Toronto: The Action is Where You Make It


You get mean-spirited when you feel left out of joy. Somebody else’s joy raises envy when you haven’t had any yourself. Cities are like that, jealously eyeing other cities as if there were more fun and delight and oh, “buzz,” to be had elsewhere.

In fact it’s an illusion that the party is going on somewhere else. The action is where you make it, and in a city you have lots of help doing it. In fact that’s what justifies city life – the signature of any great city. Self-rejoicing. It’s something more than plain pride, or confidence or superiority, or a call for “buzz,” excitement, or (yech) prosperity.

Joy is what Toronto hasn’t done too well. But now the New Canadians are it the city along with their spontaneity, a zeal, a natural gusto for life; that is, until they get hooked on the regulation and protocol that define the city’s ethic.

What makes the new Canadians naturally more joyful? Perhaps it’s because they initially come from less “fortunate” places. Deprivation, (for all its unseemliness in a climate of entitlement) has a way of instructing people in reliance upon family and community. People need each other in dire straits. In their calm affluence, Torontonians seem to not need each other.

There’s something about having to rub closely against another human being that gets on our nerves and I don’t think that all the talk of “densification” in affluent Toronto will quite manufacture that alchemy of inter-civic dependence. And that’s the challenge for all cities in an atmosphere of globalization. Globalization likes order, efficacy and the robotization of human capital, leading to culture of protocol and calculation – even when it comes to enjoying oneself.

To be fair, there’s been a steady erosion of the puritan ethic that says “don’t do this” “don’t do that”. But now the caveats and prohibitions come from a more hygenic mentality. There are prohibitions against parking, loitering, lingering, lingering in parks after 11pm., trespassing. We have bylaws for everything; a bureaucratic industry of injunctions and disallowance. Add to that a contemporary feel for the wisdom of surveillance, neighborhood watch and reporting of suspicious behavior, and you have a self-consciousness that is being perfected in Toronto.

Toronto comes to its love for order from a colonial tradition of shopkeepers, whose ethic was that of good business. Add to that the “family compact”, loyalism, and a legacy of stingy theologies (notions that God totes a ledger instead of a horn of plenty) and this typology becomes a model for Ontario. It’s evident in the dedication of bureaurocrats and civil servants, who seek a sanitized city in place of a creative or playful one. This culture of prudence and circumspection threatens to oppress the lively spirit generated and smuggled here by the new Canadians.

Proceduralism preempts happenstance encounter. Connectedness is preferred to intimacy. Negotiated space is the means by which we enter the public realm. The city in general is being redefined as a place where you can enjoy yourself without necessarily enjoying others.

You can slap on all the new urbanism you want, all the new designs, the access paths to waterfronts, the well thought out landscaping but the zeitgeist of civic withdrawal persists. In urban centres, revitalized or not, you will find no one on the streets after 8 pm at night.

In Toronto, this zeitgeist is abetted by parking police and increased infatuation with bylaws, a lack of leniency and flexibility in regulation – the licensing difficulties for small businesses that force them to use consultancies that conform better to the civic animal.

Yes there are the usual arts festivals, showcase museums, testaments to corporate architecture, commercial temples, touristic theme-parks, and the downtown is hugely revitalized with condos, bars and art galleries. But like revitalized downtowns throughout North America, ours is, predictably, a playground for the rich and their pampered offspring, while the service workers can’t afford to live there. Let alone the artists who first raised the property values by their ethos of adventure. Bring the artists in, let the neighborhood get trendy, and then make it unaffordable to anyone but the gentrified. At the end of the day, there is nothing casual about what the gentrified city permits.

In the end, the natural expression of exuberance is left crippled. Spontaneity is the casualty of the global city – scared as it is by security issues, the notion that the next guy is in it for himself, the loss of a general ethic that encourage the citizen to civic sacrifice. In short, in trying to become or remain ‘world class’ we are in danger of being regulated out of life.

In some ways, Toronto’s fetish for regulation may be the very thing that attracts the global lifestyle pilgrim. It might be why trendy people choose to live in Toronto …because Toronto the good (or the Toronto of protocol) is antidote to the tyranny of origins and the fracas of more bankrupt places.

In the future, however, this stifling of spirit and resort to regulated celebration could backfire. What will define the successful city of the future will be not adherence to cultural fashion but the nature of its faith, its civic generosity and it’s preservation of civil encounter. Civil encounter is under siege. The public realm is being evacuated of its indigenous spirits, and with it, the delight the manufacture of joy.

The time must soon come when the “city” as notion will no longer be limited to the “metropole.” The revitalization of downtowns is inevitable but the real urban frontier may lie in those hinterlands snubbed by those cosmopolitan condo dwellers and spuriously dismissed as “suburbs”. This is where the bulk of urban populations – the middle and working classes now reside. The expedience, economy and unimaginativeness with which those areas are being designed is appalling. Toronto’s outer rings cannot be brought to health medication of new urbanism, with no thought to why people don’t use public spaces even when they are adequately designed, even when they pose no threat to personal safety.

What we need is not so much better design or more control but the cultivation of “urban citizenship”. Urban citizenship is not understood as the key to poorly done infrastructure and municipal alienation; it can not be quantified, or designed into existence. You can not manufacture the notion of loyalty to a neighborhood, municipality or city. Without loyalty, people become mere “services” to each other, networks and not neighborhoods; information replaces knowledge about people. The government ends up knowing more about you than your neighbor does.

Toronto has arrived as a successful North American city by the standards of a livable city but is it a place where you still have an appetite for life? It is good to consider that though most places seek to be livable cities, they often arrive there without the manufacture of joy.

Let me tail this piece off with a quote from Walt Whitman: “The greatest city in the world is that place that has the greatest men and women. Though it be a few shacks, it is still the greatest city in the world”. In the wake of a deep recession, that is a perspective urbanists must adopt. Our mutual reliance and ability to create our joy in places we make our own constitutes the infrastructure upon which creating a great city must be based.

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco is Principal of Municipal Mind, Poet Laureate of The City of Toronto, and Curator of The Toronto Museum Project. He was a team member and co-author of the Imagine Toronto report of the City of Toronto and Province of Ontario. He was official moderator for the 2005 International Metropolis Conference and the Toronto host for the World Association of Major Metropolises. His latest book is Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City.