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

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.

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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.

​Montreal subway cars get new life and revitalize public space

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*Lead image from the Société de transport de Montréal: stm.info

Crafty placemaking with Brussels-based Urban Foxes

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This is second in our Placemaker Profile series. Read Part 1, an interview with Victoria Dickenson, here.

We first heard of Urban Foxes, a Brussels-based collective, when one of its founders reached out to us, sharing their “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” project. We found this to be an unassuming yet impactful approach to bringing people together around a common space that was previously underused. After doing further investigations, we learned that we share a name with Urban Foxes’ placemaking labs, as well as common interests in playful and participatory approaches to animating urban spaces. Two elements struck us: 1) a method of placemaking that is rooted in understanding a community’s assets and needs, and 2) an attention to inclusion, especially in the face of re/development that often puts private interests first. Keen to learn more about their background, approach, and on-the-ground projects, we asked Urban Foxes member Bram DeWolfs to answer a few questions.

All photos are courtesy of Urban Foxes.

urban-foxes4

  1. Can you describe Urban Foxes' approach to placemaking?

As a fairly young collective with no structural funding nor employees, we have chosen to focus on relatively smaller actions in our city, Brussels. Most of the time we target enhancing urban wellbeing by using creative and playful interventions. We don’t differentiate between age groups or cultures. Everybody can play or participate, and we always make sure that activities are free of charge. When it’s more than a [small] intervention, e.g. like Canal Park BXL where we crowdfunded a small part of an urban wasteland (thanks to that pressure, now a large park of four hectares is being “installed” by the government), we aim to involve all stakeholders. We also organize annual placemaking city labs called “Cities for People”, funded by the Erasmus+ program, where 30 participants from all over Europe are immersed for eight days in the world of placemaking. During this time, participants visit places showing good practices, analyze public spaces, communicate with locals, take part in theoretical and practical workshops and in the end come up with their own ways to improve urban wellbeing.

For our last project “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” we involved locals, restaurant owners, the local youth theatre, the three youth centers and a retirement home from a few blocks away. We tried to facilitate the process of starting up a common project, of which every stakeholder would be a part and where ideas could be proposed.

  1. How is placemaking around water different than on land? What are the benefits and obstacles to transforming water-scapes rather than landscapes?

At times with nice weather, the basins of the old harbour attract people looking for tranquility and relaxation. We wanted to preserve this sensation but we believed we could get more out of the unused space, which is approximately 3000 square meters, on the water. The water brings a natural feeling of poetry and triggers feelings and memories linked to the sea and water. It gives us something to look at, like the glistering and the movement of the water, but also the people around it. The obstacle of the water is that you cannot bring the people on that exact spot, like you would do on an empty market place or old parking lot, but you need to gather them around the water. But we used this disadvantage to our advantage. In order to facilitate encounter around the water, we opted for sailing boats that are controlled by the wind instead of radio-controlled. The wind took the boats across the water, which encouraged people to walk around, interact, and play, asking each other to “send” the boat back. Remote-controlled boats might have kept the people in their own private world, as happens a lot in our smartphone age.

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  1. With your Saint-Cath-Sur-Mer project, you refer to "Transforming the Fish Market into a place of wonder, playfulness and encounter." How did you go from their vision to a concrete action plan?

After the terrorist attacks and with the increasing acts of urban neoliberalism by the municipality, the people of Brussels needed playfulness and poetry more than ever. We had a vision of people of different social classes and origins would come together around the water. We wanted to facilitate encounters regardless of age or background. By winning the local competition make.brussels, an open-call to improve the image of Brussels and the wellbeing of their inhabitants, we won the necessary funds to buy the miniature sailing boats, construct the bike trailer and compensate the “vulnerable” youngsters that helped us with logistics (e.g. distributing the boats, maintenance, transporting the trailer, etc). We created a financial plan, a communication strategy, and a participatory process involving residents, local schools, youth centers, local businesses, neighbourhood committees and a retirement home. We bundled the ideas and concerns and came up with an action plan with ideas and proposals. After this process we launched the opening event were we invited all the stakeholders, and where everybody could enjoy the boats, a drink, and a jazz concert. We wanted a mobile and minimal intervention respecting the surroundings and [neighbourhood] identity, and involve all the stakeholders.

  1. The photos of your public space animations clearly show the potential of play to activate and encourage gathering around a public space. What other forms of play would you like to see in public spaces?

It is our dream that there would be an abundance of playing/sporting possibilities for all ages in the Brussels. One important thing that is missing in our municipality is a (soft) running track, but we would also love to see more public benches, parks, playgrounds, pétanque lanes, permanent ping-pong tables (on the newly pedestrianized Anspach boulevard, reclaimed by disobedient interventions of Picnic The Street, from which Urban Foxes sprouted) and of course fewer cars so we are able to breathe clean air.

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  1. You mention the importance of free programming in public space (for example, providing residents with small sailboats, free of charge). What tensions do you perceive around financial access to public space (e.g. patios that are only available to paying patrons), and how do you see you work addressing these exclusions?

Currently we are dealing with local policy makers who focus on attracting tourists and increasing consumption by allowing restaurant holders to expand their patios, thereby sacrificing public space and benches. Several protests have been held, with some success, to reclaim the public space that was temporarily lost. We think it’s crucial that the City act as a smart and ethical buffer between the private sector and the city [as public space]. [We need to] keep in mind that the city should be for everyone, not only for those who consume. This is why that we will stay vigilant for matters dealing with public space and we will continue to strive for activities that are free of charge and thereby aiming at inclusiveness (like our mobile pétanque, mobile cinema/fablab). We believe that a city that is good for its people is good enough for tourists as well.

Placemaker profile: Victoria Dickenson

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This is the first in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we've had with leaders in Canadian cities - from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities that make up our cities. For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Victoria Dickenson: City Conversations (from the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, BC, September 2016)

As part of a panel discussion on understanding and designing cities on a human scale at the Placemaking Leadership Forum, Victoria Dickenson shared her work organizing and facilitating in-depth, cross-Canada ‘City Conversations’. These semi-structured conversations surfaced city-dwellers’ values, hopes, and concerns about the place in which they spend time, from smaller, coastal communities like St. John’s, Newfoundland, to bustling cities like Toronto, Ontario which along with opportunities come a host of challenges, namely economic and social inequalities. 

We had the chance to chat with Victoria after her session about her learnings when it comes to seeking out, listening to, and sharing diverse perspectives about cities.

One of the aspects of placemaking that came up in your overview of the City Conversations you hosted was hearing about people’s immediate, visceral reactions to place. What are some of the strategies you use to surface those personal meanings and connections [that may not be heard or given undue attention in public consultations) so that they can be made more widely known? 

VD: [In my work as a curator] I was originally working in a museum in a beautiful, wooded site. When people came they would say: “This place is so beautiful; it feels so good!”. One day I had some Anishinaabe elders from Winnipeg visiting and I asked them: “What do you think about this place?”. They said: “There’s a real sense here that you’re on territory”. And it really struck me that we don’t spend half enough time exploring what it means to feel good in place. I went and looked at the literature, and  almost all of the authors - the geographers, the anthropologists, the historians, the architects - they all said that [feeling good in place] is indefinable, we don’t know how to describe it - but we feel it.

It’s the whole issue of respecting feelings. In Montreal, the conversations [touched on] when you’re talking about place, it’s not just a photograph - it’s a sensory experience...you can feel it in your body. So to get at that - what are these places - you have to listen to people tell you about the places that are important to them.

What might this process of surfacing these personal meanings and attachments to place look like?

First, they identify places...then you pull back and ask: Why this place? What is about it about this place...Is it a memory? Is it because you grew up there? In what way is it important to you personally?...Do you feel the significance of geological features [like two tectonic plates coming together]? Yi-fu Tuan, a humanistic geographer, talks about how the Grand Tetons of landscape don’t need interpretation...but other sites need to be [brought to the surface]. In literature or in the way that artists work, you find that they identify significant places...there’s a Newfoundland photographer, Ned Pratt, who takes photographs that make place happen in the spots he takes them in..

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Photo of the Grand Tetons from www.popphoto.com

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Portrait by Ned Pratt, www.nedpratt.com/portraiture

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Proposed M T L iconography atop Mount Royal in the heart of the city - a form of placemaking for the texting generation? Photo: www.montrealgazette.com

Listening to people’s memories of what makes a place significant, understanding traditional communities and why they are where they are...many communities are resistant to giving up their sense of place. They say: “No you can’t change this - we want it to stay the same”. Well, why? We need to get at that Looking at how artists communicate place - whether it’s visual artists, authors, poets, songwriters - they identify places that are significant. Stan Rogers, a folksinger and songwriter in Atlantic Canada, sang about bays and harbours, the small places along the coast, and influenced a whole generation of Maritimers to celebrate their place.

You have to listen and look at how people have used literature, art, and [other means of creative communication] and their lived experience in place to identify those significant places. I think one of the questions, now that we’re such a globalized society, is: do we all recognize the same place? Do we have to [agree on significant places]? And what’s the role of place - if certain places have power, which is what Aboriginal people [might say], when we’re all together in that place, does it inform who we are as a people? Does the narrative come from the ground?

From a land-use planning perspective, I don’t think these personal explorations of place are taken enough into consideration, or even considered at all.

If you don’t think of place when you start a [planning process], and you only see the ground as either commercial value or a groundscape - and you don’t ask “What are the characteristics of this place?” before thinking about [how you might intervene]...the meanings are lost. That’s one of the goals of these [City Conversations]: to get place as a category of analysis.

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Dr. Victoria Dickenson is an independent scholar and museum consultant. Her experience in museums - very special places - and her interest in cultural landscapes, have led her to develop the Conversations about Place project. She lives in, and has written about, Montreal, a city whose peculiar geography ensures that the past is always present; in summer, she lives in Newfoundland, where people belong to the place, not the other way round. She presented highlights from conversations held in St. John's, Montreal, and Toronto in a breakout session on The Human Scale at the Placemaking Leadership Forum. In the new year, she will host conversations in Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Ottawa.