The Future of Canadian Cities

In 2008, Carmine Starnino, poet and now editor of Maisonneuve magazine, asked me to write an essay on the future of Canadian cities for an issue of Canadian Notes and Queries he was guest-editing. Here’s what I came up with.

Some days, on the corner of Clark and de la Gauchetière in Montreal, you’ll find a fortune teller who can read your fate in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a very non-specific kind of fate, which is usually the case with fortune tellers, but I sometimes wonder what he would have to say about larger subjects—like the city that surrounds him, for instance. What will it, and others like it across the country, look like in a generation? I’m no fortune teller, but here are three trends I think might influence the shape of our cities in the near future.

1. Edible cities

I never thought much about my family’s backyard when growing up in Calgary. Wide and shallow, its grassy expanse was eventually surrendered to our two dogs, who used it as their toilet. We were far from exceptional, and what still strikes me when I drive through Canadian suburbs is the sheer amount of empty grass. It’s always seemed like an egregious waste of space.

But things are starting to change. Small efforts are being made to introduce small-scale agriculture and locally-grown food into Canadian cities. Green roofs and backyard gardens have emerged in Vancouver; food co-ops in Toronto. In Montreal, the Minimum-Cost Housing Group has been busy finding ways to marry food production with urban life.

“Food security is a big issue,” says the MCHG’s director, Vikram Bhatt, speaking about the recent controversy of contaminated community garden in Montreal. If we make the food chain shorter by reducing the distance—both physical and psychological—between producer and consumer, the quality and safety of our food will be improved and its environmental impact will be lessened.

This idea informs the MCHG’s latest project, a container garden at McGill University called the Edible Campus. In 2007, dozens of soil-filled plastic containers, each capable of producing fruits and vegetables, were installed on a 1000 foot swath of concrete in the university’s downtown campus. In the two growing seasons since, the Edible Campus has managed to produce one-third of the food needed by Santropol Roulant, a meals-on-wheels organization. The Edible Campus has also become a lively social space as volunteer gardeners maintain the plants and students use the corner meet, mingle and relax.

Unlike community garden plots, container gardens don’t have space constraints, aren’t assigned by the city, and aren’t likely to have lead or arsenic in their soil. They are also particularly flexible because they can exist just about anywhere: alleyways, rooftops, even parking lots. Which begs the question: what about backyards? Canada is a largely suburban nation. Let’s do something with those lawns.

Even though its immediate impact has been purely local, the Edible Campus is being closely studied in other cities. Bhatt has been approached for advice by community organizers and academics from as far away as England. Potentially, the combined result of small projects like the Edible Campus is enormous: cooler, greener cities with more equitable access to safe, locally-grown food—in other words, sustainable, self-sufficient cities.

Back in Calgary, my family’s backyard has changed since I moved away. My dad has fashioned it into a sort of outdoor living area, with a fire pit, patio furniture and even a backyard kitchen. Most interesting to me, though, is what he has done with the garden that rings the backyard: filled it with herbs. A bit of wasted suburban space has thus become edible.

2. Artistic cities

Last year, on a cool fall day, I walked down Bernard Street in Montreal’s Mile End, past concert posters and fresh tags, past flower shops whose wares spill onto the sidewalk, over manhole covers painted in ice-creamy pastels. Under a leaden sky, amidst the oranges and reds and greens of autumn trees, the city seemed like an enormous art gallery.

It was an appropriate sensation: I was on my way to see Jean-Pierre Caissie, the artistic director of Dare-Dare, an artist-run centre that helps create ephemeral art in public space. Dare-Dare is itinerant, moving from one location to the next every couple of years – first to Viger Square, then to a vacant lot in Mile End, and most recently back to another downtown park, Cabot Square. With each new home, Dare-Dare fills the surrounding streets with its own brand of community-based, site-specific creativity.

“It’s the restoration of public life,” Caissie explained when I met him in the so-called Parc sans nom, a vacant lot that Dare-Dare transformed into a creative hub during its time in Mile End. “What we do is not only present public art projects from some building downtown, we integrate public art projects into the area in which we are working. It becomes part of the neighbourhood.”

In the past, Dare-Dare has hosted late-night parties, film screenings and outdoor bread-baking. It has helped organize installations by the Taiwanese artist Chih-Chien Wang, who built a “nest” from paper boxes underneath a concrete viaduct, and the Dutch artist Franck Bragigand, who painted manhole covers around Mile End, highlighting and commenting on the unseen details of our urban infrastructure.

Most of what Dare-Dare does can be defined as street art—art that not only takes place in the public realm, but draws all of its inspiration and essential energy from it. It is art that thrives on unfiltered public interaction. And, increasingly, it is street art like this that shapes our urban experiences and informs our attitudes towards public life. Street art is not aloof; it is immediate and democratic.

In Canada, one of the best and most recent examples of this is the work of Roadsworth, also known as Peter Gibson, who stencilled Montreal streets with cheeky images in 2003 and 2004. Taking the existing road markings as his cue, Gibson turned lane dividers into zippers and crosswalks into giant light switches, a wry comment on how our use of space is dictated by officially-dictated bits of paint.

Four years ago, Gibson was arrested and charged with several dozen counts of mischief, which provoked a lively discussion about the role of art in the city. With public sentiment firmly behind him, Gibson was let off lightly, with just 40 hours of arts-related community service. Now, various public organizations and institutions eagerly commissioned his work. Last summer, he was even invited to paint along the sidewalks and road surface of Ste. Catherine Street in downtown Montreal.

Some of the most interesting examples of recent Canadian street art push far beyond the conventions of paint and stencils. In 2007, Montreal artist Karen Spencer scrawled her dreams, in English, French and Spanish, on large pieces of cardboard that she then planted around the city. Around the same time, Rose-Marie Goulet, another Montreal artist, redecorated an entire metro car with ghostly, half-dissolved images of Montreal streets, accompanied by a bizarre soundtrack of voices and ambient noises.

These kinds of public interventions bring art into the everyday lives of city-dwellers who would otherwise ignore—or be ignored—by it. Street art captures the tone of a world that is undergoing massive change and upheaval, rejecting the notion of finished product through its very impermanence and ambivalence. Hopefully we’ll see more of this sort of thingin the future. It would be nice to live in cities that had fewer barriers between art and public life.

3. Accessible cities

It’s early evening on Montreal’s de Liège Street, a short bit of road that runs across the top of Park Extension like the collar on a shirt. The setting sun casts a warm glow across Greek social clubs, Punjabi grocers, Arab bakeries and Armenian pizzerias.

As usual, de Liège’s polyglot residents are out in force, some of them buying dinnertime groceries, most of them just enjoying the mild air of early summer. Sari-clad mothers and energetic children crowd the small park at the eastern end of the street. Old men, button-down shirts tucked loosely into pressed pants, breast pockets bulging with cigarettes, relax on patio chairs further west.

Streets like de Liège are sadly rare in Canada. But good, socially- and economically-vibrant places like this are essential to the health and livelihood of any city.

“These are commercial streets, but they also serve other functions,” says Martha Radice, a researcher and PhD candidate at the Université du Québec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique, who is studying several Montreal streets, including de Liège. “They play multiple roles. The beauty of these kind of streets is that they are literally built into the neighbourhood: they are part of the street network and they are accessible. You bump into people you know on neighbourhood commercial streets in a way you don’t in shopping malls.”

The mix of people who use streets like de Liège creates opportunities for interaction. People you see everyday, but don’t necessarily know, become what the psychologist Stanley Milgram called “familiar strangers,” or what my friends often call “everywhere people”: people who become part of the fabric of a street, part of what makes it more than just a collection of shops and buildings.

“This familiarity can make people feel safer, but on the other hand, streets also have the advantage of being spaces that are open to all, where there’s still room for the unexpected, like ‘guerilla gardening,’ or joyous non-commissioned public art, and even the unpleasant, like curb-crawling,” says Radice.

If cities are to be creative, they need creative spaces: space to do business, to make art, to protest, to interact with neighbours. Just as important is that these creative spaces be accessible. De Liège Street works as well as it does because the surrounding blocks are densely-populated and diverse; its commercial spaces, meanwhile, are also diverse, with a variety of shapes, sizes, owners and rents, which allows for far more entrepreneurship and a far greater mix of businesses than you would find in a mall.

In 1961, the urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote that what cities need, in order to be successful, is “a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.” That still holds true. But to what extent do we realize that idea? For every street like de Liège there are a thousand more that fail utterly to provide any kind of platform for a rich public life.

Too many urban spaces across Canada are being privatized or burdened by excessive regulation. Dundas Square in Toronto is run as a profit-making commercial space rather than the civic gathering space it ought to be. In Montreal, new rules meant to discourage homeless people from loitering in downtown squares end up restricting everyone’s right to enjoy public space.

Canada’s cities cannot thrive without good spaces for edible landscapes, for communities to grow and for small, creative things to happen. The future could do worse that find inspiration from the hubub of a warm evening on de Liège.

As I noted above, this piece was originally written in 2008. Since then, Jean-Pierre Caissie has left Dare-Dare (though you can still follow his blog sulago) and Martha Radice has moved to Halifax, where she is now an assistant professor of anthropology at Dalhousie University.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday March 02 2010at 11:03 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Canada, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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