Freeing data & building collective identity: Q&A with Vital Signs panelist Mary Rowe
A week after the Toronto Community Foundation (TCF) releases its annual Vital Signs
report on the wellbeing of Toronto, Yonge Street
presents an opportunity to engage with the issues up close and personal.
For our October 11 Yonge Talks at Innis Town Hall, TCF president and CEO Rahul Bhardwaj will be joined by special out-of-town guest Mary Rowe, vice president and managing director of the Municipal Art Society
(MAS) of New York, in a discussion about the report and its implications, as well as what Toronto can learn from New York. (For full details about the free event, and to register, click here
Starting life in London, Ontario, Rowe lived in Toronto for 25 years before moving to the US for a fellowship that saw her working on and studying the post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans. At MAS since 2010, she advocates for intelligent urban planning, design and preservation, as well as more a livable New York.
How did a Canadian like yourself end up in New York City?
In the mid-2000s, I applied for a mid-career fellowship with a US foundation based in Charlottesville, Virginia. I wanted to look at the role of self-organization in cities. I was engaged in the New Orleans recovery from 2005 to 2010. After the fifth anniversary of Katrina, I left New Orleans and came to New York City. I've only been fulltime in New York since mid-2011 because I was working on an initiative in Toronto.
For better or worse, Torontonians love to compare our city to New York.
I used to say to people when I was moving between the two cities every couple of weeks, that I could basically go to a meeting in New York, shut my eyes and imagine myself Toronto, and that the next week I might be in Toronto at a meeting and realize the issues that were being discussed, I had just heard talked about in New York. There are differences of scale and small-c cultural differences, but the similarity of challenges around land use decisions, planning decisions, transportation decisions, social justice challenges, housing challenges, public health, the important role of culture, the ways the new economy is affecting the daily lives of people who want to live downtown, the role of technology, the tensions between the old ways of doing things and the new ways in which technology and access to information has democratized that process—these are similar in both cities.
What do you mean by the democratization of information?
Efforts around open data are proliferating in city governments around the world. In the old days, data often wasn't collected at all, and if it was collected, it was held very tightly by the public agency or government that collected the data. There was a proprietary nature to holding onto that data. But if you take a situation like we had in New Orleans, where you couldn't afford to let bureaucracies hold onto information because things couldn't get solved quickly enough, you had to liberate the data. That's been happening in other cities as well. There are so many folks with the time, intelligence and the instinct to be able to mine data productively and quickly and come up with quick solutions. [Famed writer and urbanist] Jane Jacobs
[who also lived in New York and Toronto] wrote about 'eyes on the street,' which is about public spaces and how dynamic urban environments are dependent on many different sets of eyes. With data, it's the same thing. You can see that with 311 services. You can see that with handheld technology where, if people see certain things, they can report it. More sophisticated examples are when cities release data and developers can come up with smart approaches to things much more quickly and at next to no cost. There's a growing awareness that it's okay to have many eyes see things.
When you look at the Toronto Community Foundation's Vital Signs report or MAS's report on New York's livability, you have to wonder if it is possible to take the pulse of cities that are so big and diverse.
There are differentiations within neighbourhoods, as you would want there to be. The more diverse a city is, the more particular the findings are going to be and that's what makes a city dynamic—there's lots of choice. But cities do develop a sense of collective identity. That may be more of a struggle for post-amalgamation Toronto. Maybe it's going to take a generation for that to develop. You can see it in your politics now, where have the suburban-downtown divide. In New York we don't see that the same way. It's everybody else against Manhattan.
There's so much development happening in Toronto's core right now, but there's a perception that the inner suburbs aren't getting the same amount of attention. Is that a problem?
Listen to your phrasing: 'Are the surburbs getting attention?' That suggests that urban development is about neediness. Development is driven by the demands of people. I see where you're coming from. When I come into Toronto from the airport, I come along the Gardiner and I see all those towers going up in the downtown west end, and it does seem to be overwhelming. But obviously there's demand for them. In the other parts of the city, if you look at Scarborough, the built form is so undense. It hasn't intensified yet. It probably will overtime. At some point, Scarborough will feel close to downtown. When some of Toronto's suburbs, like Don Mills, were built, there was a feeling that the car was the answer and we created a situation where people were much less dependent on transit and municipal services. Now those neighbourhoods are underperforming because they lack the social infrastructure and services.
What are the things a good neighbourhood should have?
Are there opportunities there for people to access the services they want? They want to be able to shop, they want to be able to take a break, go to a park. They want to be able to take in some stimulation outside their family life, like a library or cultural experience. That's why libraries are critical, why community centres are so critical. But sometimes it's a commercial enterprise. Sometimes it's a local coffeeshop or bakery. Both in Etobicoke and Scarborough, you'll see strip malls where there's one place that's really dynamic, where lots of people have been going to for years. You want to build around those strengths. You're seeing much more neighbourhoods focusing on their own development, whereas in the old days it was more, 'I've got to get more from city hall.' It doesn't work that way anymore.
You really emphasize choice.
We've got neighbourhoods here in New York City, and you've got them in Toronto, that are so monocultural. And I don't mean ethnically and racially, though they might be that, too. It's where there's just one kind of use. Only housing. One big park. Sometimes those monolithic uses damage a neighbourhood because there's not enough variety. You want to be on the edge of the park where you have access to the green space, but there's food carts there and two blocks over there's a library and a hardware store where you can get a key cut. Your neighbours own their big house with a yard, but you live in a walk up.
That's very Jane Jacobsy.
Guilty as charged.
YONGE TALKS' PANEL ON THE VITAL SIGNS REPORT
Thursday, October 11
Doors at 6pm; program starts at 6:20pm
Location: Innis Town Hall, University of Toronto Campus, 2 Sussex Avenue (NW corner of Sussex and St George streets).
To register online go here
. We'll be using the hashtag #yongetalks for this series.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Paul Gallant is
Yonge Street's managing editor.