Posts tagged ‘Daily Life’

November 23, 2012

A tree grows in the road

A regal tree in the middle of a square, traffic flowing around it? Sure. (See the beauty I found in Bath, England.)

But, on a recent visit to Athens, I found a tree growing straight out of the pavement, guarded by one warning sign so that vehicles had to swerve around it. Motorcycles, cars and buses all bent around it on the narrow, one-way street.

The Lorax would have been pleased to see this tree, so respected in the Athenian suburb of Kifissia. I visited it twice in my four days there.

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Coincidentally, days after my return news from Quebec on a hydro pole in the middle of a highway. Not nearly as poetic, I suppose.

August 25, 2010

Community Partnership Strategy: Community Space

This is a long-delayed follow-up to some earlier posts on the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy which is currently under development and will measure community resources in neighbourhoods across the city.

Bonnie Green writes in the recent issue of the Agora Foundation’s The Philanthropist about the tale of two non-profit organizations in search of program space in their local communities. The article, Creating Social Space in the New Urban Landscape, captures the challenge many non-profit organizations and neighbourhoods face: a lack of community space.

Good neighbourhoods need more than services; they need the space to deliver these community programs and places where community can gather. Much of the challenge of delivering service in Toronto’s “inner suburbs” has been one of carving program space out of basements and strip malls in order to bring community services to local residents. These community spaces are the places where literacy and health programs are found, where sports leagues and seniors’ groups run, where we can access the services we need or where we organize and work with others, from and for our communities.

Good neighbourhoods also need places where neighbours can meet each other, spaces like front porches, school yards and parks, corner stores, coffee shops, places of worship, recreation centres, school yards, dog runs, and even sidewalks. These are the spaces where we can go, outside of our homes and work, where we can meet each other on neutral territory.

Academics describe both these kinds of community gathering spots as third places, and maintain that they are vital to the social fabric of a neighbourhood.

The website Cooltown Studios describes such places this way:

If you aren’t motivated to leave home or your workplace, chances are you don’t live around too many successful third places.

So, it makes great sense that the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy (CSP) proposes to use these third places as an indicator of the strength of the community support system within a city neighbourhood, combining it with two other structural components: the presence of community organizations, and funding.

The CSP’s definition of community space will measure “space for residents, informal groups, community-based organizations; meetings, programs, administration; multi-purpose [and] dedicated space.”

Two types of  measurable spaces have been identified: community meeting space, which allows informal and grassroots interactions, and community program space, which is more likely to be booked and permitted for service delivery.

Similar to the work of the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce, the measure could also include the percentage of the population with one kilometre of meeting space, such as in libraries, recreation centres, and community-based organizations.

However, the CSP is more than an inventory of local resources. In consultation with community, city staff are exploring the “when is enough, enough” question to answer what benchmarks would work: how much space is needed in a neighbourhood and what functions does it need to fill? How do the needs of various neighbours differ? What’s the baseline requirement for any neighbourhood?

Not enough research — or policy-wrangling — has been done to determine these answers yet, so the early stages of the CSP are more likely to provide an effective way of comparing Toronto neighbourhoods to each other. Now, thanks to the CSP, that conversation will have a good evidence base.

August 10, 2010

Sidewalk exchanges

When the small piano on my front porch begins to tinkle, I know a neighbourhood toddler has ventured up from the sidewalk, tired parent in tow. I keep it there just for that. In the winter, we meet out there when we are shovelling. Or we see each other early in the morning when we are running out with our smelly green bins. Clusters of us appear along the street as we return from our workday, visiting those already on their porch.

This, like any neighbourhood, is a neighbourhood where our sidewalks are important.

Our sidewalks also serve a trading function. Old bookshelves, dishes and lamps are regularly laid out well before garbage day in the neighbourhood for perusal and collection by others.  I recently met a new neighbour and realized I had her discarded lamp in my living room. (In my first house, most of the furniture “free-cycled.” My partner and I even learned the garbage collection schedule of several of the upscale areas around us—sadly, something I would be less likely to do now with the urban spread of bed bugs.)

These outdoor activities have grown out of the density of our neighbourhood where we live cheek by porch, exchanges which occur by design, by happenstance, by tradition and by local culture. They have made our neighbourhood a better place to be.

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Designed by Douglas ...

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Image via Wikipedia

Word now from Portland, Oregon, where a few neighbourhoods have formalized the opportunities for these daily communal interactions, including setting up a local outdoor tea cart and building neighbourhood “sharing posts.” Mike Lanza at Playborhood.com posted  on the this development after he took a trip to the west coast.  When Communities take over their own streets includes pictures of these great communal creations. Read it to enjoy!

Using the same creative approach, Neighbourhoods blogger Kevin Harris was one of the initiators of  a new, fun Facebook group called 50 ways to meet your neighbours (“Give a nod on the bud, Gus”). The group sprang out of a meeting Harris attended and some recent research he described that showed that Brits are shy about meeting one another.

Sounds familiar. Sidewalks are a low-risk way for us all to get to enjoy a little musical (or other form of) interchange.

April 24, 2010

My beautiful laundromat, grocer, library…

While some espouse the merits of a clothesline, I like laundromats. Stories about them stick in my mind.

Early British suffragettes did some of their best community organizing in the town laundries, away from the strong pitching arms of visiting farm boys who lobbed rotten produce at them when the women stood on the back of wagons at village markets calling for the vote. Describing this scene in her autobiography, Hannah Mitchell, a working class suffragette, explained how community laundries were invariably a safer space where they had a legitimate right to gather.

Or, there is the kindergarten teacher who could not convince local families to visit the school. So she took a pile of books to the nearby residential building’s laundromat, sat down on a stool and began reading out loud. Drawn in, the children loved this reprieve from their long, dull waits, and families began to trust her. It’s a technique well-recognized in community development circles.

Even Jane Jacobs reflected this lesson in her critique of the “tower-in-a-park” style of public housing, according to author Alice Sparberg Alexiou. In a speech at Harvard University in 1956, Jacobs described the basement laundromats as the “heart” of the buildings, the only adult social area, lying in the bowels of the buildings. Laundry rooms are one of the few spaces with the buildings where tenants have any sort of extended contact.

Laundromats are fundamentally social places – third places, according to sociologist – places, outside our homes and workplaces, where we meet each other.

According to the New York Times, laundromats are becoming scarcer, as are many local businesses.

E.B. White once described the elements of his mid-century New York city neighbourhood:

no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar, a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen, a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drug store, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.

It was this commercial chaos which inspired Jane Jacobs, soon afterwards.

Jacobs joined the board of the Union Settlement Association, a New York neighbourhood house, after seeing the good work it did documenting the shifts in East Harlem as housing projects were introduced. One of Union Settlement’s social workers, Ellen Lurie, documented the effects in detail.

Lurie described the effect of the disappearance of local stores which had been razed,

Shopping, which was a time in which neighbours met, now is a long, impersonal, tiring business, especially with children in tow. (Alexiou, Jane Jacobs Urban Visionary, 2006 — a great book)

Canadian research is showing how, since the 1970s, grocery stores have been growing larger and more dispersed with urban environments, and because of restrictive covenants are not returning to urban neighbourhoods. We now have to go further to bigger stores to buy our food among strangers.

There is push-back. The call for walkable neighbourhoods has focused on these dynamics. Chris Smith, for instance, cleverly describes his 5-, 10- and 20- minute neighbourhood in Portland Oregon. Green Changemakers offers tips regularly on “living responsibly.” The American Institute of Architects is even bringing this design sensibility to offices and seniors’ housing.

A walkable neighbourhood ensures two important ingredients of a strong community:

  • access to service, especially to those among us who cannot range far, such as seniors, families with young children, and low-income people, and
  • strengthened social connections which allow us to work together for a common good.

If, as Lewis Mumford said of suburbia, it is “a collective effort to lead a private life,” an urban neighbourhood is impoverished without its laundromats, coffee shops, corner stores, public libraries and other spaces where we meet each other.

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April 1, 2010

Social spaces of apartment-dwelling children

Vertical Living Kids, a new report out of Melbourne, Australia, got a lot of international media play today. Researchers Dana Mizrachi and (former Montrealer) Dr. Carolyn Whitzman look at how children living in apartment buildings interact with their surrounding environment. Mizrachi and Whitzman pursued this question because, like most urban apartment buildings, these homes were not designed with children in mind.

The preliminary report focuses on forty children, aged 8-12, living in public and private market apartment buildings over three stories tall. Children’s excursions were tracked using GPS devises, travel diaries and surveys of parents. Mimicking Photovoice methodologies, the children also used cameras over the course of a week to document parts of their neighbourhoods which they liked and disliked.

The children described their sense of ownership of public space, their comfort travelling across neighbourhoods and using public transit. Children in private and public housing showed some parallels (social natures of excursions) and some differences (range and proximity of areas visited). The researchers found all the children raised “legitimate concerns about amenity and maintenance” of these spaces.

More than half of the children in public housing complained about quality of the play areas, yet none felt comfortable enough to range further. For instance, the report describes

None of the 13 children we interviewed in Carlton housing estate walk 500 metres to Carlton Gardens, with its large and new adventure playground and the Melbourne Museum, both of which are free to children. Instead, they cluster in the rather tired playground equipment on their public housing estates and play in the leftover spaces between residential buildings.

In contrast, children in private market housing were more likely to list greater access to a broader range of play spaces, including pools, tennis courts, skate parks, commercial enterprises, and public libraries. Those who live further from school were more likely to feel isolated from their immediate neighbourhood and so, perhaps, were more likely to travel.

One of the principal findings of the study was how children viewed dedicated/designated play areas: for many of them, the attraction of these spaces is the presence of other children rather than the equipment provided. Playgrounds, playing fields and such places are primarily social spaces for children, and the authors recommend, rather than being hived off from the broader community, should be designed as such.

Mizrachi and Whitzman’s study is particularly relevant to Toronto urban planning for two reasons: One-third of our city population live in such apartment buildings and, two, the critique of many newly-built condominiums that are not child-friendly.

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October 17, 2009

Toronto's emotional map running hot & cold

Kevin Stolarick, Richard Florida’s “stats guy” at the Martin Prosperity Institute has been up to a bit of mischievous mapping in his spare time.

Using data from a UC Berkeley psychologist who publishes the Big Five Personality Test , Stolarick has mapped out the major emotional of characteristics of Toronto residents by neighbourhood (probably Forward Sortation Areas – the first three digits of a postal code).

The Toronto Star published the maps today: Toronto the Good – and bad and sad and mellow and … .

It’s a relief to see some maps that break the traditional “U” and “O” deprivation patterns. West-enders are extroverted, east-enders are neurotic. Suburban areas tend to be more agreeable, while those along the subway lines are less so. Most of the city is the conscientious type. Those closer to the lake tend to be more open to new experiences.

Now, because the survey is web-based, Stolarick says the sample is probably skewed towards the young (and tech-savvy), but it certainly is a bit of fun!

July 16, 2009

One neighbourhood, many politics

It could have been an awkward conversation — me: a manager; my neighbour: a striking city worker; and another neighbour, who makes her living in the service industry, depending on tips.

The topic of the city workers’ strike, now ending its third week, had just popped into our front porch chitchat.

I froze, tried to shoo the topic away.

But instead, what started as a snipe about “greedy unions” turned into a wide-ranging discussion about the integrity in collective bargaining and the hard and very human realities of living through a strike. The exchange became a chance to soften hard lines which missed the complexity of our situations.

By the end, we were laughing, teasing, empathizing.

We were able to have this conversation because we had all know each other for over a dozen years. We trusted each other to have this hard conversation.

The Toronto Star profiled a similar encounter between neighbours. It is, though, a conversation that may be less and less likely in Toronto neighbourhoods, which are increasingly divided along income lines. (Why do we build homogenized houses of similar value in separated neighbourhoods?)

What happens in neighbourhoods which have less diversity, whether those differences are along political, class, or racial lines? Political science presents a useful concept to answer this: supermajorities (more than a majority, often 2/3).

In supermajorities, diverse opinions are not heard, and political positions harden. What was a conservative or a progressive belief becomes, in an unchallenged field, an ultra-conservative or a radical one.

Conversations like the one on my front porch tonight reminded me of one more reason why mixed neighbourhoods are important.

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June 28, 2009

A neighbourhood by any other name

No one in my neighbourhood agrees where we live. We laugh about our multiple names, but if attachment to a place begins with what we call it, we don’t know where we live.

The situation is aggravated by the bisection of the community into two different political ridings a few elections back. Confusingly, parents call a school trustee for whom they cannot vote, yet from whom they require help.

Even, a recent incarnation of a residents’ association debated the topic of a neighbourhood name at a few of its meetings, considering an on-line poll after no consensus was found. The website is still entitled ?? Residents’ Association.

When the Toronto Star tried to map out Toronto neighbhourhoods, they ended up leaving our 16 square blocks blank – nameless – hanging there between Riverdale and the Beach. Debate renewed on the Star’s website over it, many suggesting their version.

So, as a neighbour and I called this year’s Jane’s Walk, we are Greenwood-Coxwell: A neighbourhood of many names.

The naming of neighbourhoods is important, if you look at the energy that goes into it.

Spacing Montreal recently profiled a few Montreal quartiers struggling with their boundaries and their names.

Residents in a few of the Toronto Priority Neighbourhood Areas have also demanded changes to the original, City-imposed names. Crescent Town is looking at a version of Taylor-Massey Creek, and Jane-Finch is variously called Black Creek, University Heights or Elia. Residents in Eglinton East-Kennedy Park, Westminster-Branson have also reportedly rejected the City-imposed appellations.

As part of its newly introduced Historic Neighbourhood Strategy, the city of Barrie, Ontario is trying to involve local residents in just such an exercise. When residents identify with and are attached to their neighbourhood, engagement grows.

Identification with the geographic area in which you live is one of the key markers of belonging. Community developers often work with local residents to help them define, and if necessary, name their neighbourhood.

So how did we become a neighbourhood of many names? Through the complex evolution and structures that make up any neighbourhood.

Historically, we are:

  • Ashbridge Estates, as sometimes suggested by residents who live close to the original Ashbridge home.  Harkening to this semi-regal historical connection, but similar to an attempt to carve out a separate identity, as documented in some New York city neighbourhoods.
  • Ashdale Village, a now-defunct effort by some local residents who, through the efforts of a few residents, tried to re-create a cohesive identity. Yet, strangely, they focused on only a small section of the neighbourhood and faded away when one key member moved away. Such grassroots efforts are not always doomed to failure. AshdaleVillage.com has re-emerged with a new suffix.  The Pocket, just to the west of here has successfully established their heretofore unnamed identity, through the creation of a residents’ newsletter and regular events.
  • Leslieville, as sometimes used by those closer to Queen Street, or by real estate agents intent on capturing us with the re-branded neighbourhood to the southwest. (Jane Farrow, at the Centre for City Ecology, taught me that locals also call it colloquially Lesbieville because of the settlement of gays and lesbians into the neighbourhood. See the Star’s map of the week.)

Economically, we are:

  • the Gerrard India Bazaar as the local BIA’s version of our neighbourhood. Gerrard Street is the commercial centre of the community, but tensions arose with this name because it excludes others South Asian communities who live in and visit the neighbourhood. The (re-)branding of a neighbourhood is almost common, now. One neighbourhood in Seattle was tarted up by local businesses with a new name, banners hung, without most its residents even knowing about it.

Socially, we are:

  • Little India. This is probably the most popular among local residents. It is the name I was taught when I moved here, the commercial strip well-established, and what I often say, by habit, although it’s also a name which carries unfortunate colonial overtones.

Geographically:

The neighbourhood is proximate to a few others, so we are sometimes attached to:

  • Riverdale (for those who orient west)

and Administratively, we are:

  • the Greenwood-Coxwell Corridor (Greenwell? Although some in the neighbourhood prefer the perverted spoonerism Coxwood). During the development of the City of Toronto’s new 140 neighbourhoods, planners grouped demographically similar census tracts into larger “neighbourhoods.” Our name was chosen for two of the main streets which as boundaries to the community, and we were lumped with folks on the other side of the tracks – a long walk.

Now, mainly, when people ask where I live, I’ve learned to just give the nearest major intersection.

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May 2, 2009

Top Ten Rules of Street Parking, learned by experience

(For link to Toronto parking regulations, see bottom of this post.)

Absolutely, while the wisdom of keeping a car downtown is questionable, on-street parking is one area of social interaction which can be smoothed by congenial neighbours or can be a continual source of aggravation by ones who are not. Street parking is a reflection of how we live together.

  1. If you circle the block looking for a parking spot, one will open up in front of your house as soon as you walk up the pathway to your front door.
  2. Parking switchovers (staying up late or rising early to move the car to the opposite side of the street) occur every two weeks on downtown residential streets for the ostensible purpose of clearing the dust and debris off the street; however, throughout course of the entire spring, summer and fall, you will only see a street sweeper twice. Corollary: Parking switchovers will not occur in the winter even though several feet of snow accumulate on both sides of the street and snow plows pass by more frequently.
  3. Switchover days almost always fall on a week-end, when most local residents are sleeping in.
  4. The day you forget to move your car for the switchover will be the same day your neighbour forgets to warn you.
  5. Leaving room between cars in the summer is anti-social, ensuring fewer cars are able to park on the block; leaving room between cars in the winter is essential, to get enough traction to break out of the snowbanks.
  6. In the winter, your neighbours who do not have a car will feel free take a parking space in front of their house to put their snow.
  7. If your neighbours go on vacation, they will have left the car awkwardly parked to take up two spaces. If they haven’t left their keys with anyone, they will be parked so as to block three spaces.
  8. If a new neighbour moves onto your block, they will have at least one more car than your former neighbour did.
  9. Down-towners can be distinguished from Suburban-ites by their swiftness and skill in parallel parking. Corollary: If there is nothing on TV, spending an evening on the front porch can provide good entertainment value.
  10. Cars are an essential signal to your neighbours, providing vital information such as whether you are home.(I’ve had neighbours come check on me because my car hasn’t moved in long time.) Corollary: If you need help (parking your car, getting a jump, or a push), stand by your car and look forlorn. Good people will come to you.
  • For a more interesting foray, see the Map of the Week from the Toronto Star’s FOI request, looking at parking ticket locations in the city.

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April 24, 2009

City Planner Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs and her cohorts upon the defeat of lower midtown Manhattan expressway

“There is nobody against this – NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of … a bunch of MOTHERS!”

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