Diversity, Our Strength

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(originally posted on TOmillennials.ca)

If I hadn’t moved to Toronto, I might still be living in the closet.

Yup, the big TO helped me come out to myself. Living in the most diverse city in the world exposed me to all kinds of people from different walks of life. It normalized what I had once thought was “weird” and showed me that being “different” and being “okay” were not mutually exclusive.

Growing up in the suburbs, everything was very clean, organized, and routine. A friend once told me she would never move to Toronto because it was “so dirty and full of weirdos”. Firstly, yes, we’re still friends. Second, I’ll admit the occasional surprise-whiff of lingering urine can be irritating, but I had a whole other take on “weirdos”: Toronto is eclectic, full of people unapologetically embracing themselves, their identities, their passions. Just go to Trinity Bellwoods Park on a regular day and you’ll see what I mean (freestyle ultimate wizards, Slacklining parties, etc.).

Standard happenings at Trinity Bellwoods Park (Source: Torontoist)

Because everyone in this city is so visibly different, there’s an unspoken understanding that our differences are also largely invisible – you know you don’t know what the other person is going through. Having a diverse social network builds tolerance through empathy and understanding. Google it, and you’ll find a myriad of studies in the recent decade revealing diversity not only brings different perspectives to the table, but it’s also a necessity to having teams that are more creative, compassionate, and, effective. In fact, even where you keep your ketchup is an indicator of how diverse a group is. Our respective differences are not an obstacle to co-operation and it’s proudly reflected in our city’s official motto, “Diversity, our strength”.

The sheer population of Toronto makes it much easier to support your passions and hobbies too. If you’re into longboarding, there are several longboarding communities and some pretty sweet shops in Kensington Market. Into coding and community-building? Hit up Civic Tech TO.  New LGBT grad interested in professional networking? Join Out on Bay Street. The best chicken and waffles? The Dirty Bird, hands down (it qualifies as a passion). There’s something for everyone, no matter how “niche” you might’ve thought you or your interests are, because Toronto has the critical mass to support it.

Since moving here, I’ve attended various networking events and international speaker series, and joined several non-profit and social groups. More importantly, through them, I have met the most interesting of individuals and they’ve enriched my life through their stories. Moving to Toronto opened my eyes, flipped the narrative for being “different”, and made it easier to accept my own differences. So, thank you, Toronto, and see you at Pride.

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a change in pace.

Two weeks ago, I walked into my boss’ office, asked him if he had a minute, and quietly shut his door to deafening silence. “There’s never a good time to do this, but…”, I said, as I handed him my resignation letter.

I’d been with that company for just over two years (according to an earlier LinkedIn notification), and I’ve grown a lot since joining. I hit the ground running and took no time in between graduating and starting. It was a bit of a pivot from what I’d learned – my Bachelors’ Degree in Urban and Regional Planning laid out the infrastructure for understanding how the city works and gave me lenses to read and interpret policies set out by the province and municipalities for how the city should idealistically evolve – this firm dealt with the economic side of residential development – digging deep to gauge what works and what doesn’t in real estate (read: what sells and what doesn’t).

The decision to quit was a difficult one; the plan from there on was unemployment for two months and going back to school for four (read: having no income for over half a year). But I’m adamant that this is a path worth pursuing – I’m going back to Ryerson for a Certificate in Big Data Analytics, and my goal is to combine my newly acquired Big Data Analytics skills with my Urban Planning background to specialize in recording, analyzing, and evaluating the impact of urban development projects.

There are many buzz words in the urban planning community (you can’t find a white paper without mention of “sustainability”), and within the past few years, “smart communities” has been a hot topic. Down by Toronto’s waterfront where a swath of new residential developments are underway, the city’s first open-access, ultra-high speed broadband community network will provide some of the planet’s fastest internet speeds. Moving in this direction reflects the importance the city is placing on technology. Throw in news of driverless cars and you have everyone talking about revolutionary shift in planning considerations.

But it was Janette Sadik-Khan’s talk with Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat that was the tipping point for me. Being a major driving force in closing down Times Square to cars and opening it up to pedestrians, she enthused about the importance of data as not only a measurement of how well planning initiatives worked or didn’t work, but also as something that they were able to present to the skeptical public and ultimately serve as an object of accountability (after all, planning is, and always will be, for the people). She quotes former Mayor Bloomberg: “In God, I trust. Everyone else, bring data” and it speaks volumes.

She also highlighted problematically (albeit politely) how far behind Toronto was when it came to using data – in fact, there was very little data to draw from. Even our primary federal census-conducting body, Statistics Canada, has reported inconsistent reliability. Cities like New York and London are far more advanced and have entire municipal bodies dedicated to the collection, analysis, and distribution of data. The IMFG recently released a report on opportunities in Cities, Data, and Digital Innovation, detailing London’s natural evolution into one of the world’s leader’s in tech-savvy cities, and Toronto’s existing social and economic infrastructure that can propel it to reach its full potential as a world-class smart city.

But the takeaway here is that Toronto is not yet there.

The city recently contracted Jan Gehl, starchitect and star place-maker, to leading a data-building initiative focused on “improving King Street” (details are blurry), so I’m certain progress is being made in this direction. But my goal is to get ahead of the curve and incorporate tools for analyzing big data into my skillset. When Toronto is ready to deal with city-building using data, I’ll be ready too.

Professor Aseem Inam: Transforming Cities / Transforming Urbanism

The last keynote speaker for the Urban Land Institute’s Toronto symposium closed off on a philosophical note, beginning his talk with a question that brought the audience back to basics: “What is Urban Design?”.

Professor Aseem Inam, the Director of TRULAB and an Asosciate Professor of Urbanism at Parsons New School for Design, pointed us to the Short Guide to 60 Urbanisms (and There Could be More) and began listing off buzzwords – “tactical urbanism, strategic urbanism, ecological urbanism, new urbanism…” – the urban community had been furiously adopting in recent years, but had oftentimes used carelessly to the point of meaninglessness.

In an ode to our Executive Director, Inam quoted from his pre-symposium blogpost: “Every so often a city region needs a really big conversation. I would like us to deepen that conversation“. When it comes to transforming (more ambitious than just building) cities, the most powerful tool is not infrastructure, design, or money; the most powerful tool is single-handedly our mind. Our collective minds have the power to change not just the physical but the social disposition of cities – from the fine-grained urbanisms of place-making between steel skyscrapers, to actions after “Council adjourned” and before “Call to order”, and to informal micro-collaborations between neighbours down the street from one another. Changing the narrative to one with more hope and optimism, he challenged us to think “What can Urbanism be?

He noted three fundamental shifts in thinking and practicing urbanism since the 80’s, specifically urbanism that was:

1. Beyond intentions: consequences of design

  • Bringing up his work on the Big Dig in Boston, people typically viewed it as one of two things: either a highly successful urban revitalization project that reduced congestion and reconnected the urban fabric; or an expensive government project with cost overruns tagged at $40.6 billion instead of the initially announced $2.6 billion. The third, less talked-about, narrative addressed “now that it’s done, how can we make it worthwhile?” and directed focus on the unintended consequences of projects. In this case, residual construction material was the unintended consequence of the Big Dig, which was used to construct recycled houses. How does an externality such as this, which was beyond the initial scope of the Big Dig, fit into standardized cost-benefit analyses for projects?

2. Beyond practice: urbanism as creative political act

  • Urbanism is not just with formal political institutions and dynamics – we must engage with the everyday politics of the city. We must find who has the power to actually shape cities and understand how that power is wielded. With optimism and passion, he proclaimed that how we revolutionize urbanism as a creative political act is by practicing temporary anarchy. And this is a good thing.

3. Beyond objects: city as flux

  • As the idiom “the only constant is change” goes, he emphasized that disequillibrium is normal and that we must leverage it to create fundamental change. Citing a pluralist philosopher, he motioned that “What really exists is not things made but things in the making… Once made, they are dead, and an infinite number of alternative conceptual decompositions can be used in defining them.” Urban change is accomplished by translating powerful ideas into strategic action, and it is the planning and the becoming of these ideas and actions that we must focus on, not the end result. Emphasis on time is essential in which urbanism is an ongoing verb rather than a definitive noun.

In a sudden change of pace, he revealed that he was an improv comedian and a big fan of Second City. In fact, he often incorporated it into his research design methodology. Elements of improv – horizontal teams, less hierarchical structures, on-the-spot creativity – proved valuable for his city-building studios, where groups were challenged with “What-If” scenarios. The intersectionality of his work was truly fascinating.

Professor Inam closed off the symposium on an excellent note – challenging us to not stop the big conversations that we need to be having once the symposium ended and we returned to our offices, but rather, break down what we as urbanists have learned so far and critically seek unconventional ways to build better cities and practice urbanism. We, at the Urban Land Institute, reiterate his challenge to build a better city and his question to you: what can urbanism be?

Planning Mistakes

This is one of my favourite photos:

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I took this picture in Birmingham back in 2012 on a trip with my Ryerson Urban Planning peers.

Notice the older buildings on the left and the newer one on the right. Now look at the setback for the newer building in the foreground. Our guide pointed out that this setback was mandated for redevelopments per old planning documents, in anticipation of expanding the right of way for cars – they believed cars were the future of travel and were preparing to move them up the transportation hierarchy.

It’s a great reminder of how planning can get things wrong, despite the best of intentions. But I’m happy this misled prioritization was withdrawn, otherwise modern-day Birmingham would not have been as joyously walkable as it was.

(Then again, who knows? Maybe in 50 years we will think not keeping that zoning standard was a mistake, when we have solar-powered SUV hoverboards.)

Cycling in Toronto and Copenhagen

Diversity is a double-edged sword – there is strength in it but it must be properly harnessed with its scattered nature. In a city like Toronto, we’ve seen decisions made “in the public interest” that do not necessarily serve the needs of the public affected. Rather, these decisions serve needs that are either grossly aggregated or imposed upon people. Take the removal of bike lanes on Jarvis Street for example. This bike lane is used by local commuters and had the support of the local councillor. However, the majority of council decided that an additional car lane would be better and thus it was removed. This is an example of the government listening to the wrong people for the wrong thing.

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Quietly raging against the lane-removing machine

I have to confess: up til yesterday, I had never ridden a bike in downtown Toronto. Why? Continue reading

Developing a neighbourhood: Oakburn-Avondale (North York)

After the crunching stress of client-based studios, attending networking events I had committed to, and exams, I’d finally caught a break from the whirlwind of third year. My job applications to  “info@developer.ca”s had been in vain (in addition to a sub-par, pre-reviewed resume, there was also skewed competition with seasoned grad students) and I was suddenly left with something foreign and long-lost: time.

After 60+ outgoing e-mails within three weeks, it had become a nauseating process that I needed to take a breather from. My twitter had been flooded with news articles on condo developments in downtown Toronto and I got to wondering about the original condo hub – North York (aka my old ‘hood).

As if that wasn’t enough to get my nostalgia working, I accidentally stumbled upon DTAH’s secondary plan for the area as the solution to Tridel planning to expand Eastward, the critical demand for increasing school capacity, and generally sub-par physical qualities of the area.

Oakburn-Avondale secondary plan area, taken off DTAH's website.

Oakburn-Avondale secondary plan, taken off DTAH’s website.

It had been eight years since I’d last wandered into the old Oakburn-Avondale area – (just East of Yonge St. at Highway 401 – location, location, location!), and I’d heard stories from my parents who’d visited the area while I was downtown during the school year about how much it had changed. The staff report for the sale of the properties surfaced with a quick Google search.

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Sheppard vs LRT

The hot topic-turned-punchline in Toronto right now is subways (‘subways, subways, folks!‘).

The past couple of months has seen city council become an all-out monster truck show, complete with casualties, not-so-secret weapons, and ‘backstabbing’. In round 1, the battle was for Eglinton Ave. The original plan was to have transit served by means of Light Rail Transit (LRTs). Those who oppose it echo this mode of transportation synonymously with streetcars, and lets face it, it’s a powerful word in Toronto as they’re known as clumsy, lethargic, 1960s-industrial revolution-esque chunks of metal limited to routes embedded in streets. However, the newer LRTs that will be released are capable of running at higher speeds, have a more comprehensive design (higher passenger capacity, ground level floors for accessibility), and don’t lie, they’re pretty sexy.

Toronto's current streetcars

New LRTs (Coming in 2014)

After enough arguing and name-calling (‘dictator’, ‘idiot’ etc.) to make the real housewives look like civil scholars, transportation plans for Eglinton Ave were won over by LRTs (and facts and numbers).

But from a larger perspective, the discourse unintentionally served a higher purpose – citizens of Toronto began switching channels from Days of Our Lives to City Council livestreams. This project actually hit home with Torontonians, and so, like the rational self-motivated little beings economists say we are, we began tuning in to the hot mess that is Toronto Transit season 1.

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