Five Good Ideas to build a city
Cities are the fundamental building block of contemporary society, certainly in Canada where almost 90 per cent of our population lives in a community of 5,000 or more. COVID-19 – and the various measures governments have taken to cope with it – is having a dramatic impact on the future of urban life now, and will potentially alter fundamentally how we plan, design, manage, and govern cities in the future. The non-profit sector will play an important role in this process.
In this Five Good Ideas session, Mary W. Rowe, President & CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, and the host of CityTalkCanada, presented her five good ideas for the non-profit sector to build a city, now and in the wake of a global pandemic. Mary is no stranger to how cities recover from disasters, having worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and New York City during and following Hurricane Sandy. For several years she worked closely with Maytree Chair Alan Broadbent on Ideas that Matter, a convening and publishing program focused on the core areas of Jane Jacobs’ work: cities, economies, and values. Her work continues to be focused on how cities enable self-organization, cultivate innovation, and build social, economic, environmental, and cultural resilience.
This Five Good Ideas session was organized in partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute.
Five Good Ideas
- Everything important really does start, and is, local
- Now’s the time to start sleeping with your enemies
- Lead with improvisation, experimentation, and risk-taking
- Do not assume, do not wait: Say goodbye to “Big Daddy”
- Watch, share, talk, act
- The Third Pillar by Raghuram Rajan | read a review
- “Rolling up our sleeves” (conference keynote by Mary Rowe) –
- “Granular Resilience: Paying Attention to the Local” (article by Mary Rowe)
- “New Orleans speaks: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” (video)
- CUI websites: www.citywatchcanada.ca, www.citysharecanada.ca, www.citytalkcanada.ca and www.bringbackmainstreet.ca
Full session transcript
Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth: Now, while many of you are dialing in from across Canada, I’m speaking to you from Toronto, and I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work, and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy.
I am, and Maytree is, on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca and most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit Indigenous peoples. This territory is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and allied nations, to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.
Today we’re talking about cities and communities. Cities are the fundamental building block of contemporary society. Certainly in Canada, where almost 90% of our population lives in a community of 5,000 or more. COVID-19, the pandemic, and the various measures government has taken to cope with it, is having a dramatic impact on the future of urban life, and will potentially alter fundamentally how we plan, design, manage, and govern cities in the future. The non-profit sector will play an important role in this process.
In today’s session, Mary Rowe, President and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute and host of “CityTalk Canada,” will talk about her five good ideas for the non-profit sector to help build a city, now and in the wake of the pandemic.
Mary is no stranger to how cities recover from disasters. She’s worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and New York City during and after Hurricane Sandy. And, of course, Mary is also a very good friend of the foundation. For several years she worked closely with Maytree Chair Alan Broadbent on Ideas That Matter, a convening and publishing program focused on the core areas of Jane Jacob’s work, cities, economies, and values. Her work continues to be focused on how cities enable self-organization, cultivate innovation, and build social, economic, environmental, and cultural resilience. So without further ado, thank you Mary for joining us, and over to you.
Mary: Thanks Liz, well, I’m delighted to be here with my colleagues from Maytree. I know we’re not supposed to say we’re old colleagues, but I can qualify that I am an old colleague and have been appreciative of Maytree’s steadfast advocacy and support, and through your Chair Alan Broadbent’s really fearless leadership about why cities are so critically important to the country.
When Alan started this about 30 years ago, it was hard to have these conversations because I don’t think we as a country recognized, although he did, how completely central the urban form, the city, is to the economic and social and innovation capacity of the country.
I have this story I always tell about how we still promote Canada internationally as a tourist destination. We do that with pictures of mountains and lakes and ocean fronts, and we forget to say what you just said, which is that 90% of the country are choosing to live in urban areas.
A vast majority of the country live within an hour of the US border in urban environments. So, this is a big reality for us, and it’s also a big challenge. I’m very pleased to come and talk to you and give you what I think are five good ideas.
I just want to say at the outset that there’s no shortage of good ideas, and I’m hopeful that lots of people that are tuning in today are going to volley those into the chat, or ask questions about them, and this conversation should just be the beginning not the end obviously.
I’m not a fan of oracles and icons, I don’t think there’s any magic bullet here, and I’m a distruster of expertise actually, so I think we really need to learn from each other; and all of you that are involved in civil society, advocacy, service delivery, all the things that you do on the ground, are the really key things that inform us about what we’re to learn through this COVID experience and how cities will remake themselves.
[Mary shows slide with sets of dots, some connected by lines.] This is the premise I work from. Cities are about enabling self-organization. Each of us is a dot, our organizations are dots, our neighborhood, our district is one of these dots. What you want to achieve is a web of interconnectivity that allows you and me to meet our needs and realize our aspirations in the context of a dwelling where we live in a congregate way, in an interdependent way.
During COVID, this conversation is becoming more and more questionable because of the risks associated with this kind of connection and connectivity, but we are adapting, obviously. I think that part of the story, the COVID story, is that we’re not going to abandon this kind of collective interaction. What we’re going to do is find different ways to do it, safer ways to do it, and more adaptive ways to do it, depending on the challenges. When you think about where these patterns come from, we still deal with people who think that cities are somehow unnatural. In fact, cities are fundamentally organic, a very natural phenomenon, probably humanity’s greatest creation are these kinds of network systems that we call a city.
Part of what we need to spend our time doing through this experience is really look carefully at what’s going on and understanding how we are going to self-organize our way. What are the enabling conditions that allow us to realize a different kind of future? Not just go back to what was. Lots of people may think that’s what we want to do but I think most of us agreed, nope, that’s not what we want to do. We want to be able to move forward in whatever constructive way we can.
A lot of people know that my experience was confirmed by five years of practical immersion, literally, in New Orleans. I previously had exposure to various ideas through Alan and the early works at Ideas That Matter with Jane Jacobs about self-organization. But then I found myself in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and this is what happened.
Idea #1: Everything important really does start, and is, local
What’s interesting is that when a deluge like this happens, now of course we’re having this all over the world, different kind of deluge but this kind of shock, this kind of challenge underscores these self-organizing elements that are really at the core of our communities. They’re who you serve, and who I anticipate you would say you enable, in the work that you do in your organization. This kind of hyper-local, this is where resilience lives.
[Mary displays image of a store sign that reads “We’re still here ya bastards.”] Are people like this. So this is very soon after Katrina, this is maybe eight months, it’s in the early 2006. You can see there’s still debris on the street, there’s still actually water, believe it or not, in certain neighborhoods. And this is a homeowner, a business owner actually, who I just saw last year. I’m still there, who said, thanks very much, but we’re still here ya bastards. This is what we have to catalyze.
In New Orleans what I saw was hyper-hyper-granular self-organizing like what you just saw on the side of that shop, but also these kinds of initiatives. This was a network of 17 or 18 basically home-based recovery centers started by regular folks, who really didn’t have any access to any other resources and decided they would self-organize. They created beacons of hope and they had, you can see, these people had a bit of a sense of humour, they called it Café Katrina.
But it became, basically, a mobilization of what lots of parts of Canada would know as a mutual aid society. That kind of thing. People can be patronizing about these solutions. [Mary shows slide with article titled “Trim the ‘Experts,’ Trust the Locals.”] But I really think we’ve got to pay special attention because we see it surfacing again through COVID. I always like to quote this because it keeps all my New York Times readers happy to know that David Brooks, who would generally be seen I think as a conservative slightly-to-the-right-of-centre journalist saying, during Katrina and after, look folks, this is about the locals, let’s listen.
[Mary displays image of “hubs and long links.”] During that period, I literally scribbled this on a napkin. A lot of us know what this is like to have a napkin moment, serviette moment. This is what I saw happening in New Orleans, is that people were gathering hyper-locally, figuring out problem solving mutually, supporting one another to try to figure out how we were going to muck out of this. Then they started to reach out beyond their own borders, or their own interests, to others to supplement their strategy. That’s what we’re confronted with now.
I’m going to talk to you specifically about the kinds of things that the Canadian Urban Institute experienced, and where we’ve decided to focus. Each of you has your own story about, if you take things down to the basic building block, what are you seeing in terms of the signs of resilience, and how can you, in your capacity, enable? We then have many, many, many instances of this kind of granular innovation and responsiveness to this extraordinary challenge that we’re all facing.
We started something called Bring Back Main Street, which is something that every Canadian, every community, seems to understand, even if their main street doesn’t look like the images displayed here. Their main street may be a shopping mall. It may be a four corners. It may be an abandoned warehouse where a lot of people were going. It may have been less formal, doesn’t always have to look like this, but this is of course what we’re facing. More and more of these places are lacking in traffic, just pedestrian traffic, and lots of people are spending their money and their time online, purchasing online, or maybe they’re going to large stores.
That means that these neighborhoods have an extraordinary challenge. In fact, when everybody was running out of toilet paper at the beginning of wave one, the place that had toilet paper in my neighborhood was a little corner grocery here, Perry, he had toilet paper. Lots of other big shops didn’t. So there’s something about allowing ourselves to focus at the local scale and really pay attention to what needs to be resourced there.
So, we’ve started Bring Back Main Street. You can see it, we’ve been at it for several months. Main streets are the history of the core of the economy, and they’re also the hearts of a neighborhood, because it’s not just shops that are on your main street. It’s your library, it’s your health centre. Part of what we need to talk about is, how do we imagine a main street for the future? What is that going to look like to us? And do we need to reinvest in it differently, put other amenities there, other services?
The other thing is there are people who live on the street. There are people who live above the street. There are people who come from a few blocks away to get to the street. So, it affects every aspect of urban life, if we think about concentrating on the gathering place, the main street.
We’re joining this with a second piece. Again, I’m interested in what your perspectives are going to be as you report to me what you’re observing in your communities, in parallel with main streets being in jeopardy. I had said before, I quoted Eric Klinenberg early in the pandemic. He wrote a really smart PhD dissertation in the 90’s, basically identifying why certain neighborhoods in Chicago had fared well, and which ones hadn’t, during a sudden heat event that killed some people and didn’t kill others, and why was that. He was able to determine that there were pre-existing conditions in the way in which those neighborhoods were actually planned and designed, where people that had more access and familiarity with their neighbours and services around them, made out okay, and those that were isolated didn’t.
We’re seeing exactly this happening during COVID. When I heard Liz do the land acknowledgement, on CityTalk we do a land acknowledgement as well, but part of what we have to acknowledge, those of us that are engaged in city building, is that urbanism has been a perpetuator of exclusion, colonial practices, ways in which we have created neighborhoods that aren’t equitable and conditions that don’t deliver equitable results.
So now I feel we’re at a point where we have to say, you know what, no more excuses. Maybe people had known this, but did we actually change the way we were designing, change the way we were resourcing, and engaging communities directly in creating the communities that they know best what they need?
So the main street dilemma was really a precondition to COVID, and COVID has acted like a particle accelerator, which is what Eric Klinenberg coined that heat wave to be. It was a particle accelerator for every pre-existing condition. All of us know that COVID is a hard particle accelerator.
So main streets were languishing. Now we have a moment, same with downtowns, right? We had very vibrant downtowns or cores as we’re saying we did, but there were challenges to those places because it was dominated by a single use. Did it have the kinds of conditions to foster diversity and other kinds of experience, and welcoming to diverse uses and diverse users? Maybe not.
So we have some bleak statistics about this. This is really a serious thing though folks. What’s going on in the cities across the country? We’re working with the six of the largest cities in the country about what’s happening to their downtowns. Of course, remember part of main street is that it attracts people and you have main streets in downtowns. It also means that you have eyes on the street, a good Jane Jacobs adage, which means you have public safety. You also have more and more people engaged in the lifeblood, and how a street is so important to the structure and the functioning of any city, in any community.
Bring Back Main Street has now been partnered with Restore the Core, so that we can come to terms with the elements that we have, what we need to be turning our attention to, and again, civil society and not-for-profits have to be central to the rebuilding of this kind of infrastructure. I’m meaning social infrastructure and hard infrastructure.
Certainly my experience in New Orleans and in New York was that the leadership for these things comes out of civil society voices, who often have the capacity and perspective that a government may not. Government is pretty busy just trying to solve the particular problems in front of them. There are ripple effects to this – obviously transit’s in trouble, and yet we know that essential workers have been completely dependent on the maintenance of transit to get to work.
I’m hoping one of the stories that’s going to come out of this is that it’s remarkable that we manage to keep transit operating in Canada. When the transit systems across this country are dependent on farebox, fewer people were taking it.
So I really want to stress that first thing in my good ideas, that we have to look local, and extract from the local what you understand to be working. We too often don’t do that in Canada, particularly. People sit far away, 3,000 feet away, and say, here is the solution. I’ve got the solution. We need to go local, think local, and learn local. Then see what we can derive local to take to others, to recommend be learned from, and potentially copied or adapted for other circumstances.
Idea #2: Now’s the time to start sleeping with your enemies
The second good idea that I’ve got is that it’s time to start sleeping with your enemies. [Mary shows photo of a small group of people standing in front of a trailer.] Well, as you can see this picture lives up to that. This is part of what I witnessed in New Orleans – total on the ground engagement in helping families cope. These folks are actually all bloggers, this is 2005. Some of you are too young, and you weren’t working 15 years ago, but I was. What we saw was the emergence of social media. This is early days. We didn’t have what you have now, but it was early days. There was a huge constituency of people, all around the country and the U.S., who were actually taking to a blogging platform to try to share information and start this network of problem-solving online.
It was every kind of person. I snapped the shot because they would have blogging conferences, I mean really – a blogging conference, go figure. A whole bunch of people sitting behind monitors, tapping to each other. But they would then finish their conference, finish their online stuff, and then they would pack up and head out to a neighbourhood and help gut a house.
You can see that’s a FEMA trailer. You can see these folks are not necessarily the people that you would necessarily gravitate toward to understand that they would be engaged in this way. Sadly, on the other side of this picture frame were two Marines who were about to go out and be deployed to Iraq. We were all in those homes together, mucking them out.
I can imagine each of you has your own anecdote about this, about how during an extraordinary period like we’re going through now, you do end up reaching across the aisle, you reach across the street, you reach into people that are doing things that aren’t familiar with what you’re doing. One of the questions I’ve got is – is that going to morph into other kinds of collaboration? We do it in a pinch because we have to, but are we going to then concretize that and suddenly find ourselves, for instance, designing our spaces differently? For instance, for more co-use, having more kinds of explicit collaborations so that you can go to a place where you thought you might’ve gotten one service, but in fact now you’re going to get a whole bunch of other services. This notion of how you actually allow your borders to be porous, your boundaries to be porous, both geographically but also in terms of your mission. That’s a controversial conversation but I’m interested to have it with you.
New Orleans is a city with a history of racism and systemic bias, and all sorts of violence associated with race. Yet, during the New Orleans post-Katrina period, there was a period of time when we were able to work collaboratively across ethnicity, race, income, perspective and ideology, and just get down to the business. I think that this window though, of where you have this kind of willingness to do this, closes.
The challenge that we all face, as I said, as urbanists and what people like Jay Pitter are pushing us to come to terms with, is that we have to come to terms and reckon with the exclusionary practices that live on in the way we were trained, the way that we orient ourselves, and the way our communities are designed. We have to find a way to have a conversation, predicated on listening and learning, and collaboratively adjusting, discussing, and moving forward in a new kind of way.
This is my little hashtag – no more excuses. It’s hard that we’ve got to try to collectively figure this out.
[Slide: All Hands on Deck, MASNYC, October 2013.] This is a slide, partially cut off as you can see, which is in New York City. I happened to be there during Hurricane Sandy. I was working for a very stodgy, old-fashioned kind of urban design organization that got thrust into a place of gathering a whole bunch of diverse voices and mobilizing all hands being on deck.
It was not its traditional role. It was way out of its comfort zone, it found its way to being that kind of crucible for the kinds of interactions that I’m suggesting are critical.
Idea #3 – Lead with improvisation, experimentation, and risk-taking
The next piece that I’ve got, after sleeping with your enemies, is we have to try some stuff. Now everybody’s trying some stuff. We all love pilots, urbanists love pilots. Well, we’ll try this because it it’s often hard to get a big approval for something more ambitious. You can try a pilot because you can usually get a faster approval. We’ve had a ton of pilots now, we’re one big pilot like a global pilot, and the question would be – can we allow ourselves to continue in that spirit of trying things? Designing things in modest kinds of ways to see if they work? Being open to solutions that may be more, or may appear more, like a whim or episodic.
I know there are folks on this webinar who are going to tell me – “no, no, it’s got to be about systems change.” I guess what I would say back is systems change will happen, I believe, if we allow all sorts of experimentation at the local grounded level, and then we aggregate that up and, eventually, we can move to systems change. You have to make the case for systems change, I believe, based on what you can actually see and what people are actually trying. So it can be modest.
That’s the other thing we don’t, if we’re spending a lot of time thinking, we have got to reinvent everything, we can get paralyzed. Whereas I think that’s a big, big risk through COVID is that people feel overwhelmed by the complexity of this.
[Slide with buildings.] So this is a social housing project in Brownsville, Brooklyn, adjacent to the most affluent census tract in the U.S. It’s a challenge that planners and experts have been thinking about forever. You can see it’s not a very vital street, yet if we allow community members to actually engage and say, well, here’s what we want to do, then these kinds of gestures can actually aggregate up. It has a whole ripple effect. It allows people to visualize what’s possible. It gives people a sense of agency that they can actually contribute to making a change rather than feeling powerless. But it requires people like all of us to be open to the fact that this adage everybody loves, that perfect is the enemy of the good.
We’ve got to be willing to make some mistakes, right? We’ve got to be willing to see if it works. Early in the days of the pandemic, in the first weekend in March, I sat here in my apartment thinking what’s going to happen next? I met with my staff the next day on Monday. At CUI I was fairly new, they didn’t really know what to make of me. I said – “I think we should serve up some sharing platforms so that people working on the ground can know what’s going on. Because I think they’re going to need to know.”
Some of my colleagues said, no, don’t worry, government will do that. Or are there other organizations that will do that? I just quietly said, they won’t have time. They will be overwhelmed. I just knew that in my gut. So we put up these three platforms. CityWatch Canada, which is a data set of 62 cities across the country.
It’s not as current now, because we don’t feel the need for it to be. But in those early days we had hundreds of volunteers across the country. We created the platform. We had volunteers punching it in, so that Kamloops could see, or Winnipeg could see, what Ottawa was doing, what the cities, what the municipal governments were doing. We didn’t have a fast way to do that unless somebody was prepared to completely sit on Twitter all day and find out what their colleagues were doing.
At the same time that we said, let’s track municipal governments, we said there are going to be a ton of things that will happen out of the community. People are going to try some stuff. They’re going to figure out how to, there are always people who will find, a way to bend a rule.
So the library is closed – but you know what? Those librarians went in and they moved their routers to the windows so that people who were relying on WiFi access from their library could go and sit outside and get the signal. People improvise and DIY all the time. We created the platform CityShare Canada. Have a look, you’ll be knocked out by the imagination and the resourcefulness of people in the ground.
Then we started CityTalk Canada. We were cautious about this because I didn’t want to be distracting from the fact that you’ve got thousands and thousands of Canadians whose lives and whose days are spent trying to keep people alive. And did we really want to disturb chats about it? So we’ve made it very focused on problem solving, what’s working, what’s not, what’s next. We’ve had people across the country, and what we hope we’re doing is building this sense of connectedness, mutual learning, and mutual questioning about how are we going to navigate our way out.
CityTalk Canada is also posted afterwards and you can watch it later. I think it’s important that we don’t lose these repositories. That’s why on the handout resources I put a couple of those videos, including one from New Orleans Speaks, which is from 2008, of local folks, some of which you just saw on that slide I put forward. I’m talking about what they had learned in their first three years post-Katrina. It’s remarkable to me that 13 years later, those observations are still resonant.
We now need to create vehicles for those kinds of stories. If you’re telling your story, when we go through a crisis again, note it won’t be the same, it will be something different. When the next round comes, maybe it won’t be us in the front lines, it’ll be somebody else who can draw on the experiences that we’ve had, and the resilience that we’ve built, and the lessons that we’ve learned. Let’s hope that we can incorporate more of the lessons because you’ll see when you watch New Orleans Speaks that there are lessons there and you think, “well, why didn’t we do that?”
Sometimes it takes a while to actually make the changes. You can all have your own meaning for this, but here’s mine. I think we have to be really careful about looking for a grand solution to come from on high, somewhere. I think that (and I don’t want to negate, as I suggested) the advocacy that many of you are doing for rights-based approaches, which is the federal government or for systemic change, having to do with how tax policies established and all the things that senior levels of government have to implement.
I do think that we have to be careful to not take away our own sense of agency, and our obligation as urbanists, to create enabling conditions for others to have agency and engage in their neighborhood and in their community. In whatever slice of life they have access to, that they’re empowered and equipped to participate. I worry sometimes that we can lower some part of it as fear and all sorts of things.
Idea #4 – Do not assume, do not wait: Say goodbye to “Big Daddy”
I also worry that we have to just not allow ourselves to think that big daddy or big mommy, however you want to do it, that we not allow ourselves to get placed into that. There are ways that each of us in our day-to-day, can contribute to our own resilience, the resilience of our households, the resilience of our blocks, our neighbourhoods, our streets, our districts, our city.
We have to build those building blocks by looking at what’s working, trying some things to see if we can do something differently. Working with people that we’re not used to working with. Seeing if we can somehow support their agenda and ours mutually.
It’s not either top-down or bottom-up, it’s kind of both, obviously. We all know that silos are the great impediment to actually making change happen. As we’re seeing through the pandemic, this kind of vertical organization, which Canada has been quite good at, the municipal government, all of that, is getting thrown out because we’re all focusing on a place, we’re focusing on the challenge to a local community.
That’s going to have impact on how we resource municipal governance and decision-making, how we empower them, how we collectively hold government accountable to the services that we need. It will also impact how each of us navigates improving and contributing to vibrant, livable, and resilient places that we know are possible. It is also why we continue to be attached to living here in a city or a community of whatever size.
Idea #5 – Watch, share, talk, act
I’m going to just sign off with plugging into this phrase of multi-solving which comes out of the resilience world, which I so agree with, that we’re not going to do these things with single interventions anymore. So we don’t just do an arts grant, we don’t just do a social service intervention, we don’t just build a sewer. We have to do things that serve multiple outcomes and multiple benefits. That’s just good practical husbandry of a place.
It’s through understanding, listening, telling, sharing our experience, promoting when we find something that works, supporting others to engage with us, and engaging people who are not like us. And finally, creating connective tissue, which is the business that I feel CUI is in.
So last thing: never let a good crisis go to waste. Everybody said this, including Winston Churchill, but we’re in it now folks. If we snap back to something that was like before, that’ll be just a darn shame. We will have missed our chance. Let’s not waste this opportunity. Let’s remember to live, love our local. Thanks very much.
Elizabeth: That was excellent. Thank you, Mary. Just terrific and lots of chat in the chat room. And I think you have a solution to your gender neutral Big Daddy. It’s a big parent. The big parent.
Mary: Oh, the big parent, okay!
Elizabeth: Anyhow, what I like about some of the chat is seeing great examples of what’s actually happening now in Toronto. Cathy Crowe shared with us the encampment support network, which has been incredibly active and vocal on issues of homelessness and encampments, and just been at the front lines. These are just ordinary citizens, musicians, artists and so forth who came together and responded to the needs. So, very much of what you were talking about, which I think is really exciting.
We have a couple of questions in the Q&A section. The first question I think which sort of jumped the gun but said, “could you elaborate on why you distrust experts?” I think you actually got to that. The question has twigged for me a couple of things around as we think about all of this work and the not-for-profit sector and the community sector.
You’ve talked about the grass roots, and I think about the experts, the lived experts, it’s about people who are living this reality and really paying close attention to what’s happening on the ground.
We know that not all non-profits are created equally. Some of them are really micro, they’re on the ground and they’ve got these great sort of valves, it’s in their DNA to be really plugged into what’s happening in the community. Others have grown into big institutions. I wonder if you know through some of your experience, how did those bigger players that have the ear of government and that have other tools at their disposal, how did they step back and remember their roots? How did they ensure that they’re open to hearing, and really being accountable to and hearing, the community?
Mary: Well you know, CUI is in Edmonton this week, where we are doing virtual residencies in cities across the country. We had hoped to be physically in these cities, but we’re now doing it virtually.
What’s great about that is, we get a lot of people coming online. One of the things that we learned in the session that we had with the tech sector is that there’s a burgeoning, emerging tech sector in Edmonton. It’s not as dominant as in other cities, and it doesn’t have big, dominant players. There’s no Shopify in Edmonton.
Part of what they talked about though, and I think it’s instructive, is that in a tech start-up you can have something that starts with two people that can grow to just 20 people, and be world-changing. I think we have to rethink our notions of scale, because this has an implication for larger not-for-profits as they grow.
If I think of some of the settlement houses that are large, or I’m just looking to see who’s on the system here, I mean there are folks here on the webinar who are part of established not-for-profits. You need the stability of those players because they have institutional memory, and they often have more capacity to incubate things.
Part of the challenge for them is how, and we’re seeing this in business life too, you’re always trying to organize smaller cells that can take some risks within their parameter. I think it’s a cultural thing as a non-for-profit leader – are you enabling differentiation within your ranks? If you think of standardization as being one of the great squelchers of innovation, if we all say, no it’s got to be done this way, and that’s the way we do it, the downside to that is that someone who’s going to try something a little differently and might find it’s even more effective, gets pushed out.
I think there’s good news on both sides here. I think there’s good news for the small innovator start-up, freelancer, free agent, instigator, they come by all sorts of names, who’s in there seeing things in a way that someone maybe in an institutional setting wouldn’t see, and who can identify a new way to do things.
The question is, how do you get support to that person? If they’re just rumbling around, bumping along, and they don’t have an income, and they certainly won’t have any benefits, then they don’t have the kinds of supports to really mature their idea. We’re seeing new arrangements in civil society and the not-for-profit sector charity sector. These can vary from fellowships, to shorter-term engagements, new kinds of partnerships, and new kinds of arrangements where a larger institution partners with a small start-up. These can be mutually beneficial to both large and small organizations because it can be appreciated that each comes at problems very differently.
When you’re smaller, you can be more nimble. You can be more flexible. You don’t have legacy commitments, and you probably don’t have the legacy grant arrangements. I feel for some of the organizations that are older, that have long funding relationships, and have to continue to potentially deliver a service, that sometimes realize the service is the wrong service. How you pivot?
So I think it’s both-handed. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I would be very sorry if we allowed ourselves to think that we want everything to scale up. That’s where I have some reaction to experts, in scaling up. I’m interested in the exception. How do you enable things to work and change? We should not be too preoccupied with looking for the one single answer, the one definitive answer, and that’s partly my pushback on experts.
Elizabeth: So there’s another dimension to that as well, which you and I have spoken a little bit about, that there’s an equity dimension to the non-profit sector. We talked about size of organization, and I think you’ve hit a number of really important points there. But there are also organizations that have been for example, Black-led, Black-focused, Black-serving, which haven’t had the benefit of granting and funding dollars. They are perennially and structurally hampered from growing or building on the work that they’re doing.
This is also an opportunity because we’re experiencing a twindemic, if you will, with social division and systemic racism erupting at the same time, and in concert with, COVID-19. As those organizations need to stay grounded and have a voice in some of the planning, thinking, and creativity, is there a role for other non-profits to make way and step back sometimes?
Mary: Yes – I mean, even this session, you and I are both white women. It’s already a huge disadvantage, and I would agree with you, and certainly we have to step back, step out. I think we have to advocate for what those organizations need, and what support they require in a way that they are in the driver’s seat. They will determine what they require and what they need.
Maybe our role as intermediaries is to ensure that funders and other resources, sources of money, and sources of funding, are putting a priority on equity-seeking and equity-serving groups, not just defaulting to their usual funding relationships. This is a problem in crisis.
When I was in New Orleans, I was on the philanthropy side, and I could see national philanthropy gravitating towards the grantees it knew, to the domains that it felt it had expertise in. They were risk-averse. They were in a very complex place, and they knew full well that if you fund into New Orleans badly, it will not look good on you. So it was really hard.
It was interesting that more creative philanthropy, as a result, the more risk-taking, came out of the smaller family foundations, foundations that were willing to try some things. I don’t know if there’s a lesson there, but I appreciate what you’re suggesting. The equity piece, if we don’t collectively navigate this in a much more equitable future way, and civil society has to lead this.
Government will try, but once it’s led just once, I know there are legislative steps that government needs to take to support what people are advocating for. They won’t be able to model the organic collaborative relationships that all of you on the ground can. The slide I showed you of a whole bunch of different kinds of folks in New Orleans. They were in the business of doing resilience. They were doing it. What I was trying to do is see if I could get government and philanthropy to look and pay attention to how they were doing it.
Elizabeth: So part of this is about telling the story, and we’ve got a question here. “Another huge piece is ensuring that people follow local and not just federal news. So often initiatives made at the grassroots and local levels impact our lives much more substantially than the federal parties. I’m discouraged by the slow demise of local journalism crowding out of our media attention by national newspapers. How can we reinvigorate local journalism to focus on the reforms we’re discussing here?”
Mary: Oh, such a good question. When I was in New Orleans 15 years ago, The Times-Picayune, the paper there, was the paper that allowed you to know what was really going on. You didn’t read the New York Times or the Washington Post, you had to read “The Times Pic.” In the past 15 years, it’s gone from a daily paper (it won a Pulitzer) to being a twice-a-week paper.
This is the story everywhere, as your question there is highlighting. Social media is part of it obviously, but social media has such a toxic component to it. It’s hard to kind of separate the wheat from the chaff.
I am hopeful that out of COVID-19, because you can see Facebook care-mongering groups, but I know the evils of social media. I share my life with someone who is probably on this session, and who is always reminding me of the downsides of social media, but there are some upsides, and one of them is that it does allow local groups to actually speak to one another. Will we find more and more of those kinds of the old-fashioned bulletin boards, except now it’s got a digital piece? So that’s a question.
An interesting part of our Edmonton residency – we spent a whole hour yesterday with the head of the community radio station in Edmonton. This is the first public broadcaster in Canada from 1927, CKUA in Alberta, which started at the University of Alberta. It began as an extension program, and has now blossomed into this kind of self-organizing network for the cultural sector to hear one another, to actually hear one another. So maybe we’re going to see things like that.
What can you initiate? What can we each initiate? I don’t know if anybody else is picking these things up. We have these little buying circles now where neighborhoods are saying, “Hey! Here are the ten stores that I’m going to patronize. I’m doing personal shopping with this one.”
Or how we’re seeing a pushback to delivery services that take those usurious fees, the big global firms that come in. Now we’ve got small little self-deliverers, ten restaurants go together. It’s happening an Ottawa, it’s happening in Edmonton.
So I think it’s a ripe moment for us. I just worry that I don’t want us to just be hand-wringing about the end of media. I know that the mainstream media will spend a lot of time telling us how hard it is for them. It’s really hard for them. You can decide if you want to be on that side of the argument, or do you want to be on the side of – “let’s create something new, let’s build something new.”
Elizabeth: There’s a question here. “City planners can get a bad reputation for planning the wrong way, etcetera. What do you think are some of the new roles of planners within your good ideas picture?”
Mary: It’s a great question. People think I’m a planner because of the jobs I’ve had. I always have to just fight not saying, well, no actually I’m an anti-planner. I’m not trained as a planner. I think that here’s where planners (and to all the planners out there, many of whom work at the Canadian Urban Institute, and who many are on this call, we love you planners), here’s the dilemma: planners can be guilty of terrible hubris. They think they are smarter, and they think they know what a community needs.
If we can just take that, and lots of behave as planners, even though we’re not trained as planners. So it’s back to this notion of – “let’s think about trimming the experts and listening to the locals.” Planners as enablers, planners having really good technical skills and capacity to analyze data. Then bringing those resources to bear with communities, to encourage community-based planning, community-based initiatives, and how communities can determine things in quite different ways than a planner might expect. So planners, be more open to being surprised by communities.
There’s a term I love from planning, which I learned from my planning colleagues, called “desire paths.”
Planners, architects, landscape designers say: “Let’s make a park. Here’s where the walkway will be.” They design it. They get some input, they design it, they get it built. The thing is, six months later, somebody goes and looks at the site and realizes nobody is walking down that nice path. They’re actually walking across the grass. They created their own desire path.
I think we need the cities across the world and in Canada to create our desire paths for the cities we really need. Planners can be fabulous enablers, facilitators and listeners and collators to that. Also get yourself on that edge of the curve. Stop telling, start listening.
Elizabeth: So let’s talk about the suburbs. We’ve been talking about the downtown core, and you and I are both city centre people. That all kind of makes sense, but how do suburbs move to become more like their urban downtown neighborhoods, with greater connectivity and main streets?
Mary: Don’t ask them to be more like the urban neighborhoods. So this is the wrong question. What we want is to encourage people who choose to live in suburbs to identify what the amenities are that they need in those suburbs.
When we created Bring Back Main Street, we were very careful to say no main street looks the same. If the Pacific Mall in Markham is your main street, if that’s where you go, then that’s what your main street looks like.
I think the challenges to suburbs are going to be increased climate change, the implications of being car-dependent, more pressure on land use, and resources that are more going to become more expensive.
We’re doing an interesting project through Bring Back Main Street with the city of Brampton. Brampton is looking at ways to connect its old historic downtown main street with an old mall in its uptown district, called Shopper’s World. Can they create new forms of connective tissue and support local businesses? In those suburban environments, which lots of downtowners are disdainful of, there are actually remarkable, quirky little things going on up there. People are doing stuff in garages, they’re doing stuff in the back half of the mall. They’re figuring out other ways to kind of stitch together. They’re doing different kinds of approaches to public space.
So I think what we need to be doing is creating enabling conditions, and allowing local communities to own their own challenge. Part of this, at the systemic level, is that there need to be implications for the choices we make. They’re increasingly going to be because of carbon pricing and things.
So the challenge for suburban communities is going to be how to intensify themselves, get the amenities. You can see it right now. People do not want to have to be dependent on getting a long way, it’s much easier and safer if they can walk places. I think we’re already seeing this in suburban communities across the country, and they’re going to remake themselves to look like something you and I probably haven’t even imagined yet.
Elizabeth: Now this is a hyper-specific example, and I’m going to just generalize it a little bit, but they’re looking for recommendations, and for, in particular, the Mount Dennis community. So for those not from Toronto, this is a high-needs neighborhood in the city where there’s all kinds of development happening and transit hubs being planned. “Do you have recommendations for the consultants and the city planners who are planning the land-use framework during COVID-19? Community engagement in a high-needs neighborhood doesn’t work well online. Development interests have the upper hand in discussions in stimulating the recovery. It’s designated as a mobility, a hub, all kinds of stuff. How do they do this?”
Mary: They may not like this answer, but they might have to slow down. That’s the first thing. They might have to slow down. The second thing would be: can they use informal networks more effectively? Because even though traditional consultation, which I’m often saddened by this, I see some of my older colleagues like Cathy Crowe and Diane Dyson and people on this call, honestly ladies and gentlemen, we’re still doing public meetings the way we were doing it when Diane and Cathy and I were early in our career.
We’re still putting boards up in church halls and wandering in. I can’t believe that the discipline, with all due respect to the all the experts out there, I can’t believe that we haven’t moved to a different way.
Maybe we go back to a really old way, which is that we find, for those folks working on that project, if they can identify community leaders or community ambassadors who are in communities, through faith communities, through service groups, other ways that we know people are actually those care-mongering informal networks, and see if those people can be the conduit, the deliverer or the engager, as opposed to these centralized processes where an engineer gets up and throws a PowerPoint up.
Maybe this is really good for us. It’s going to push us into a whole different understanding of how we gather data, how we gather input and ideas, and maybe we go back to an old, traditional way of talking and listening to community leaders, who have their own channels, probably using the phone or other kinds of mechanisms that they’re tapped in.
We all know if you go to any community, you can find the person who has got their finger on the pulse, or maybe there are eight or ten people. How do we tap into those people? Not co-opt them, not take advantage of them, in fact you may want to compensate them for their time, but that they can be the proxy engagers and that we just start to build with them. That’s my aggregating up notion. We aggregate up.
Elizabeth: You had a great slide with all the silos, the vertical silos. Someone is asking if we want to work horizontally across those silos, what are the pillars that go across? How do we use those levers?
Mary: Well, place-based economic development is doing this for us because you can’t say, “Oh gee, the boundary of Hamilton stops here and Burlington starts there.” I think regional approaches to how we’re understanding economic development are a lever. That doesn’t mean you have to have regional government. There are different ways that we can create informal mechanisms.
I had 15 formative years in the US and I saw the extent to which people just cobbled it together. This goes back to the Big Daddy thing. They didn’t wait for permission. They just started, they didn’t worry too much about whether they had jurisdiction or not. They just started to figure out who the players were that they could partner with. Who would come and dance with them?
Part of the connective tissue is place-based, where we share a common challenge, and where everybody agrees. That’s the one great thing about COVID-19. I can get a return phone call from almost anybody right now, because nobody really has the answer. We’re all trying to figure it out. So let’s not lose that moment to then create these new forms of informal.
There will be levers. There are going to be levers around accountability on public funding, because we’re going to be in a tough public funding situation for the next several years. Governments are going to be under enormous pressure to make sure their dollars are being spent as wisely and prudently as possible.
Lots of us are going to argue to push more money to the local, have it passed through fewer hands, so that you can actually have money dispersed to recipients by the closest level of government to the recipient. I think those lever moments are going to be ahead of us. Those negotiations are going to be ahead of us, but we have evidence and we have tangible, visible results on our side of how communities will change.
Elizabeth: So, I think we have time for one or two more questions. This one comes back to the non-profit sector. “How can we integrate all the non-profits? The work that’s happening to maximize everyone’s expertise to the benefit of all? There are lots of individuals and organizations, but sometimes there’s a disconnect. You talked about the connective tissue across cities, is there more that can be done around the connective tissue among civil society in a location?”
Mary: Well, this notion of a fractal self-organization is really about making these connections on those scales. So you’ve got it in your neighborhood, then have it at your district, everything. I think the same is true for your sector. So here we are doing citysharecanada.ca, which is about highlighting community expertise, experimentation, and good things that are happening in communities. There’s no reason for us not to replicate those platforms and create those kinds of problem-solving and solution-finding resources at the local level. In fact, I think that would be fantastic. I’d love to see us come out of this.
Somebody’s talked about evidence and data. This was a huge challenge after Hurricane Katrina. To try to make the case, the people in New Orleans actually knew who was getting mail. They actually knew where the postal services were functioning, as opposed to Washington D.C. deciding who’s getting mail and who isn’t. That’s how trivial it was. That’s how granular it was.
Now we’re going to be in that situation again. It’s going to be incumbent on us to be able to collect data at the most local level. Lots of people my age have kids or grandchildren who know how to write code at two in the morning, and they can create something overnight that when I was at university would have taken a huge mainframe six weeks to do. So we need to figure out, what kinds of tools can each of us start to create? Don’t worry about duplicating, just try one.
What kinds of data-gathering tools can we start to create in our organization, on our block, in our network, to collect real-time data that starts to illustrate what’s working. Where are the gaps, and what’s working? That’s what we tried to do with CityWatch and CityShare. I’m sure that others of you can do that, and put that up, and then we’ll make this collective case about why the local is so informative and instructive, and how policy needs to change to better resource it.
Elizabeth: Last question, from Diane Dyson – “Haven’t we tried place-based approaches before to multi-source? Somehow I failed. How can we do it better this time?”
Mary: You did not fail Diane Dyson. You are a fabulous illustration, as is Woodgreen, of all the ways in which historic settlement centres, different kinds of neighborhoods centres, are so instructive.
The best one that I’m familiar with is the Houston Neighborhood Center’s model, in Houston obviously, of settlement houses. I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on place-based. I’m really not sure. I can appreciate that someone like you who spent your career there and then think, are now attracted to, “can you move to systems change,” which is appropriate. That doesn’t mean that we give up on understanding the best solutions we’re going to find, and the best diagnostic will find for what’s actually going on, is coming from somebody embedded in the place.
I don’t disagree with you, because I’m tired too. I’m sure Alan Broadbent would say he’s been having this conversation for 30 years about inverting the triangle, and getting more resources and decision-making at the local level.
I wonder if there are just a whole bunch of other conditions, like a global pandemic that may in fact tip the scale. Where I’m seeing more appetite for effective place-based solutions is coming out of rural, urban, and other levels of government. It’s a good principle of subsidiarity.
So I’m not ready to give up, Diane. I hear your anxiety about it, but I still think there’s too much of it now, too. That’s the other thing. There are so many more people doing it, because Canada is bigger. It’s more people and they will continue to get more people, and more people will do these things.