Tag Archives: Centre for City Ecology

Brooklyn Community Planning Board Leader Advises Toronto

(this is an article I wrote for UrbanToronto)

Unprecedented building activity in the GTA coupled with the public’s frustration in engaging the development process is creating a shift towards participatory planning practices. Community Planning Boards may be a way to provide a conduit between the community and city government. The Centre for City Ecology (CCE) invited longtime Brooklyn civic leader Craig Hammerman to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Community Board model and provide insight into what might work in Toronto.

For over 20 years, Craig Hammerman has served as District Manager of Community Board 6 (CB 6), a diverse microcosm of NYC that represents 104,000 residents in a medium density community from Park Slope to Columbia Waterfront. He takes great pride in the work he does: empowering residents and advocating for the betterment of his district. Annabel Vaughan, the CCE’s interim director, summoned Hammerman because of his impressive track record. “He has created such a robust dialogue in that the community has a real say in community issues in the neighbourhood,” Vaughan said.

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Map of Brooklyn Community Board Six

NYC is divided into 59 Community Districts. Each has its own distinct Community Board (CB), a concept established in 1975 that enables citizens to play an advisory role in their government. CBs are made up of 50 appointed volunteer board members – caring, committed people who represent a diverse range of perspectives and interests. Although getting a group of 50 to make a decision might seem like ‘herding cats’, parliamentary procedures in place facilitate the process. The CB hires a District Manager as the agency head and operates with a budget of $200,000 with little room for waste.

Aside from being the voice of their community, CBs monitor the delivery of city services, review land use, and are involved in budget formation. They are extremely effective at identifying capital needs in their districts because members live there and deal with the problems every day. All matters are sorted out in various topical committees (e.g. economic development, transportation, education) that meet monthly and report to the full board.

It is interesting to note how CBs intersect with the government. They are required to review and comment on applications to the Department of City Planning; however, as Hammerman emphasizes, “We are advisors – we make recommendations. We are not in a position to implement anything. We need to be as savvy as we can about influencing the decision-makers – that is really what it comes down to.”

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Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Brooklyn Community Board 6

Some boards are more effective at negotiating and at handling challenges than others. Fortunately, there is a collegiality among them and a sharing of best practices. In order to deal with each large-scale development proposal, CB 6 devised a Responsible Development Policy that is given to the applicant with instructions to address neighbourhood priorities (i.e. environmental standards) before it presents its case at the hearing. “The more we can anticipate, the more we can build into the process,” says Hammerman. Although they try to be proactive in the planning of their neighbourhoods, CBs are often too busy being reactive to the number of applications flooding in. (There are no planners on staff.)

Hammerman is focused on improving the workings of the board by reviewing: composition criteria; recruitment; public awareness and interaction; communication infrastructure; participatory-discretionary budget; funding model; and, a connection to executive branch of city government. More than other districts, CB 6 is taking a creative approach to engage the public by relying increasingly on social media and crowdsourcing, and making available archived webcasts of its meetings.

Something in the process is clearly working. CB 6 saw 2,000 attend a recent community meeting, which shows that as people begin to feel heard, the turnout numbers reflect it.

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CCE offers residents opportunities to participate in discussions about Toronto’s planning and development

There is a recognized disparity across Toronto communities in having their concerns heard at the civic level and being effective in creating change. In some districts, well-organized Resident Associations (e.g. Active 18) proactively weigh in while in others, it is difficult to get input from the local community due to both a lack of expertise and, quite simply, a lack of resident attendance and participation.

Hammerman addressed the group at Urbanspace Gallery, taking questions from an audience that included residents, planners, community activists and legislators. When asked for advice for how we in Toronto can play a more active role in our city’s governance, Hammerman said “Look at how the model of government grew up, where powers are, how decisions are being made, who the players are, and that will give a roadmap to steer where you want to take it.”

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Graphic by Adam Harris from the exhibition Triangles: Who Builds Toronto? curated by Max Allen

While there are clear benefits in the nonpartisan Community Board approach, practical considerations aside, it is not obvious how to apply it to what we have in Toronto: a planning system that is largely top-down oriented. NYC has distinct but connected planning entities. Toronto struggles with civil servants who lack influence and the contentious Ontario Municipal Board, which can reverse decisions made by City Council.

While the NYC model is one example, Toronto can draw from jurisdictions around the world. “Having a mechanism that is more transparent and consistent could make the planning process a more positive city building process for everyone involved,” says Vaughan.

In May of this year, Councillor Paul Ainslie [Ward 43] successfully passed a motion to launch a pilot community planning board in the suburban neighbourhood of Scarborough (Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park), an area on the verge of being hit with a wave of new development. The intent is to broaden the impact of participatory planning practices that are already at work in some communities across the city. For more information on The Centre for City Ecology and the pilot project, see cityecology.net. Currently on view at the Urbanspace Gallery is the exhibit UNDER THE TENT Envisioning Neighbourhoods.

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Heritage Architect Julian Smith on ‘Re-imagining the historic urban landscape’

“What gives a physical place meaning? How do we decide which historic sites are culturally significant?” Cultural Landscape theory is an attempt to provide new answers to these often-debated questions. It emphasizes that the traditional distinction between the physical and the cultural landscapes is an artificial one and that nature and culture should not be seen as conflicting but rather as part of an all-encompassing ecosystem, a vision not unlike that held by indigenous communities. In such a view, human habitats display the diversity and richness of their different cultural subgroups and achieve a sustainable equilibrium with their environment.

As part of an ongoing series of talks, Toronto’s Centre for City Ecology recently invited leading heritage architect and educator Julian Smith to give a lecture entitled ‘Re-imagining the historic urban landscape ’ in which he explores the meaning of cultural landscape and how we create it in our communities. Smith has established an international reputation for his work in the conservation, restoration and adaptive reuse of historic properties, and cooperates with UNESCO and the World Bank, but his most challenging role is as Executive Director at Willowbank, an educational institution “at the cutting edge of a global shift towards a more ecological and sustainable approach to heritage conservation.”

Willowbank promotes cultural heritage and emphasizes the apprenticeship tradition (hands-on craft skills). In addressing Willowbank’s approach to the historic urban landscape, Smith prefaces with the distinction between historical landscapes, which have prior historic significance and can be observed, and cultural landscapes, which exist in the cultural imagination and have to be experienced to be understood.

Smith summarizes a 300-year history of motivations for Conservation into four biases: Antiquarian – the archaeologist spins great stories about culture from physical remnants of earlier civilizations; Commemorative – the historian protects and tells the story of the historic place through reconstructions or ‘stage sets’; Aesthetic – the architect/architectural historian recreates heritage vocabulary (think Colonial Williamsburg-inspired wallpaper); and, most recently, the Ecological bias that emphasizes a more holistic view of the interconnectedness of buildings/landscapes/artefacts as way of understanding the world whereas earlier biases expressly used the ‘object’ in isolation. This 21st century approach is based on the notion that artefact and ritual come together to create cultural reality.

When we talk about how communities understand place we are dealing with perceived realities, which consider the cultural landscape, not actual or physical reality, i.e. GIS map. Rituals map the city. Case in point: everyone in the audience was instructed to map a small common section of Toronto (an exercise Smith often has students do). The results typically demonstrate that when people think of cities, they plot their rituals, such as commute, festivals, or processions.

“One of the great things about cities is that you can have cultural landscapes that overlay each other and multiple cultural realities existing in the same place.” Smith cites a number of local examples of these places of overlap which frequently are the most fascinating parts of cities: Boulevard St. Laurent, a commercial and multicultural artery in Montreal; or, Kensington Market, a distinctive neighbourhood in downtown Toronto with an unpretentious, bohemian-esque vibe. In the latter’s case, nothing evolved according to planning principles but was rather the result of a pattern of (illegal) unregulated activity and that is precisely what gives this area its vitality. Smith thinks this part of the city deserves recognition as a cultural landscape that overrides both the province’s Planning Act and Heritage Act and needs to be protected as such.

Smith highlights Evergreen Brickworks, an innovative multi-use community environmental centre housed in a series of heritage buildings that successfully blur the boundaries between public and private spaces. He argues that architects/planners have been limited by architectural constraints or relied too long on property lines and rights when thinking of how we occupy the city. “Planners are still groping with what it means to lose those distinctions. Our approach has become so aesthetic and commemorative,” says Smith. “You have to maintain cultural landscapes of city layered on top of each other (otherwise you gentrify).” We need creative thinking; a dynamic definition of cultural change; and, to allow the evolution of buildings and places with contemporary layers such that they are in harmony, and not just freeze them in historic settings.

This type of discussion is particularly interesting for a dynamic environment like Toronto that is growing and changing at a rapid pace by virtue of the constant influx of people. It seems that only by integrating commerce, culture and community can we achieve a balance between urban growth and quality of life on a sustainable basis. The Centre for City Ecology, whose mandate is to “raise levels of urban literacy so that ordinary Torontonians can join in a robust conversation about city building,” engages the community to create meaningful spaces for a more liveable city. It hosts lectures at the Urbanspace Gallery at 401 Richmond St West, a heritage building providing spaces for the creative sector.

For more information on the lecture series, check the CCE’s website http://www.cityecology.net/. Click here to see the video of Julian Smith’s November 14 presentation.