found that 32 per cent of residents want to ride their bikes for their everyday mode of transportation to work. And 74 per cent of residents want to ride their bike more for recreation.
So there’s demand; this should be easy, right? We also know that 63 per cent of residents think that getting more people on bikes actually benefits the whole community and not only the people who cycle. So this demand and this sense that cycling is great, let’s do this.
But unfortunately, when we go out there, I don’t think we actually see 32 per cent of residents riding their bikes. So why is this happening?
It’s because people don’t feel safe. And they largely don’t feel safe riding their bike in municipalities because we don’t provide space for them to be on the roads. Our roads are still dominated by cars and there is a noticeable opposition to changing our roads and maybe taking some of that space and shifting it from people in cars to people on bikes.
I think it would be very easy for the cycling community then to see the driving community as our enemies. And certainly there’s some people trying to frame the debate that way. You’ve probably all heard of the War on the Car, or Bikes vs Cars, and actually this summer, there was unfortunately a front page story in the Toronto Star about the apparent bike war in Collingwood, just north of Toronto.
But these narratives are so needlessly divisive because what we actually know is people who bike, drive, and people who drive, bike. We’re actually all the same people and we’re just trying to get home safely at the end of the day without conflict.
And the other interesting thing that we’ve started hearing from people who drive is, they don’t actually hate cyclists, they’re scared that they’re going to hit one. And they’re scared because we’re building our communities in a way that the bike lane ends or we’re expecting people who walk, bike, and drive to share the same space at vastly different speeds. So we’re creating this environment for failure and we’re not creating resilient streets that accommodate everyone or account for mistakes that might be made.
So all of this to segue into the idea that, luckily for us, there’s actually another organization out there that feels the same way about this as us, and it’s the Canadian Automobile Association. So one of the most important conversations that our organization has ever had, was with the CAA. You might think that in a bikes versus cars environment, this would be a very contentious lunch, that we would spit hate at each other and then storm away. And that’s actually the opposite of what happened.
I think it’s been about eight years now, that the CAA has been the longest standing partner of our organization. And not only are they the lead funder of our Bicycle Friendly Communities program, they’re also a really important and unlikely advocacy partner. Because when elected officials hear about the importance of cycling from the CAA, they hear it differently. And when residents and drivers hear information about the one-metre safe passing law, or leaving room for bikes, and they hear that from the CAA, they hear that differently.
And the involvement of the CAA has also helped us to bring other unexpected voices to the conversation, like the trucking companies and trucking associations. And I’d also say it’s broadened the scope of our cycling work, to be more broadly about road safety in general.
I think I’d also have to pause to say — of course we don’t agree on everything with the CAA. And they don’t agree with us on everything. But I think the most important factor here is that the door is open for a conversation, and it’s open between two organizations that have a relationship of mutual respect. So it’s a much more productive conversation and I think, in the long run, that what’s really helping us make change, is being able to have those conversations about trade-offs and what’s important to us as a society.
Interestingly, the CAA, separate from us, also runs some really cool bike programs. If you’re a CAA member and your bike breaks down, you can actually call them and they will come with their tow truck and tow you home. So that’s a very cool feature.
We’ve also worked with them on education campaigns about dooring. And earlier this summer, the national CAA office released a report about eight things that communities could do to reduce traffic congestion. You might expect from the CAA that it would be build more roads and build more highways. But actually, their first point was build more space for people on bikes to help get our communities moving. And that’s really exciting and that has impact and they’re sharing that message with rooms that we’re not necessarily in. They’re opening that door for cycling and conversations that maybe the Share the Road Cycling Coalition wasn’t initially invited to, but now we are.
And so I’d close by saying that I think in the same way that I think bikes help build more resilient communities, partnering with the CAA has built a more resilient cycling conversation. There’s more voices at the table and that’s always helpful, especially when there’s new stakeholders, complex conversations, or something like new governments. We have a lot more stakeholders to rely on and go into the room with us to talk about why cycling matters for community and not just the people who ride bikes.
Because it’s not just about bikes. This is about moving people and it really doesn’t matter to me, if you want to drive or take transit or walk, that’s fantastic. I want you to be able to do that. I want people to move around their communities in a way that works for them. The fundamental principle that I wake up every morning thinking about is — there’s also people who want to cycle and we want to help make that possible.
We’re doing that slower than I would want to but I hope more effectively because we’re working with unlikely partners like the CAA. And as the introduction to this session says, there’s no single actor who can tackle this all on their own, and working with groups like CAA makes me really glad that we’re not trying to do it alone, so thanks.
[Selena]: What a great example of partnership, and I am interested to hear you elaborate a little bit. You talked about common interest but also things that you don’t have in common and getting past those things. So when you are partnering with unlikely allies, even when you have common interests, what are those ways that you get past those things that you disagree about fundamentally?
[Jamie]: That’s a really great question and I think the number one answer is just communication and being really open and clear and I don’t think that we approach our relationship in a way that we all have to agree on and sign on to every single policy initiative of each organization, but just providing that communication and upfront information about anything that we want to do that might conflict.
I think if we look at some of the ways that we agree, we want to move people and get people home safely and we know from studies from across North America that you can move more bikes in a metre of road than you can cars. So if we’re about moving people and getting them home safely, then having a space for bikes and cars helps everybody.
I really think there’s other things like when you might want to push for a law that prioritizes cycling, so something like the Idaho stop that people may have heard of where bicyclists legally don’t have to stop at stop signs. That’s something that is a bit conflictual, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not talking about it and it’s kind of a years-long conversation looking at research, having that conversation; not necessarily having that conversation in public or in the media, and attacking the opposition in the media, but having that conversation behind the scenes.
And hopefully, when we do come out, and talk about it, we’re on the same page because we’ve given each other that space to consider each other’s differences. And maybe at the end of the day we have a different opinion, but if you’ve built a strong relationship it doesn’t mean the relationship’s over because you disagree on one point.
[Selena]: I turn to the other panelist to see if you have any responses and also maybe just a broader question for the panel. A really interesting example of a case where collaboration works. Are there circumstances in which collaboration is not what’s called for? Or might weaken the impact of your work? And how do you tell the difference between those two kinds of circumstances? I’ll turn it over to you guys.
[Zahra]: Your five minutes were just so evocative for me and my page is just covered. Because I remember. So I worked in neighbourhoods and communities for 10 years doing co-design work and then I decided to go to the private sector. And I remember hearing language like sellout. I remember hearing all of that rhetoric. And I was going to run a participatory design firm, which I found so ironic.
And the thing that frustrates me the most when I’m in neighbourhoods or communities is when we call organizations we don’t understand, “they.” That we say, “Oh, they – ”
And I get very excited about sitting down with organizations I have a list of assumptions about and try and understand their agenda. I spent a lot of time in the last three years with banks and banks are full of people, and those people want — most of those people — they want Canadians to be wealthier. And each person within that organization has a different degree of control and a different degree of power.
But every day, most people who work there, whether they work on the front line as a teller, trying to support their families, or they work in the head office, are going to try to think about prosperity. Now it doesn’t always show up that way and they don’t always know the way to get there, but by golly do we ever have those skills.
So if we can sit down and say “Hey, if your goal is prosperity, you might be going about it in a way that’s different from how we would do it.” And so being deeply curious about those whose agendas seem very far departed from you has been incredibly successful and I could share like 20 examples of where we started to find alignment between massive institutions that we thought were the “they,” that they were the counter-narrative to what we were trying to do. And really they’re just trying to make Canadians wealthier and didn’t really know how and didn’t have great changemakers within their midst to say, “Here’s how you deeply reach people to understand what prosperity means for them.”
So you just made me think of the “they.” And we do it so often. You’ll hear it today, and just catch yourself if you hear it because I think it doesn’t serve us to create the monolith. Not to say that all these places shouldn’t be challenged. But I think being deeply curious and leading with curiosity is a behaviour we want to model for some of these institutions.
[Selena]: Great, anyone else?
[Xavier]: I do wonder a little bit around power dynamics and how you manage power dynamics potentially dealing with CAA. I mean, not as probably recognized throughout the room, and then managing an organization that has to work with CAA.
Also, to that end, it seems in a lot of ways like there’s some parallels between what’s happening with bikes, which to me would almost be like a middling form of transportation, and also the different tiers of society. So upper, middle, and lower in terms of class structures. So do you see any parallels with what’s happening there with bikes and also what potentially is happening with folks in society as well?
[Jamie]: I’ll touch on your last point first, because it was actually kind of the crux of the Toronto Star article. It wasn’t even about the bicyclist on the front page who was getting arrested. The article was about class warfare and how cycling was representative of that in Collingwood. And that people were feeling like it was a lot of very wealthy people from Toronto coming up for the weekend to bike in Collingwood and disobey all of the laws and just wreak havoc on the local community.
To a certain degree, there is a demographic of very wealthy people who ride bikes on the weekend, but it was also digging into the stats and the information and looking that Collingwood actually has one of the highest modal splits, so the most percentage of their population cycling to work in Ontario. So it shouldn’t just be a story that, on a Saturday, this group of people come to our community and ride bikes and that’s divisive.
But they’re coming because you’ve built such a great community for cycling. Because your residents are biking to work and they’re biking to school and they’re doing it more than other communities are. So it was kind of, I think, bicycling, it can be representative of some of those conversations and a lot of what you were talking about, and that is reflected in the way that cycling can be divisive as well. And even within the cycling community there’s divisions between people who ride to work every day and only do two kilometres and people that think that anything less than 100 kilometres is not a bike trip.
But then your other point about power dynamics I think is a really important one and it’s something that we’re very aware of and I would say it also made me think of what you were saying — organizations are full of people. And that’s how we work with the CAA — it’s full of people who are actually really progressive and ride bikes themselves and want to be part of this change. And I think a lot of the power dynamic is managed between the two of us that manage that relationship.
I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t, sometimes, a challenging power dynamic with an organization in any funder, right? But I think it’s just about that relationship and it’s been eight years of relationship building between the two organizations and five years of relationship building between me and the woman who’s on the other side. So it’s really just kind of communication and seeing each other as people, not as these monolith — well, we’re not a monolith, but — monolith organizations with these mandates. No, we’re a collection of people. How can we work together and internally influence also what we’re doing.
[Selena]: Zahra, I turn to you next. Give us your idea.
[Zahra]: Okay, well, I’m just going to rewrite my talk right now because I’m so inspired by my fellow panelists. In the spirit of what Xavier was saying earlier.
A disclaimer I should put out to this group is that I’m selectively patient. Is anyone else selectively patient? Hands up if you’re selectively patient. Like, only patient sometimes. Okay actually put your hands down. Hands up if you’re patient all the time. Okay, so my people in the room.
So I give you that because I’ve noticed myself becoming more impatient in the spaces, the neighbourhoods, the communities that I work with only because I think we are doing ourselves a great disservice in that we’re not getting specific. I did a quick highlight of the sheet that’s on your table so everyone has one in front of them. There’s a few terms that I think we could serve to unpack a little bit. Those terms are — complex, affordable, reconciliation, city builder, engage, innovation, resilience, barriers, allies, blind spots, biases. And then I wrote engaging again! Double emphasis on engaging.
I’ve worked in every sector now. Public, private, charitable, and the philanthropic sector and I’m sure there’s lots of others, but those four. And one of the things I notice is that we make strides towards great things. We see examples of making the future, the past, by these programs being realized in the world. And why they don’t endure is because when they go to be scaled, we don’t all share the same language.
So in leading up to this election, the municipal election in Toronto, a friend of mine and I kept getting asked questions because we’re sort of engaged in the city in a variety of different ways. We kept getting asked questions about the election that people were too embarrassed to ask other people.
So we started a series called Where Do We Start? And the whole idea was that every single week Torontonians from anywhere could show up at the Gladstone Hotel on the west end of Toronto. And on a topic, so like municipal finance and transit and active transportation, whatever that means, people could ask the questions that they thought were dumb or embarrassing in order to better engage in the municipal election.
Now the questions we got were not like, “Tell me more about Keesmaat’s public safety platform.” “Tell me more about John Tory’s SmartTrack.” People were like, “What’s an LRT?” Anyone here want to describe an LRT? Anyone willing to put their hand up to say they don’t fully understand the difference between an LRT and a streetcar?
A young person put this question forward recently — “All my friends are really mad at John Tory, and I just kind of stand there and I’m like, ‘Yeah, me too, I’m mad too.’ I don’t know what I’m mad about though.”
I think we do ourselves a disservice by not getting specific. So an example I hear, constantly, is how do we inspire a sense of belonging, ownership, and stewardship in neighbourhoods of policies and infrastructure and programs so that we can start to share power? Recently, our organization did a piece of research for Sidewalk Labs. Speaking of monolith, right? If you don’t know who they are, they’re owned by Alphabet and they’re developing a major site on Toronto’s waterfront. And there’s a coalition of great people in the city trying to make sure that we get some things right.
So one of the things we pushed back on them about was the idea of belonging. They keep talking about belonging, belonging, belonging on this site. And so we did a piece of design research not unlike what I shared in my earlier response. And we talked to Torontonians who were geographically disenfranchised from accessing the waterfront. So to get to the waterfront, it took them a long time and it cost them a lot of money, you name it.
We went to wards all over the city and we talked to 40 people, and we spent a lot of time with each of those 40 people. And what was really interesting — because we were talking about the public realm design on the Quayside site, which is a site that they were developing — was that in every group, every single demographic, the public space where people felt the most belonging was parking lot.
Right? Hands up if you’ve hung out in a parking lot before, at some point in your life. Yeah, a lot — well, not that many here. But in a lot of groups.
So you see that as a teenager, you hang out inside the 7-Eleven. A woman who is 34 years old and bought a home at Danforth and Greenwood. She’s a middle-income Torontonian, has a partner. She went to HomeSense to furnish her home. And when she was done she was starving. Her cousin lives across the street and he brought her a snack and they hung out in the parking lot for an hour. And so the profiles of the kinds of people who find a sense of belonging in a parking lot is really diverse and interesting.
Instead of going to great precedents, like great public spaces, why don’t we go talk to people and ask them — what is the place that you feel like no one governs and you can just hang out and do whatever you want, whenever you want? Now I’m not saying that we should build more parking lots, I’m saying that we should learn from the signals in parking lots that are indicating to people that I belong and this is a space where someone can’t kick me out.
So if you talk to a lot of kids who are in a variety of different neighbourhoods. I remember working with kids with addiction who were saying that their day is broken into 20-minute increments of when they get kicked out of the different buildings across the financial district. I got 20 minutes in this building, I got 20 minutes in this building, and 20 minutes in this building.
Recently I’ve been getting asked a lot about smart cities and I’m like, “I’m not a smart cities person, I’m just a cities person.” But the question I’ve been asking is how are we making our cities smarter? And if you — this is not a plug to follow me on Twitter, but — if you want to, there’s a great thread on my Twitter from last week when I was doing a panel on smart cities and I asked people to say what is a smart city and only one person responded with a technological response. Everyone’s like, it’s the opportunity for us to resolve some of the big, human problems in our city that we haven’t been able to solve, and engage new allies and partners.
And so I really, strongly believe that things like a smart city, if we can get really specific about what smart means, then we can say a smarter city takes care of citizens, responds to citizens, brings them together to collaborate. A smart city does all of these things to advance intractable problems because it’s intelligent and it can sense a problem and bring the right people together to solve it. And so I just think that the lack of specificity in our discourse, as social changemakers, is going to harm only us because people don’t understand what we’re talking about.
I’ll wrap up my comments by just sharing one more story which is — I think we use the word affordable a lot. Affordable housing, affordable transit, affordable everything. Now we all come from a variety of different contexts, so if you all took a minute and closed your eyes and thought about affordable housing. Like, put a number in your head. What would affordable be for you? I imagine we’d have a pretty broad range just in this room.
So why don’t we get the galvanizing groups that are advocating for specific elements of policy platforms that we all can rally behind, but we don’t really push for or fight for? It’s because we all have a different number in our head. And I just think – things like that.
So today, my ask to my fellow panelists. When I’m usually giving a talk or hosting a workshop, people get squeaky chickens. Every time someone says something you don’t understand you squeak the chicken so that we make sure that we’re having a conversation that everyone understands. Let’s elevate our baseline and model the behaviour we want to see by saying, “If you show up at the table, we are going to work in the spirit of reciprocity. As a thank you for your time, we are going to give you an education on what your community believes, this terminology, this language, to be, so that you can operate and change from a shared platform.” Not from disparate, polar ends which, often we don’t even know we exist on. So I would put that out as an idea to think about.
[Selena]: Great, a lot to think about in terms of how to get to that specificity.
I wonder, given that you are the queen of designing these participatory processes. In the process of getting to that specificity, what, to you, are the hallmarks of that participatory process? Or a process in which you know that you’re getting at that specificity that you’re referring to?
[Zahra]: I think we talk a lot about reaching. We talk a lot about who’s not at the table, but you probably heard that already yesterday. You’ll probably hear it today. And I think that is because people are not at the table because we’re not where they are, right? And this is a rhetoric you’ve heard all the time.
Now, when you say get to where people are, I don’t mean just go to their neighbourhoods and host a consultation. I mean let them text a response to you in the middle of their day when they’re like, “Oh, I was reading this thing about transportation. This is exactly the thing I was thinking about.”
The kind of practice that I use is called human-centred design. Some of you might be familiar with it. I know Tamarack has published a bunch of stuff about it and you should read it and ask me questions if you have any. But the premise is — understand people’s entire lived experience, not just the moment you want to engage with them. Understand that and engage them in the way that is fair to them, to set them up for success.
Sometimes you just have to ask people a question and say, “Whenever you’re ready, send us a text.” So a lot of my research is done over WhatsApp. With community members we get all sorts of consent, so if you want to ask specific questions about that I’m happy to share.
But I think it’s so interesting. I remember when we were doing this research on belonging. This one young gentleman who is 18 years old, lives at Jane and Finch. In the middle of the day we got a text message and it was a picture of a chair at a mall. And we were like, “So David, what’s that about?” That’s not his real name. “What’s that about?”
And he said, “Well, there’s not a lot of great public spaces in my neighbourhood that I feel safe in. And so I take my book and I go to this mall and there’s a chair, I don’t know why, but it’s across from the Cinnabon and it smells really, really good. So I read my book there.”
And I don’t know how I could have elicited that out. He didn’t even think that was a public space. He didn’t think that was where he belonged, it was just a place he really liked. And in the middle of the day, he sent us this text message. And that’s all we really needed because then we could prompt a later conversation with him to unpack it in more detail.
I really like the idea of — in people’s lives, let them elect into when they want to tell you information that’s related, that they find related, even if it doesn’t use the language, even if it doesn’t use the right framework or is not contained in a 20-minute exercise. Let them tell you and then use that to prompt a deeper conversation. And some of the most successful organizations, I think, that elicit that ongoing stewardship, are modeling that behavior. One minute can be more powerful than three hours.
[Selena]: I’m cognizant of the time. We’ve given you four ideas and we have to give you our fifth group idea. So maybe I will pose the question for the panel, for the fifth group idea, and then you guys can either respond to Zahra’s great comments or give us some thoughts on that idea.
Our fifth idea is picking up on this question of the parking lot; it’s picking up on that question of the bench. As much as we may think and feel sometimes in our individual spaces that we’re going about these things alone, there’s a lot of collective energy pushing forward on some of these topics, on some of these energies. And so the question I pose to the panel for the fifth idea is — what are those spaces in the city, physically, digitally, mentally, that we can engage with each other, build on each other’s ideas, learn from each other, challenge each other?
[Jamie]: Can I say that a great place to do that would be a bike lane? To meet the other people out walking and cycling and being around people instead of ensconced in a vehicle where you’re not engaging? But I will think more about that, after this initial response.
[Xavier]: I find it very difficult to answer this question and you probably know why. I can say that this was a question that we talked about in our conversation before we actually came to do this panel. And I think the question was posed from a place of, not frustration, but just wanting to understand.
I’m hearing a lot about language. Sometimes language is a space that’s not inclusive. I think about the multiple organizations, grassroots, that are not being funded by any fund or anything like that but just being funded by someone’s passion. I started one of them over nine years ago now.
And one of the spaces for those organizations, and if you don’t have integral knowledge about permits or things like that. Are you actually going to be able to even get your idea off the ground and be able to service those members of community that you want to service or who are asking you specifically for these things and you can’t do it?
So where are those spaces? If I were to give you a typical not-for-profit answer, I would say CSI, I would say Toronto public libraries, I would say all these structured spaces. You talked about the parking lot. Love the parking lot. There’s a great Jay-Z song about it too, it’s not that great. But why the parking lot? And it was mentioned before around a conversation as well, and why I even brought up markets here.
I come from Jamaica originally. I see how important it is to have spaces that aren’t really governed. Protected and secured, but not so much governed. So that this way you can have the conversations that you need to have, the interactions that you need to have and people can ideate, people can shape that space. I’ve seen some cool things done in a parking lot before. I’ve seen some really cool things done in a park before. But are those spaces and what’s the accessibility to those spaces?
And I don’t want to use language that is not accessible itself, so what is our ability to actually get to those places and be in those places and have ownership over those places when we are there? I feel ownership when I pay my 20 bucks for a spot. You can’t tell me anything.
[Zahra]: Well that’s why you see the rise of things like Parking Day in San Francisco where they have a day where you can put money into a parking meter and that parking meter is yours to do whatever you want with, so you can set up a little park, you can have lunch, you can do whatever you like. You should look it up, it’s a really cool initiative. It’s now in a thousand cities.
I have two responses. One is the esoteric response and one is the tangible response, but I like to hunt clouds, so we’re going to start with the esoteric one.
I think a lot about psychological safety. I think that we do a lot of bringing people to the same table. But I think things like language, I think things like class dynamics, like, oh, we’re all at the same table but before the workshop starts nine out of 10 people are talking about going up the 400 to their cottage on the weekends because it’s a hot summer Friday. And then all of a sudden, the one person who is joining from a neighbourhood improvement area is like, “Uh, 400, me too”. Feeling like an outsider. And so I really think there’s invisible dynamics we need to investigate.
I really liked your comment — language as a place. But I think the energy of power and class dynamics that we don’t even notice can be really, really fascinating to design in.
And so, I’m often thinking about, you know, I’m someone who identifies as an introvert, even though most people don’t believe that, but I am.
[Zahra]: And a lot of leaders are, and we’re just really good at being extroverts. And so I was away at a conference the last two days and I had to really design my own psychological safety. It was with nine people. But I had to design a psychological safety framework for myself so that I could engage and provide value and I do the same thing with you folks here on the stage.
The second place I want to share that I think is really interesting is also because I’m a transit geek. This is a subway phone case of Ossington station. I really like transit because I believe the best and worst of us comes out on transit.
We fight for social justice but then someone who’s homeless tries to get on the bus and gets kicked off and we don’t all stand up and say no, just let him/her/them get on. We talk a lot about engaging the neighbours that you don’t know, but we get on transit — we were just talking about the quiet zone — with our headphones and listen to podcasts. I think it’s so fascinating.
Kofi, who used to be the Executive Director of the organization that Xavier works at. Kofi often tells the story about how a lot of people go to East Africa on volunteering trips and bring back photos of working with black children, but then won’t sit beside a black person on the subway. I really do think that transit is such a fascinating place to observe how committed we are to standing up for a stranger, for a neighbour, for whatever.
And I’m not saying that I am the expression of it all. I sometimes just sit and turn on my — well, a lot of the time I am that girl who makes eye contact with everyone, looking for a smile. But I think it’s an interesting experiment to think about how you’re creating a space where it’s representing your values and the way that you’re engaging with strangers.
[Jamie]: And just on the topic of space, something that I’m definitely going to take away from the panel and from your presentation was the idea of going to people and allowing people to text you a solution and that community engagement isn’t just going to a particular space. So I really appreciated that idea because I think that could help in our field, as well.
[Xavier]: The one thing that I want to touch on is something that you mentioned before around being specific. And also being smart. One of the workshops that we deliver to our young people at CEE is around SMART goals and understanding that SMART, when we talk about goals, is an acronym to help you to build a better goal. So SMART being Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timebound.
And when you started to mention things around city development and being smart around city development, it actually keyed me into something. And what it keyed me into was sometimes when you’re smart, and especially if you use that acronym, it becomes a little bit too much. You’re a little bit too specific and now you hold yourself to measures that others can hold you to.
One of the things that we talk about when we talk about theory of change. If you really want a change to happen and you’re really feeling like you’re at that place, have an accountability partner, tell somebody because they’re going to hold you accountable to it.
When I think about the things that I hear about, and again, this comes from the community that I come from and my biases — but when I hear things about politics and politicians and not trusting politics or trusting politicians, because they give you very moving targets and they’re not very specific about things and those type of things. I wonder if actually we’re being intentionally very smart about not doing those things and not being specific because then they would force people to hold us to some type of account.
And as regards human-centred design too. One of the things I think about, when we’re doing human-centered design — and it’s one of the things that we always talk about at CEE — is what is the room for failure? Or what is acceptable failure and how are we going to manage that failure?
We also talked about resilience before. And when I think about resilience, I think about that in terms of my own community. And one of the things that we say is, while other communities may seem to be very resilient or whatever, one of the things that isn’t accounted for is room for error. A lot of communities don’t have that room for error and so their resiliency might seem a little bit lower. How do we account for that room for error? And then add that to the ability to bounce back as well. Those are some of the things that I think about — the smart side of it and then also the resiliency side of it and how do we measure those things.
[Selena]: I guess if I were to think about spaces in the city that we convene, my mind immediately jumps to the spaces that are new, the spaces that the next generation are building that we have to be cognizant of.
I recently found out about NUMTOTS. Who’s heard about NUMTOTS before? This is a Facebook group of 120,000 teenagers and it stands for New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. And it is a group of 120,000 teenagers who post on a daily basis memes that they share with each other about Yes in My Backyard, about building transit in their cities, about making their cities a better place. And we see examples of this kind of organizing with teenagers nowadays — organizing walkouts from TDSB, protesting curriculum changes, or down in the States with March for Our Lives.
So for me it’s really important to think about what are the coming places and spaces that people are using to organize and how do we stay cognizant of those spaces. How do we adapt to those things, how do we make sure that we’re not getting left behind by those new tools, in addition to the tools that we’re currently using. So anyway, some food for thought.
What we’re going to do now is take a 15-minute break. You can grab some coffee, I think there are snacks, take a washroom break, and then we’ll come back. At your tables, please talk about the ideas that you heard this morning. Is there anything that you’d like to challenge? Anything you’d like to build upon from your lived and work experiences? There’s so much expertise in this room.
And then we’ll come back after about 15-20 minutes and just ask for some volunteers to share key thoughts from their conversations. Thanks for your attention.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamie Stuckless is the Executive Director of the Share the Road Cycling Coalition, a provincial advocacy organization working to make Ontario a safer place for people who bike. In this role, Jamie has leveraged her partnership management and group facilitation skills to maintain a network of hundreds of cycling stakeholders who regularly contribute to Share the Road’s work. Under her leadership, participation in the Ontario Bike Summit and Greg’s Ride have increased by 72% and 148% respectively,
Selena Zhang is Manager of Strategic Initiatives at United Way Greater Toronto. She was previously Manager of Programs and Research at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance and Acting Co-Lead of the National Urban Project. She has a background in public policy and international development. Before working on cities, she provided support to Ontario’s migrant farmworkers as Community Coordinator for Frontier College’s Labourer-Teacher Program, worked for the Cape Town local government on the impact of their urban agriculture policy on low-income families, and ran an international health and youth empowerment charity out of Queen’s University called Queen’s Health Outreach. In 2010, she exhibited a solo art exhibition of 17,989 portraits representing Ontario’s migrant farmworkers – drawing attention to the permanently temporary hands behind our local produce. She was one of 25 rising leaders in the GTHA named a CivicAction DiverseCity Fellow in 2017.