6 min

Car trouble

“Do not lock your bike to the trees. Thank you. The management.”

I find this unhelpful message, handwritten on a little paper scroll, shimmied between the cables on my bicycle. Of course, I’d be happy to lock my bike to something made for such a vehicle, but these are nowhere to be found at the Distillery District, a newly renovated Toronto arts hub in a collection of historic buildings. Consequently, almost every tree has a bike or two attached to it, and every bike has received a tersely worded little scroll. Welcome to Toronto, where thoughtless urban planning meets anonymous rudeness!

In fact, none of the three Creative Places venues has bicycle parking, and the conference volunteers – though legion in numbers, instantly recognizable in catchy T-shirts and uniformly friendly and helpful – are at a loss when it comes to parking suggestions.

I become curious about where my fellow conference-goers live and how they get around. At the end of the first day, I cycle past a gaggle of attendees as they meander along the street. “Oh look, he’s riding a bike!” exclaims one city-builder, with a sense of wonderment one normally reserves for the sighting of a man riding a unicorn. Her excited tone suggests she has seen her urban utopia realized: “You and I only dream of the creative city,” she seems to say. “Look at him, up there on that bike. He’s living the dream!”

As one speaker at the conference noted, Toronto’s Distillery District is also inaccessible by public transit. Despite its location a stone’s throw from the city’s financial district, the area is clearly designed for motorists.

If you want to get Glen Murray riled up, bring up the subject of those portable death machines called cars. Murray is best known as Canada’s first openly gay mayor from his stint in Winnipeg. Since then, cars have been on his mind in his roles as chair of the National Round Table On The Environment And The Economy and as a research associate at the University Of Toronto’s Centre For Urban And Community Studies.

Speaking at the conference, he painstakingly explains the ruinous effects of cars on big cities. He becomes flustered citing the annual increases in Toronto’s smog days. “When it gets up to 100 smog days a year, who’s going to want to live here?

“We subsidize the automobile and we subsidize pollution,” he says adamantly. And you can’t help but believe him.

Murray is a gifted speaker. He has the persuasive charisma of a seasoned Southern preacher (he even closes his speech with a “God bless you”). But this smoothness, reminiscent of former US president Bill Clinton, is complemented by an unmediated exuberance he seems barely able to contain.

He refers to being gay casually and repeatedly when he speaks, and the emotional honesty of his anecdotes draws his audience in, almost concealing the profound political act of personalizing his homosexuality.

In one anecdote, he tells the story of his former life as a postal worker, dispirited by “explaining to people why their mail was always late.” One day, he recounts, a friend with AIDS grabbed him by the face and asked him what he wanted to appear on his tombstone, forcing Murray to confront his mortality. The resulting kick-start to his life culminated in his successful run for mayor in Winnipeg. One can envision this story – the life-changing revelation from a dying man – as a pivotal scene in a maudlin made-for-TV movie. But in Murray’s telling, it is resonant and touching.

He is funny. He refers to the current obsession with star architects and iconic museums as “irritable Bilbao syndrome.” He is passionate when he condemns the “celebration of placelessness” of generic suburban design. He laments the loss of character that cities experience when they fail to see that their “strength is in being different.”

On a practical note, he is simple and sensible about how to support local development. Give communities the authority and resources to create change. Tax land to create density, but don’t tax building and other creative use of the land. Tax problems like pollution and congestion, but don’t tax social goods like productivity and creativity. Et voilà!

Murray’s ideas are not all his own, and he is generous in citing and sharing his sources (Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler, among others). He is, however, possessed of a unique talent to spread the good news.

At one point in his speech, Murray refers to himself in the present tense as a politician. A Freudian slip? We can only hope he plans a return to public life.

The urban gay agenda

It should come as no surprise that homosexuals are front and centre in the movement to revitalize our cities. Gay people flock to urban areas, and the centres of Canada’s biggest cities are home to some of the world’s largest and most noteworthy gay communities.

But these centres now look like many troubled US cities did 20 years ago. And not because independent retailers are being replaced, one by one, by chain stores, although that doesn’t help. Rather, our central areas have all the signs of American inner-city decay: violence, poorly maintained and litter-ridden public spaces, abandoned infrastructure, and legions of homeless and disturbingly drug-addled citizens.

These problems are themselves mere symptoms of larger problems: outmoded governance models, labrynthine municipal bureaucracies, and a paucity of the funding and authority – and perhaps, the vision and boldness – required to change things for the better.

Gay people have a huge stake in improving our cities, and we were in no short supply at Creative Places And Spaces. Several of the best presentations at the conference were made by homosexuals of note.

Irshad Manji, author of the recently retitled The Trouble With Islam Today, has become a polished speaker. As a former political speechwriter, it’s no surprise that her delivery is calculated to elicit audience response, and she was rewarded with plenty of oohs, aahs and applause, right on cue. Her style may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is no denying that she has grown into an effective communicator.

Manji spoke of cities only tangentially, preferring to link the topic of creativity to ijtihad, which she described as a lost Islamic tradition of independent thinking and creative reasoning. Her remarkable project to engage and mobilize reform-minded Muslims around the world is hugely consultative, a response to what she calls the “supremacy complex” of much of contemporary Islam. (In fact, the retitling of her book to include the word “today” was in response to criticism that Islam has only recently become troublesome.)

Much of the conference’s success was simply to inspire Canadian attendees with projects from elsewhere. We heard how the English city of Blackburn effectively privatized their municipality, and how this was, apparently, a good thing. We learned how the Swedish cities of Stockholm and Malmo convert waste into energy. We received examples of London mayor Ken Livingstone’s bold leadership and reforms, including the imposition of central car tolls and the transformation of a major high street into a haven for pedestrians and cyclists.

And then we heard from Canadian city workers, one of whom bitterly described the power of local government here as “the power to say no.”

Howard Cohen was the scrappiest critic of municipal nay-sayers. The former city planner now runs Context, a developer of central Toronto condos. Their new Radio City complex, built in conjunction with the new National Ballet School, is the most welcome development in the city’s gay village since the famed Vaseline towers went up in the 1960s.

Cohen was deliciously provocative and itching for a fight. Sadly, no worthy opponents stepped up. He lashed into the design-by-committee model favoured by municipal governments, saying it kills city-building. “Only mediocrity is achieved through collaboration,” he declared. He decried the “moribund suburban thinking” of city planners who, he said, “have no gut feeling about city life.”

Of Toronto specifically, he said, “The city is so preoccupied with regulating what happens on private property that it neglects public space,” adding that over the years, he has been “appalled, scared and shocked” by meetings at City Hall.

Cohen also had the cojones to lay into artists at a conference heavily attended by the arts industries.”The arts community is against change,” he charged, saying that artists are uniformly antidevelopment at public consultations. “Artists are threatened by change,” he repeated for emphasis.

He singled out Toronto councillor Kyle Rae for commendation, however. “If you are a developer in Kyle Rae’s riding, you will get into a discussion about quality,” he said. Those discussions, he claimed, don’t happen in any other area of the city.

The conference was organized and executed with aplomb by Artscape, a not-for-profit developer of real estate and other projects for the arts. Tim Jones, Artscape’s CEO, is the former general manager of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, Canada’s only queer theatre company. Jones is best remembered there for acquiring for the theatre its current home in Toronto’s gay village. Also behind the conference was the energetic and effective Chris Phibbs. The former executive assistant to councillor Rae recently moved from Artscape to work in the office of Toronto mayor David Miller.

– David Walberg