Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Return to Urbania.

It is a long known fact that Toronto in many respects wants nothing more than to be New York. The same holds true in the world of planning. While smug Toronto may consider itself culturally progressive in its urban outlook, the reality is that it falls somewhere this side of the stone age in comparison to the culturally influential - and citizen led - city building forces of New York City.

Mass involvement in Toronto planning activities revolve generally around one gravitating issue or project and fade away as quickly as they were instigated. In general visionary terms, the citizen-led city building initiatives of the early 70s represent the culmination of civic involvement and improvement in the City. It's been downhill ever since. Today's civic interest is choppy, reactionary and unsustained at best - to the detriment of any semblance of a cohesive urban agenda.

Not so in New York. Citizen-led civic improvement organizations have been part of the urban realm for over a century and have helped influence and shape the activist role of the public in maintaining and enhancing a viable and livable city. These constant, active and organized urban affairs groups have sustained a consistent urban agenda and ensured the political follow-through of countless projects and policy endeavours.

While its great to have a grandiose and elaborate plan, its realization fundamentally depends almost exclusively on citizen buy-in. Mass grassroot support of initiatives is imperative in making the long-term fulfillment of something as intangible and politically susceptible as a vision possible. Despite the recent efforts of politicians and bureaucrats at creating a road map, Toronto remains a beta city for a reason. Less than three years in, citizen ambivalence has already led to political wavering.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make 'em drink.

If we ever want to be the 'world class city' we so desperately seek to become, a sustained informed engagement by the citizenry in all matters urban will be the primary prerequisite.

A large urban centre which is socially and culturally complex enough to sustain such a progressive vision of itself defines its external and internal status as an international city... and Toronto ain't there yet. Not by a long shot.

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