Hydroponics for food security in the North

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This article was originally shared on the McConnell Foundation blog and has been re-posted with the Foundation's and authors' permission.

By Elvira Truglia

As the northern ice breaks this summer, two retrofitted shipping containers are arriving in Iqaluit, where they will be repurposed as vessels for growing plants in water. The hydroponics project, called The Growcer, aims to help address food insecurity, and will be the first project of its kind in the city. It’s part of what’s called the Northern Innovation Hub, which last year won first place in the Civic Innovation Awards, a competition to promote university-city collaboration, funded and organized by the McConnell initiatives Cities for People and RECODE.

“It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Corey Ellis, Vice President of Development of the University of Ottawa chapter of Enactus, that has led the work on The Growcer. “We’re hoping that these systems can help communities have improved access to fresh produce with a longer shelf life — bringing down the price of certain foods while also being a source of local food that isn’t dependent on the weather and food shipments.”

Nearly 70 percent of Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure — more than eight times higher than the national average and “among the highest documented food insecurity rates for an Indigenous population in a developed country.”  Inuit Health Survey, cited by the Nunavut Food Security Action Plan, 2014.

The Plan notes that complex issues like food security need complex solutions. Factors such as food availability (enough wildlife on the land, groceries in the store), accessibility (enough money for hunting equipment or store-bought food), quality (healthy food that is culturally valued, and use (knowledge on how to obtain, store, prepare and consume food)

Technology as the enabler

Hydroponics is a tried and true technology. The particular innovation of The Growcer is using it in the North via shipping containers repurposed into modular farms. Plants get the same nutrients that they would find in soil, and it’s all natural. No herbicides or insecticides are used.

“We are growing food in an environment that is really dense,” explains Ellis. “As a result, we can grow about 9,300 pounds of produce a year in a shipping container and we’re using 91% less water than a traditional farm would with soil agriculture, and doing so in temperatures as cool as -52 degrees.”


Photos of systems deployed by The Growcer’s American affiliates, Vertical Harvest, in remote parts of Alaska

A head of lettuce can be grown for about $2 and the hydroponic units can produce about 750 heads of lettuce in a week. At any one time, Ellis says there will be about 2,100 live plants in the units. He believes the potential for introducing fresh, locally grown produce in Iqaluit is enormous.

Enactus aims to reduce food costs by 30%, while beating the cost of imported food, which is often subsidized by up to 50%. Yet, the social enterprise is not taking anything for granted and wants to measure the impact of access to food. It will be looking at to what extent local produce availability increases consumption of fresh foods, how produce merchandising in stores affects purchasing habits, and whether the integration of produce with traditional meals also help people prepare produce.

Local organizations on board with Northern Innovation Hub

Enactus is trying to create a sustained impact by working closely with local organizations. Partnering with ilinniapaa campus, a learning and employment company, has been key. Enactus brings its entrepreneurial know-how, while ilinniapaa keeps the project grounded in local realities.

“Probably the biggest awakening for anybody coming from the South to the North and wanting to deliver programs is that everything here pretty much requires double the time,” says Helen Roos, President, Lead Facilitator of ilinnipaa. “[Time] not only to build relationships and trust, but once you have program incumbents, working with them on their terms and on their level.”

Co-founders of The Growcer, Corey Ellis and Alida Burke

Partnering with ilinniapaa means Enactus will have a physical space, with computers, Internet access, and a meeting space, all which are very scarce in the North. llinniapaa’s knowledge of the community also gives the project its social legitimacy.

“In some cases for Enactus, we’ve been their local consultants and advisors to train them on some of the local social realities and socio-economic realities,” says Roos who also stresses that community development is challenging because “intergenerational trauma from federal policies and relocation has impacted Indigenous populations’ daily lives.”

Training Enactus’s members includes learning about safe talk, suicide alertness, mental health, first aid, supporting learners through addictions, family-related or other local issues that impact learning and progress in their programs.

“We look at entrepreneurial opportunities as a real opportunity for people to find a niche, fill a niche, be more self-determining, and contribute to the community,” says Roos.

The Growcer project seems to check off all these boxes. A major project partner is the Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuaqttit Society (NDMS), an organization serving people with disabilities. As part of the start-up-phase, Enactus will provide produce at-cost to help get the Society off the ground and will also offer on-the-job training for the society’s members.

Evolution of the Northern Innovation Hub

The Growcer is one of the first and most advanced ideas to come out of the Northern Innovation Hub, conceived as a “one-stop shop for innovative ideas to be incubated, created and then launched in the city,” says Ellis. Ideas generated in the Hub seek to tackle problems and opportunities related to housing, employment, business, and food security.

Roos is optimistic about the Innovation Hub. She says projects that provide an investment back into the community are what work in the North. “They are compatible with Inuit social values that are all about what is the individual`s role and purpose, how is it going to benefit the family; and the family supports the community.”

Whereas big business are seen as coming in to take local resources and funnel profits to the South, “social enterprise, and innovative approaches like the hydroponic greenhouse allows business to be smaller and seen as for the community,” says Roos.

“The technology was always a means to an end. That’s why even today, we’re not limiting ourselves to hydroponics or food production either— we’re defining ourselves by the problems we’re trying to solve, not how we solve them,” says Ellis.

Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics, and social issues. She has also worked in the community, media and cultural sector as well as national and international non-governmental organizations.




This article is free for republication with attribution by non-profits and foundations. Copyright has been retained by the author. Find out more or contact the McConnell Foundation: communications@mcconnellfoundation.ca

Lead image of the official flag of Nunavut, flying outside Iqaluit, courtesy of Enactus. 

Changemaker profile: The Speakers Bureau – Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction

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Header image from Axle Studios

Last spring we interviewed Jennifer Chivers and Naseem Saeed Sherwani from the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction about the work of the Roundtable’s Speakers Bureau and their efforts to build inclusive communities. Our interview happened during the last day of activities of the 2017 Vibrant Communities Canada - Cities Reducing Poverty Summit: When Business is Engaged (Hamilton, ON. April 4-6, 2017).

The aspiration of the Roundtable is to make Hamilton the best place to raise a child. To work  towards this goal they advocate for policy change and play the role of a facilitator of  conversations around poverty. Their partners come from across Hamilton and include leaders from the business and non-profit sectors (Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Community Foundation), government (City of Hamilton) and individuals who experience poverty daily.

The Speakers Bureau, called Speak Now, is an initiative within the Roundtable. The Speakers Bureau provides a platform for its members to share their stories on poverty and exclusion. This project came out from the Roundtable’s Shifting Attitudes work group. The members of this group realized that, on the continuum of people who live in our community, there is a group of residents at one end who understand poverty. There is no need to convince them on how people are struggling and being marginalized because of poverty. But at the other end there is a group who are content to put their head in the sand and will deny that there is a problem and that they could be part of the solution. Somewhere along the continuum lie the people who probably would be willing to listen to what the Roundtable has to say and they will have their hearts and minds open. That space is where there is potential to shift attitudes. Residents were invited to gather and share their own experience on what is like to live in poverty, and introduce themselves to break stereotypes.

Storytelling is a core component of the work of the Speakers Bureau. By listening to the stories of their members, we come closer to the lived experience of those struggling with  poverty, build relationships with one another and shift attitudes toward poverty, which is foundational to the work of the roundtable. Shifting attitudes can happen within the public and private sector, as well as community organizations. Through shifting attitudes, we let stakeholders see the benefits for them and for the community they operate in.

Over time, members of the Speakers Bureau gained knowledge and confidence to join boards and other committees. For instance, there is a member who now sits on the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s board. Other members have gone back to school to pursue all types of programs, from vocational training to a graduate degree. Its members have spoken at more than 200 different events, sharing their stories and connecting poverty to other topics (unemployment, immigration, healthcare, etc.).  As a member of the Speakers Bureau, Naseem has lived experience of poverty because she has had troubles finding a job, despite having professional qualifications and a university degree. She started out as a member of the Speakers Bureau and became a trained speaker. She is now confident giving speeches and also serves as the liaison with the Roundtable, as appointed and voted by her former members . Naseem talks to them directly, peer to peer, and then she shares their concerns with Jennifer at the Roundtable. Naseem has gradually become an advisor on the relationship between the Roundtable and the members of the Speakers Bureau.

Naseem is an example of the enthusiasm of the members of the Speakers Bureau and their willingness to contribute to larger efforts to improve social wellbeing. During our conversation, Naseem and Jennifer shared the story of a member who is a mental health survivor. He has gained strength and confidence through the Speakers Bureau training and has launched conversation cafés around housing for people that are mental health survivors. Members of the Speakers Bureau are highly productive and motivated individuals but they lack employment opportunities and social support to lift them out of poverty. Naseem highlighted that for immigrants, jobs are precarious and lack opportunities for professional growth, even if they already have work experience in Canada.

We asked Jennifer and Naseem to define poverty based on their day-to-day work in the Speakers Bureau.

For them, poverty is a lack of justice. It is a human-made construct that can thus be removed and deconstructed by individuals and human systems. Poverty can also be similar to a crime because people are being taken away from their right to wellbeing. Eradication of poverty means that everybody has access to decent housing, proper caloric intake of food and health services. Storytelling plays a key role in understanding poverty because it provides the qualitative data that is needed to support change at the policy level.

Our conversation ended with four learnings to keep in mind in supporting listening for transformative change:

  • Having a trained facilitator who is very good at listening can make a world of difference when you are starting a Speakers Bureau.
  • Listening is about filtering emotions out to hear the words and understand the reality of those being left out.
  • Facilitation is about understanding the human dynamics of interactions. Ideas come out when we allow people to speak in a safe and organic environment. Everyone is a spokesperson.
  • There is more than one way of listening because people communicate differently (acting, painting, filming, photographing, writing).

Note: On April 4 2017, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction was recipient of the Leadership in Poverty Reduction Award for their outstanding work in their community.  To learn more about the 2017 Vibrant Communities Canada – Cities Reducing Poverty Awards, click here.







About Jennifer Chivers:

Jennifer provides administrative and logistics support to the work of the roundtable as she is the contact point with people from across Canada that wish to learn more about their work. She collaborates with a diversity of stakeholders: academic institutions, community organizations and local authorities. She is also the coordinator of the Speakers Bureau.

About Naseem Saeed Sherwani:

Naseem is a member of the Speakers Bureau since 2014. Through this initiative, Naseem has received training on public speaking and she also has the opportunity to speak in a variety of topics linked to poverty, specifically professional training, immigration and living wage. She currently has an advisory role at the Speakers Bureau. She helps members go through a brainstorming process, convey and tailor their speeches.


Abbott Square: Using a community-based approach to bring a Museum into the public sphere

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This is the fifth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

From our previous conversations with leading placemakers in Canada, Lebanon, the UK, the US, Belgium, and more, it is clear that there is a growing need - and creative energy to support that need - to open up our public spaces both physically and psychologically. With that need comes opportunities to repurpose and reconnect assets - from libraries to greenspaces - to foster places in which we can share visions, resources, and power.

When we talk about building out the civic commons, one important piece of the puzzle are civic institutions like galleries, museums, and archives. How can these places that often take us outside of our immediate context (temporal, geographic, etc.) ground us in order to build a stronger, more connected community? How can the wealth of knowledge and ideas contained within these institutions be brought out into the communities in which they’re located?

We were lucky enough to connect with Nina Simon, museum visionary and Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, just after she was in Toronto to give a keynote at NEXT, the 2017 Canadian Association of Science Centres' annual conference. Read on to find out how the MAH is both sharing out and inviting in to expand traditional museum programming while fostering important conversations about place.

Responses are lightly adapted from our Q&A with Nina.

You state that “the MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in”; this is a powerful statement in a world where retreating into private spheres is seen as an acceptable solution. How did this mission statement develop?

Retreating into private spheres is neither ethically acceptable nor financially sustainable. The MAH almost closed in 2011 because it was perceived in our community as closed-off and insular. Our subsequent rebirth and transformative growth was rooted in a community-based approach. We believe we exist for our community, with our community, period.

As we started doing community-based work, we built a strategic framework around it, which we call a theory of change, connecting the activities we do to the impact we seek. The impact we focus on is using art and history to build a stronger, more connected community. Our community doesn’t live solely in our building. Our work shouldn’t, either.

Relatedly, what do you see as next steps to continuing to expand your audience?

We are expanding into Abbott Square to bring the MAH experience out into our immediate downtown community. But we don’t intend to stop there. Strategically, we see growth at the MAH in the next five years as happening beyond the building. We want the museum to be the creative heart of an ever-expanding network of community connections and partnerships. These connections are both ephemeral (pop up museums, collaborative festivals) and permanent (history exhibits in bus stops, public art projects). We are investing on multiple levels to build a more connected community across our region.

The idea of bringing the community into the MAH can be connected to breaking apart the public/private space dichotomy. What have been some of the key actions involved in changing a traditional museum setting to one that is open and interactive?

The first step to being open is being open. Open to possibilities. Open to new ideas and perspectives. Open to the people who walk in your doors. We see creative and cultural assets everywhere in our community, and we think it’s our job to amplify, connect, and empower them. It’s a basic mindshift from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking.

Can you give a few examples of how you are engaging with people who may not normally enter a museum setting?

  1. We bridge people from different cultural and economic backgrounds frequently in our projects. For example, in the spring of 2017 we presented an exhibition called WE WHO WORK, pairing Hung Liu’s gorgeous portraits of ancient Chinese laborers with contemporary tools from locals who are day workers. Most day workers in our community are low-income, Latino, often exploited, often ignored. Bringing them and their labor stories into the exhibition brings them dignity and ties their struggles to those of the historic laborers in the artwork.
  2. We embrace the full spectrum of creative expression in our community. Our biggest annual event, the GLOW festival, is a digital art and fire street festival. It was started when a group of local world-famous fire artists approached the MAH and said, “we never get to show our work here in Santa Cruz County.” Their art may not hang on gallery walls, but it is powerful and worth sharing. We worked hard to showcase their work in a safe, fun, incredible festival experience that has become a signature MAH event.
  3. We make safe space for other groups to use the MAH as their cultural platform. The MAH is home to a writing tutoring center, a puppetry institute, research projects, a racial justice group, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and many, many other endeavors. We want the MAH to be seen as a convening space, and we have worked hard to say yes to as many community groups as possible who can get and bring value here.

In what ways do you measure engagement and impact?

For us, success looks like our audience reflecting the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our county. That’s our basic measuring stick. Beyond that, we measure whether people feel empowered through MAH programs and whether our programs are catalyzing new cultural bridges across divides in our community.

How do we measure these things? We survey people directly with targeted questions, and we also observe and capture stories of impact. For example, on the bridging side, we ask visitors: “Did you have a positive experience with someone from a different cultural background?” And then we also listen for the later stories of deeper bridging: an Oaxacan music group and historical association who team up on an event, a composer and a sculptor who partner on a project, a partner from a marginalized background who tells us she’s made more friends and felt more welcome because of her involvement with the MAH.

One of our thematic areas at Cities for People is strengthening the civic commons (i.e., sharing the planning, management, and use of community assets). Does this framing apply to your work in connecting spaces that were previously viewed as unrelated to one another?

Yes and no. On the one hand, because of the MAH’s impact focus on building a more connected community, we spend a lot of our time sharing / connecting / partnering / co-conspiring. We have literally thousands of local partners. We encourage MAH staff to serve on boards, volunteer for other organizations, and get involved in civic projects. We are delighted to share our knowledge and assets with others… and we learn from them too.

On the other hand, we have a heavy bias for action. We’re not willing to spend years in planning. At the MAH, we’re serious about community participation, but we’re also serious about the fact that that participation has to lead somewhere--to a powerful outcome that all our participants can take pride in. If a particular opportunity appears to be stuck in a multi-year planning loop, we move on.

The MAH seems to pay particular attention to appealing to many age groups - something which art institutions seem to struggle with. What steps have you taken to build all-ages programming into your plans?

We don’t target our programming to specific groups. Instead, we focus on bridging--making the MAH a place you come to interact with people from many different walks of life. That means that we don’t do “young adult” events or “family” events. We do community events, and we design them to appeal to many different constituencies.

For example, we found that only families with small kids would come to an event called “Family Art Day,” but people of all ages--including families with kids--would come to a “Radical Craft Night” featuring hands-on activities, blacksmithing, even a taxidermy demonstration. Bridging different cultural offerings in one space brings together people of many different ages and backgrounds.

How did the Pop-up Museum idea (a temporary exhibit created by whomever comes up with an idea) come into being?

A UW graduate student, Michelle DelCarlo, developed it as part of her master’s thesis in museology. We loved the simple, understandable, scalable format for bringing people together around objects and conversations. We worked with Michelle to adapt her model into a structure that we use in Santa Cruz County and that we share with the world via www.popupmuseum.org. The MAH’s free Pop Up Museum toolkit has been downloaded over 12,000 times by people in 128 countries.

How did you connect with residents in neighbourhoods away from the MAH to bring the museum experience to their communities?

We’re always looking outward. Where we are interested in a particular community (whether defined by neighborhood, cultural practice, age, etc.), we seek out their events, favored places, and experiences. We are guests in their spaces, learning what they love and value. Then, we reach out, focusing on how we can amplify the incredible work they do.

Can you point to examples of civic institutions that have taken a similar approach to breaking down walls (literally or metaphorically) to integrate and connect their space with the urban fabric surrounding it? I.e., are there any comparable projects that have served as inspiration to you and your team?

Yes - many. Here are just a few...

  • The Laundromat Project in New York City, which puts artists to work in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, which co-creates exhibitions with community members, putting their voices and artifacts first.
  • Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, which uses contemporary art to catalyze new ideas about how the city can move forward.
  • Queens Museum in New York, which activates deep partnerships in Corona Plaza.

 Learn more about this transformative project:

  • Why We’re Building Abbott Square (blogpost written by Nina Simon for her blog Museum 2.0)
  • In Santa Cruz? Come visit the MAH and Abbott Square.
  • Keen to host your own Pop Up Museum? You can use MAH’s Pop Up Museum Organizer’s kit, which offers tips and step-by-step advice on hosting Pop Up Museums.

Sneak peek: Montreal’s neighbourhood roundtables

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This June we will have the opportunity to meet with some of Montreal’s neighbourhood roundtables! Find out more about the work of some of these changemaking organizations: 

Vivre Saint-Michel en santé

Vivre Saint-Michel en santé (VSMS) is a coalition of community organizations, citizens and institutions committed to fight against poverty and social exclusion. Their areas of expertise include but are not limited to mobilization, civic engagement, and support to local projects with municipal authorities. Learn more about their work (French).

Join us in Montreal to unfold the story of a neighbourhood that has gone from suffering socioeconomic decline to achieving important transformations in the last 10 years through citizen-led mobilization.

CDC Centre-Sud

The Corporation de développement communautaire (CDC) Centre-Sud is a multi-sectoral group of nearly 50 stakeholders that support active participation of the community in increasing the visibility of actions that support social and economic vitality. Learn more about current activities (French).

Join us in Montreal to learn about the work of this historic neighbourhood to support food security in a creative and inclusive manner.

Peter-McGill Community Council

The  mission  of  the  Peter-McGill  Community  Council  is  to  encourage a sense of belonging to the neighbourhood and an active involvement in community life o; create a place where stakeholders can express their concerns; collectively  determine  priorities  for  action  and  be  empowered  to  improve  the  quality  of  life for all. Read their latest annual report (October 2016).

Join us this June in Montreal to learn more about the major property transformations that this high-density neighbourhood is facing , and how residents have been advocating for secure and affordable housing for their families.


Saint-Léonard is a space for cross-sectoral dialogue that brings residents together to contribute for local well-being. Their work is guided by a set of shared values that support teamwork and build a common vision: engagement, respect, trust, solidarity, and democracy. Learn more about their current projects (in French).

Join us in Montreal to discover this of a community’s journey to developing its collective impact.

Solidarité Mercier-Est

Solidarité Mercier-Est is a multi-sectoral roundtable that works to improve quality of life. They mobilize residents to launch collective actions that have an impact on the neighbourhood’s social, economic, community and, environmental development. Learn more about their six neighbourhood priorities (French).

Join us in Montreal to find out how this neighbourhood has reclaimed a commercial street to develop public spaces and support buying locally.

Want to learn more about Montreal’s neighbourhood roundtables? Have a look at their online directory.


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Cities as a commons: Sharing vision, resources and power

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by Alex Gillis

Uber, Airbnb and other sharing enterprises allow people to buy rides, rent homes and hire people for everyday chores, but are those initiatives really about sharing?

“They are full of the steroid of venture capital,” explained Julian Agyeman, co-author of the book Sharing Cities and professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, in the United States. “These are not sharing enterprises anymore. These are about making lots of money, and about exploiting workers and neighbourhoods.”

Last month, at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, Agyeman spoke about true sharing enterprises, the types that involve “just sustainability,” as he puts it, a sustainability that melds human equality with environmental issues, merges social justice with ecological sustainability. He was one of four international experts at an event organized by Evergreen and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Cities for People initiative, an event that’s part of collaborations to foster inclusive, innovative and resilient cities.

“Let’s go beyond the idea of the sharing economy, to explore approaches that are more cultural than commercial, more political than economic, and that are rooted in the broad understanding of a co-created urban commons,” Agyeman said. “The urban commons is in retreat.” The Internet, for example, is a commons and is under threat. “We need net neutrality,” he argued.

The idea of the ‘commons’ is 800 years older than the internet but is as revolutionary now as it was then. ‘Commons’ refers to places and resources that are open for all people to share — a tradition that’s always been counter to privatization and commodification of places and resources. The origin of the commons can be found in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, both created in the thirteenth-century to alleviate the mass hunger and suffering created when the nobility took over forests and rivers.

Later, in the England of the 1600s, the idea of the commons was revived after commoners challenged powerful elites who had fenced huge tracts of land for private use. The bloody conflict led to the beheading of the English king and the English Civil War.

Today, the idea of the commons is enjoying a revival and means new things.

“These ‘new’ commons include knowledge commons, cultural commons, infrastructure commons, and neighbourhood commons, among others,” write Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione in “The City as a Commons.” In this paper, they argue that inhabitants have a ‘right to the city,’ have a right to be part of creating the city, and have a right to use tangible and intangible collective resources in the city. They list examples: streets, parks, community gardens, open spaces and business and community improvement districts.

And both authors propose new governance models to make the city the facilitator of inclusive decision-making and equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable and disenfranchised groups.

Cities need these new models to address new urban problems. Two thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, a massive increase from current levels. Migration and urban planning, along with climate change, violent conflict and gaping inequality, are important challenges of the twenty-first century.

Given these overwhelming problems, how can we create smart and sharing cities? The short answer is: urban innovation networks. Successful models in the Colombia, UK, U.S., Italy, Germany and the Netherlands provide examples for Canadian cities — models that inspired the federal government to launch the $300 million Smart Cities Challenge Fund.

Participatory City – Illustrated Guide

The Participatory City initiative in the UK is one such model. “These projects see people working together on practical ideas that make their neighborhoods more exciting and enjoyable and sustainable socially, economically and environmentally,” writes Tessy Britton, founder of Participatory City, which is in the seventh year of researching and prototyping new ways to support practical participation.

“At the heart of the city as a commons are citizens and their creativity,” she explained at the Evergreen event. “Small exchanges of friendship create networks of cooperation that are the building blocks of a sustainable future, but only if we have encouraged these on a large enough scale.” Her organization focuses on redesigning or re-structuring systems to makes it easier for people to participate on a practical, everyday level. “We are creating a commons platform,” she said.

Their next project in the UK will be in a northeast London borough with a population of 200,000. “It’s the ninth most deprived borough in the UK, with a blanket level of deprivation, unlike other areas where you have pockets of deprivation and pockets of middle class areas,” she said. The organization is hoping to raise £6 million over five years for over 300 projects.

“If you live there, you’ll have 70 opportunities each week to share or cooperate with neighbours, whether you’re cooking, growing things, learning, repairing, or participating in everyday activities.” The point is that the urban innovation networks won’t be extraordinary; they’ll be normal and a part of everyday life. “To mainstream and scale up participation, we have to make it attractive, accessible, convenient and beneficial, and every action has to benefit everybody who’s taking part in it.”

“These neighbourhoods will also be created by everyone living in them — not by heroic or extraordinary efforts — but simply by doing many of the things we do in the course of going about our daily lives together, rather than alone,” she added.

Julian Agyeman explained something similar: “There are four conditions to just sustainabilities: improving our quality of life and well-being; meeting the needs of both present and future generations; justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcomes; and, finally, living within ecosystem limits.”

Medellin, Colombia

“Reinvention and revival of sharing could enhance equity, rebuild community and dramatically cut resource use — and we could meld cyber and real space and develop platforms where equity is enabled,” he said. He pointed to Medellín, Colombia, where the city developed the urban commons — providing access to poor areas, opening library parks with free broadband access and practicing other ‘urban acupuncture’ (pinpricks of innovation around the city). Most importantly, the city uses participatory budgeting and planning, a process that contributes to a large portion of the city’s budget.

In Italy, the LABoratory for the GOVernance of Commons (or LabGov) is an organization that, each year, trains about 30 students and experts in urban-commons governance. It focuses on partnerships of citizens, NGOs, public administrations, local business and communities that share scarce resources and care for the commons, both tangible and intangible, in urban areas. LabGov is leading an initiative in the city of Bologna, Italy, to encourage development of a shared city, with urban roads used as a commons. It’s also establishing an agency for industrial and cultural commons. Phase 2 will involve citizens starting projects in the city.

In the U.S., Living Cities and Reimagining the Civic Commons include innovative concepts of the commons. Living Cities is an organization that collaborates with multidisciplinary, civic leaders in approximately 40 American cities to develop new approaches to improving the well-being of low-income people. Reimagining the Civic Commons is an initiative that counters economic and social fragmentation in cities by revitalizing public places, such as parks, plazas, trails and libraries, to bring together people from different backgrounds.

Back in Canada, the next phase of Cities for People involves working with partners to build the Future Cities Network, a collaboration to link new and existing hubs in Toronto, Montreal and other cities. This joint venture between multiple partners, including the McConnell Foundation and Evergreen, intends to pool and coordinate learning opportunities and substantial investment in the coming years. The Toronto hub of the Network — the Future Cities Centre — is already under construction at Evergreen Brick Works.


Alex Gillis

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.


Learnings from The City as a Commons series

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In late March (20-28), Julian Agyeman, Tessy Britton, Gorka Espiau and Rony Jalkh joined us for The City as a Commons conference series in three Canadian cities. Throughout these two weeks of activities they participated in meetings on how to advance transformative city building and thinking.

Below are some takeaways from these gatherings:

  • To strengthen the City as a Commons, we need to incorporate multicultural thinking in our day-to-day work. This can be achieved through dialogue and reciprocal understanding between residents. Developing inclusive cultural practices will help us advance toward more inclusive cities.
  • Creating a truly participatory city means making sure that city neighbourhoods are made by everyone and for everyone. Neighbourhoods are places that can fuel social transformation; they can o
  • perate as platforms, laboratories, schools, models of sustainability and models of equality.
  • An inclusive city is one where participation has been mainstreamed (embedded in local values and beliefs) and scaled up. An inclusive city is participatory by nature.
  • Participation can be mainstreamed and scaled up if we make it attractive, accessible, and convenient - and with concrete benefits.
  • There are two different systems that work together to create a participatory city:
    i. participation opportunities that facilitate civic engagement in practical projects that align with residents’ daily lives
    ii. support systems that make it easier to maintain or grow collections of projects.
  • Placemaking is nourished by participation and trust; it encourages residents to find a place where they feel welcome. Like peacemaking, placemaking requires courage, compassion and collaboration.
  • A shared narrative has the potential to transform communities, attitudes and behaviors.
  • An understanding of a community’s social fabric and its waves of transformation is required to create a shared narrative (incorporating questions of who we are, who the neighbourhood is, what is possible and what is not). The deeper we understand the waves of transformation and the processes that happen within a community, the more the impact we can achieve through our initiatives.
  • Stories for social transformation are not controlled by a central command. They are connected in terms of value systems and the impact we wish to achieve as a collective.
  • Understanding the city as a commons involves going beyond quaint notions of the gift economy  - it requires engaging in systemic restructuring. The commons are not only about asset building but also about the processes of creating and producing together.
  • To strengthen the commons, we have to go beyond top-down and bottom-up approaches. Conversations should be framed around how citizens and institutions can work better to transform places, moving the centre of gravity out of the town hall and into neighbourhoods.

A list of practical ideas to support placemaking for social inclusion:

  1. Create places for children.
  2. Organise exhibitions and competitions where new residents can showcase their food.
  3. Support cultural and art fairs: music, fashion, dance, instruments.
  4. Conduct gatherings that foster a sense of caring among newcomers.
  5. Conduct activities for space appropriation (such as murals).
  6. Create community gardens using plants familiar and useful to newcomers.
  7. Use public spaces for book clubs and intercultural conversations.
  8. Create informal playgrounds where children can use their imagination in public spaces.
  9. Develop art therapy activities: public spaces can be used as a platform for residents to express their feelings through art. Contemplating these art expressions helps people to better understand each other.

Got any learnings to add to the mix? Please share them with us by commenting or on Twitter #civiccommons.

Building inclusive, resilient and innovative cities: Inspiration from Boston

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Why a Study Tour in Boston?

Boston is home to cutting-edge initiatives in social entrepreneurship (EforAll, the MassChallenge); neighbourhood revitalization and civic innovation (The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Roxbury Innovation Center); and youth engagement and social innovation (YouthBuild, DesignX-MIT and Mission Hill School). The city also inspires practitioners who have done extensive research in sustainability, smart cities and inclusion. Boston is not only an innovation hub, it is also one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the United States. From the historic streets of nearby Cambridge to the artistic Victorian town houses of Black Bay, the city suits a variety of lifestyles.

From November 14 to 16, 2016, a group of 28 Canadian innovators met with representatives from 13 Boston changemaking organizations and professors from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University to share expertise and feedback on how to build more inclusive, resilient and innovative cities. Believing that agents of city change come from all sectors and walks of life, the itinerary catered to a diverse group of stakeholders involved in city-making: entrepreneurs, researchers, community leaders and members of the private sector. Having a multidisciplinary group allowed us to learn different approaches to tackle similar issues.

Download the executive summary of our report to find out what we learned.

Placemaking for Peacemaking

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This is the third in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Rony Jalkh: Placemaking for Peacemaking

As part of a panel discussion on strategies to go beyond Habitat III at the Placemaking Leadership Forum (Vancouver, BC. September 14-16, 2016), Rony Jalkh shared his work on Placemaking for Peacemaking, a two-way process for intervening, activating and improving public spaces as a way to promote inclusion and interaction in socially fragmented cities, particularly with immigrant and refugee communities.

We had the chance to chat with Rony before his session to get a glimpse on his approach to placemaking and ways to promote civic engagement in marginalized neighbourhoods.

What is placemaking for you?

To me, it’s about making place with the people, for the people. And it’s for all the people. I started working in Beirut. The project was about promoting placemaking because it’s not something known in Lebanon. We don’t have the culture of public spaces and we don’t have the culture of a participatory approach. In Lebanon we have a proverb that says “kill two birds with one stone.” This means that I want to make placemaking for two reasons: I want to tell people that they have the right to have public spaces and to claim them. But also I want to tell municipalities that people must participate in these projects.

Who would be the mediator in this process of placemaking for peacemaking?

We have to find someone who can be the link between community and municipalities. Someone who can play this role, someone who is dynamic and a catalyst. I believe universities can help. University students are young, dynamic, open and capable to play the linking role between the community and municipal authorities.

What has been your experience working with university students as mediators?

I started by providing workshops at universities. I implemented a pilot project at the American University of Beirut. I took placemaking because to me it’s a flexible process, we can always adapt it to local contexts. So I prepared a syllabus and I taught these courses for free. I wanted to test what I prepared to connect students to the community. Timing was good because we had municipal elections in Lebanon and the municipality was open to new ideas.

What challenges did you experience working on this project?

It was not easy because the students have never been to these communities. The students came from middle- to upper-income Lebanese families. I focused my work on marginalised neighbourhoods, mostly in the suburbs. Some of these neighbourhoods had immigrant populations (predominantly from Syria). The cultural shock experienced by students helped us screen their level of commitment to the project.

How did you bring students closer to the reality of residents in marginalized communities?

I included anything related to communications as part of the syllabus of the courses that I organized. The students often did not speak Arabic because they came from upper class families.

We also implemented a listening process among students. We explained to them how to ask questions in Arabic and introduced them to the cultural reality of these communities. For instance, we explained to students that it’s not enough to speak the language, they need to understand the slang and be sensitive to these nuances so that they can come closer to their reality. We worked a lot on communication skills. We also helped students learn how to negotiate the design and co-creation process with the community and told them that every opinion counts. I gave them an example. I said “You are architects. When you graduate you will build a house for your clients. So you will prepare the design and you will have to negotiate with your clients the number of floors. For public spaces the client is the people. You cannot build public spaces without negotiation. The community is your client. You must make something that is feasible, tangible and accessible for everyone.”

What was the scale of this project?

During three months we worked on 21 designs prepared by 21 students for different locations in Beirut. We are talking about small spaces because publicly accessible land is scarce in Lebanon. These are little land pockets where we could plant a tree to make people come. We worked under the idea that public spaces must remain open anytime and for everyone.

How can we use placemaking to bring peace in fragmented communities?

Placemaking is about connecting people in a space. And peacemaking is also about connecting people to each other. And for me peacemaking cannot succeed if it is not in a concrete place. It means we have to bring people together but how, where? So, the place should be a tool to bring peace. Placemaking for peacemaking is an approach, they reinforce each other. Placemaking is a participative approach. When you let people participate, the participation will bring trust and when you build trust you can have peace. So if I work with you, we will have to trust each other. If we make peace together, we will be more encouraged to work together.

But how do you engage people to work together?

Trust. In Beirut we learned that when we co-create neighbourhoods you don’t bring contractors, you work with the community. I asked students to identify skilled people within the community: carpenters, construction workers, plumbers, and so on. We invited students to work together with these people and friendships were made. These interactions facilitated teamwork.

While working with Syrian communities in Beirut, I explained to them that if they wish to be accepted they need to contribute to city co-creation. We saw Syrian and Lebanese residents working together in creating public spaces.  I’m not saying this is magic but if the public space is a place where we all wish to come, we could begin by building peace through the public space. If we have playgrounds for Lebanese and Syrian children we can facilitate interaction and parents might begin talking to each other.

Once I worked on a tree-planting project in a marginalized neighbourhood in Beirut. We designed the streets and we told residents “This is your tree and it’s up to you to take care of it. Tomorrow we will plant it, please be ready to help us.” It was the residents and not volunteers who were involved. Ten years later, I observed that trees grew and provided shade to residents. Working with communities takes time and requires patience. Trees, like communities, do not grow up in one day, they are the result of patience.

Rony will be joining us as part of The City as a Commons, a series of conversations in Canada with international innovators who are advancing transformative change in participatory city building and thinking. He will be giving talks open to the public (RSVP required) in Montreal on March 20 and 24; and in Toronto on March 27.

About Rony Jalkh

With nearly 16 years of experience working with UN-Habitat and other international organizations, Rony has extensive knowledge managing and monitoring projects relating to governance, civil society and working with the public sector. As an activist and practitioner of Placemaking, he provides lectures and workshops throughout Lebanon and abroad. As a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces, Rony is currently leading research on “Placemaking for Peacemaking” with the objective of creating placemaking resources and tools to promote urban equity and inclusion.

Participatory cities grounded in practical, everyday acts

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This is the fourth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Tessy Britton: Participatory City

In conversations about shaping our cities, we often talk about public participation as a crucial element of decision-making. But how does this translate to people’s day-to-day lives? Are there enough opportunities to get involved in local governance? What factors are necessary to achieve power shifts rather than tokenistic public input?

These are questions that Londoner Tessy Britton and her Participatory City initiative have had on their minds for many years. While we intrinsically know that cities should be places for all (and therefore shaped by all), it can be difficult to concretize this ideal. Tessy, through her deep work in practical participation in UK cities, has answers. Last month, we had the opportunity to chat about supporting networks of citizen-run spaces, connecting everyday acts with larger goals like social inclusion and enterprise creation, and how neighbourhoods can be created by and for everyone.

We began our discussion by sharing what our home cities - Toronto, Canada and London, UK - have in common when it comes to citizens shaping city spaces. In both cities, placemaking is happening on a micro-scale (think tool libraries, 100in1Day, laneway crawls, and myriad other examples), and though it makes a difference to the immediate community, these projects are often disparate and don’t reap the kind of measurable results that influence decision-makers. In other words, small, citizen-led initiatives certainly have localized benefits, but are not adding up to a more supportive society.

What if participating in planning your community didn’t have to involve taking time to attend a formal public meeting or filling out an online survey that doesn’t allow for communicating the nuances of lived experience? What if your regular activities, from gardening on your front porch to preparing food to repairing your bicycle, were recognized as contributing to the collective experience of folks in your neighbourhood? While these support systems exist, they tend to be exceptions to the norm, where we are connected mainly for purposes of financial transactions. In a Participatory City, decisions about place are actually structured around these everyday acts. So what does this look like? Who is involved? How can we harness the know-how, creativity, and passion of citizens into a city that takes care of its inhabitants?

Starting this year, Participatory City will transform one London neighbourhood into a Demonstration Neighborhood - of around 200,00 to 300,000 residents - that will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality. Here is how this impressive initiative is taking shape:

  • It is built on an open-source environment that allows all users to share what they’re doing and collaborate with others.
  • It doesn’t have to involve a lot of new inputs; instead, it makes better use of spaces, resources, skills, and knowledge.
  • It recognizes the potential of essential, everyday acts to effect change, when connected and supported.
  • It supports an ecology of mutually dependent and supportive collections of activity in common places like cafes, schools, and gardens (the goal being 1,000 ideas to transform one’s neighbourhood).
  • It gets unlikely allies working together, resulting in more social capital and greater resilience.

Our conversation kept coming back to power and the ways in which city governments value certain assets and undervalue others. In order for our cities to become places for all, not just for those with certain powers and privileges, change must be rooted in building social capital in a way that is available to all. The Participatory City is different from one-off citizen engagement because the projects within, by their nature, attract people of different socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and interests. Why? Because the projects are social, practical and productive”, and allow for different ways to participate, unlike many traditional volunteer or charity activities. Since they are built on activities which appeal to a variety of people, they provide easy opportunities to collaborate without much external intervention, resulting in an immediate sense of ownership, and often a tangible outcome.

This is something that we could learn from in Canadian cities. From coast to coast, there are fantastic grassroots projects that demonstrate new possibilities for using city spaces, from Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes to Open Streets projects happening yearly in several cities. However successful these 'temporary activation' projects are, it seems like momentum is slow to build, and that arguably, these projects have not yet shifted dominant practices of city building or community enterprise creation. Perhaps one solution for city governments and private funders lies in emulating what is being done with Participatory City: rather than funding localized projects and then leaving them to fend for themselves, a solution could be a more self-sustaining system of connecting, scaling up and out, and reinforcing community-driven projects and enterprises for long-term impact. Participatory City does this through a cycle of listening to people in ways that enable citizen experimentation and co-creation of projects and social enterprises.

Want to know more about Participatory City? Tessy will be sharing her work at a public discussion series, The City as a Commons, starting next week in Montreal (March 20 and 23), Toronto (March 27), and Ottawa (March 28). All events are free, but please do register.

Further reading:

 About Tessy Britton:

Tessy is the founder of Participatory City and has been developing the Participatory City practice for six years, researching and prototyping new ways to support widespread practical participation. Tessy works on a number of international projects, including supporting Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, judging the New Radicals 2016 with Nesta and The Observer. She is also a British Council Fellow for the Hammamet Conference in Tunisia. Tessy is a guest lecturer at: Saïd Business School (Oxford), LabGov at LUISS University (Rome); Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University; Rhode Island School of Design (Providence. USA).

Cities as Places of Transformation

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Last May, Jayne Engle gave the keynote presentation at the Montreal Urban Sustainability Experience (MUSE) Symposium on the enormous transformative potential of cities - and the thorny obstacles that are preventing the kind of wholesale changes that would allow cities to be liveable, resilient, and inclusive.

Here is the introduction to her presentation: Cities as Places of Transformation.

1. City Song Lines

Has anyone heard of something called ‘Songlines’ in Aboriginal culture?

Songlines are the long Creation story lines that cross landscapes and put geographical and sacred sites into place in some Aboriginal cultures. They are both inspiration and important cultural knowledge.

I’d like to start by reading a ‘City Songline’ by Leonie Sandercock, from her book Cosmopolis II.

“I look into my crystal globe, and I dream of the carnival of the multicultural city…. I don’t want a city where everything stays the same and everyone is afraid of change; I don’t want a city where young African Americans have to sell drugs to make a living, or Thai women are imprisoned in sweat shops in the garment district where they work sixteen hours a day six days a week. I don’t want a city where I am afraid to go out alone at night, or to visit certain neighborhoods even in broad daylight; where pedestrians are immediately suspect, and the homeless always harassed. I don’t want a city where the elderly are irrelevant and ‘youth’ is a problem to be solved by more control.

“I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are seduced by it; where only after consultation with local folks could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barb-wired fence around carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no-one is without authority.

“I want a city where people can cartwheel across pedestrian crossings without being arrested for playfulness; where everyone can paint the sidewalks, and address passers-by without fear of being shot; where there are places of stimulus and places of meditation; where there is music in public squares, and street performers don’t have to have a portfolio and a permit, and street vendors co-exist with shopkeepers. I want a city where people take pleasure in shaping and caring for their environment and are encouraged to do so; where neighbors plant bok choy and taro and broad beans in community gardens. I want a city that is run differently from an accounting firm; where planners ‘plan’ by negotiating desires and fears, mediating memories and hopes, facilitating change and transformation.”

This ‘love song’ as Leonie calls it, is about naming existing narratives and expressing desired ones.  I’ll come back to the topic of city narratives a little later on.  First, I want to share a hypothesis based on the title of this talk -- that is that Cities can be Places of Transformation.

Read on! 

CLICK HERE to see the accompanying slides.