Lessons From Toronto – Jennifer Keesmaat On Complete Communities

This image shows Jennifer Keesmaat at a Toronto mayoral debate.
Keesmaat (centre in blue) running for Mayor in 2018.

Jennifer Keesmaat was once Toronto’s chief urban planner and ran for mayor of the city in 2018 (she lost badly). These are notes from a presentation Keesmaat delivered on “complete communities”.

  • Toronto is the third largest region in North America by population. It’s one of the largest tech hubs outside Silicon Valley and the financial capital of Canada.
  • Over 50% of Toronto is foreign born. Immigration and refugees are seen as central to the city’s character and economic growth. It’s “a beacon”.
  • The hook that brings together every single planning decision: vibrant neighbourhoods and complete communities.
  • This opposed to a live/work view with “super fast highways” that take you from one place to another.
  • Affordable housing will be achieved by planning for it and recognizing it as part of every complete community.
  • Toronto has the unfortunate honour of making the list of the most expensive cities. There’s been a complete seperation between local wages and house prices.
  • “The market can no longer provide affordable housing for all.”
  • Housing has become commodified, an asset to be traded, something to generate wealth vs. a vision of housing as a home (where families “eat dinner”).
  • If we don’t get this right (housing), who cares about walkability, who cares about complete communities, who cares about sustainability, if we’re only designing for a small and lucky portion.
  • An affordable high quality transit system is the backbone that allows complete communities to be connected. It enables the option of never needing to own a car.
  • A vibrant downtown designed for connectivity and innovation that can attract and facilitate stable and high paying jobs is essential to the overall health of the city. The complete community vision has the creative economy in mind.
  • All nine of our beaches in Toronto are “blue flag beaches”. Clean air and water right where people live is a part of the complete community vision.
  • Green spaces of a variety of different sizes and public squares that bring people together. When we design public spaces right they provide for spontaneous interaction that expands the humanity of everyone in our cities.
  • Options for recreational activities should be provided. The notion that you have to leave the city for outdoor recreation is an old model. With complete communities you can walk out your door and undertake recreational activities in close proximity to home.
  • How we design and plan our waterfront is critical to ensuring that our waterfront is a shared asset, not an asset only developed for the super wealthy which was the old model in Toronto (the wealthier the closer to the waters edge). The waterfront should be a shared resource where we can all come together.
  • Cultural facilities that celebrate the best of city living are an important part of complete communities, they help us tell our story and understand ourselves.
  • When we get architecture and urban design right that becomes a magnet for people and we astonish/inspire as part of everyday life. Complete communities are intentional about design and don’t leave it as something that’s superfluous but rather essential to how we live together.
  • All growth isn’t good but when we get the design right, have mixed-use and attend to streetscape we can deliver places that are livable.
  • The greenbelt is a matter of emphasizing where growth WILL NOT go in order to assert where growth will go. The greenbelt is the policy framework for the transition from sprawl to density.
  • One of the other drivers of change in the GTA is shifting consumer preferences. Millennials have a fundamentally different preference and want to walk to work (either driven by experiences with commuting or environmentalism).
  • We want to attract the 16-34 demographic because Toronto’s vitality is contingent on attracting young people into the core.
  • When we paint this vision of the future, of complete communities, the vast majority of the public put their hands up and says “I’m in”.
  • Very few people in the overall Toronto region can walk to work. In the downtown core its 75%. But when we scan the entire region and give people choices many would take a smaller house adjacent to transit (36%).
  • Queens Quay makeover: generous public realm, separate bike lanes, prioritizing the transit corridor.
  • Recent adapation of taking the cars off a transit corridor (King Street).
  • Private investment is responding to the opportunity of providing walkable communities where people can live work and play right within their neighbourhood.
  • The Greenbelt has driven growth into the core. The area of the city that’s the most walkable with the best transit and the best parks is growing four times faster than elsewhere. If we can create walkable communities everywhere can we attract investment everywhere? Can we begin to adapt the city in a variety of different places? Growth follows consumer preference and sustainability increases.
  • But this only happens when we link employment with residential growth. The two must be linked together to deliver on this option/opportunity (of complete communities).

How Toronto Switched From Buildings And Infrastructure To People And Complete Communities

1. Detailed Precinct Planning

The details matter. We have to deliver on the ground level. Prioritizing the public realm is essential if we add density. We have to think about public space and pedestrians first rather than the character and quality of individual buildings.

2. “Extreme” Mixed-Use (The Distillery District)

In the distillery district over forty buildings are linked by an exclusively pedestrian realm. These are Victorian era buildings. It’s a college campus, there’s light industry, it’s an event venue, there’s a brewery, it’s a residential neighbourhood, an employment district, a district for artists, a place for children and senior citizens. We broke all the rules and it’s a place people want to be.

3. Strategic Site-Specific Infill

A big part of planning is urban repair. Neighbourhood example of Sheppard and Don Mills: we added new density to a poorly serviced suburban area, added buildings to create main street retail, added community and social events, added a library, a school and community centre. There were no clear public spaces and places for pedestrians. The “beacons” (public art) draw pedestrians into the site and terminate in the neighbourhood where theres a new school, pool, library and community hub. This is urban repair and not “one use” thinking. There’s a new subway station at this location. Adapt the urban environment and deliver the dream of walkable communities.

4. Urbanizing Avenues: Adding Density And Creating Main Streets

The Golden Mile: repairing and transforming the environment. A new LRT will serve as the backbone for how people can move. Also adding cycling infrastructure and widening sidewalks. Adding green infrastructure, new mid-rise buildings and a mix of uses. An old suburban street transforms into a complete new community.

5. Urbanizing Classic Suburbs (Gentle Density And New Housing Types)

Humbertown: a 1950’s strip mall, the adjacent area is very green with ranch-style 1950’s suburban homes. There’s nowhere you can go within walking distance of your home. Transformed: all parking put underground, green roofs, new public square in the centre. You can downsize by moving into a new multi-residential unit of seniors housing. New retail has been added to complete the hub.

6. Adaptations In The Public Realm

We’ve wanted to link together the public spaces in Fort York and the waterfront. Adapting the infrastructure below the highway that currently creates a barrier between eight different hoods and the rest of the downtown core.

7. Transforming The Discourse

We need to talk about the city in a different way, talk about about how we might live differently, why this matters and how we can elevate quality of life. We’re changing rapidly and the risk is that people will resist change if they don’t buy into the rationale of why this is good and valuable.

None of this matters if we don’t get affordable housing right. We’ll be designing places that only get more and more exclusive.

Anton Jäger On Bowling Alone

  • Bowling Alone (2000) by Robert Putnam should be seen in context with the “civic crisis literature” of the 1990’s.
  • What Putnam predicted about the internet has held up well.
  • Social capital is a measure/concept responding to “the demands of quantification”. Social capital is a purely individualistic and instrumental view of social ties.
  • There is no mention of the Volcker shock or union density in Bowling Alone.
  • Party political life in the mid-20th century (example of french communists) was not merely instrumental but wholly social, sacrificial. Church and party had an active stake in personal life.
  • The internet should be considered as a social form itself. Online has neutralized and sanitized risk.
  • The British Tories were the first mass party.
  • Assumption: right-wing associations have survived so that’s why they are stronger. Actually it’s even worse, the right has the advantage of operating in capitalism and increases in asset prices sustain homeowners associations.
  • The decline in social capital drives social inequality. Middle class associational life has weathered the storm as simple economic power floats middle class ties.
  • Police unions are very strong. All this said, some right-wingers perceive that the crisis is even worse on the right.
  • Neo-feudal notion that “we’ve all become peasants” is false. Peasants were self-sufficient and Marx said that they don’t have the experience of social labour. Now the work we do on a laptop is extremely social.

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

Jennifer Silva on working-class young adulthood in the USA

Jennifer M. Silva is a Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The following quotes are from her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, a contemporary classic.

“She taught me love
She taught me patience
How she handles pain
That shit’s amazing
I’ve loved and I’ve lost
But that’s not what I see
‘Cause look what I’ve found

-Ariana Grande

“Over and over again, the men and women I interviewed told me that growing up means learning not to expect anything from anyone. They told stories of investing their time and energy in relationships and institutions, only to find that their efforts were one-sided. I demonstrate how experiences of betrayal, within both the labor market and the institutions that frame their coming of age experiences, teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril.

They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust. Many make a virtue out of necessity, equating self-reliance and atomic individualism with self-worth and dignity: if they had to survive on their own, then everyone else should too. In an era of short-term flexibility, constant flux. and hollow institutions, the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.”

“For the vast majority of the men and women I spoke with, coming of age has been reimagined as a psychic struggle to triumph over the demons of their pasts. These ‘demons’ take several different forms: pain or betrayal in past relationships; emotional, mental, or cognitive disorders (e.g., depression, dyslexia, or anxiety); or addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Hurtful and agonizing betrayals within the family lie at the root of these torments, grounding their adult identities in the quest to heal their wounded selves. Through telling their stories of confronting a difficult past, working-class women and men stake a claim to dignity and respect, based not on traditional markers of adulthood but on having undergone emotional trauma and emerged, triumphantly, as survivors.”

“…couples who want to create relationships that foster the growth of their deepest selves find that self-realization requires resources that they do not have, and they must decide whether commitment is worth sacrificing their own interests and desires. For women, fears of losing the self predominate: their sense of self feels too fragile to risk in a relationship. Because many young people fear disappointment, betrayal, and dissolution, they often choose to be alone.

In a world where you have only yourself—hard-won through privation and suffering—to depend on, relationships feel overwhelmingly risky. Caught between two impossible ideals of love, many find themselves unable to forge romantic relationships that are both satisfying and lasting. Respondents thus numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by embracing cultural ideals of self-reliance, individualism, and personal responsibility.”

“As the coming of age stories of working-class young people reveal, the strain of risk-bearing has split individuals, families, and communities apart, leaving them with only the deep and unyielding belief that personal responsibility is the key to meaning, security, and freedom. In an era defined by neoliberal ideology and policy, collective solutions to risk run counter to common sense. Young working-class men and women understand personal choice and self-control as the very basis for who they are, and blame themselves, rather than large-scale economic precariousness and risk privatization, for lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures.”

The origins of “society” during the enlightenment

“From the Greeks to James Harrington in the seventeenth century (not to mention for his followers among American revolutionaries), extremes of riches and poverty were opposed, but as a matter of the stability of the commonwealth, not as a matter of justice, and not in the name of material equality. It was essentially not until the eighteenth century in Europe that anything like distributive justice within political order, whether aiming at sufficiency or equality, became widely conceivable.

When this finally occurred, the credibility of a politics of obligatory sufficiency competed with the credibility of a politics of obligatory equality almost from the first. What followed in the invention of ideals of modern distributive justice was one of the fundamental shifts in our understanding of how human beings ought to live among one other at any scale. Like so many other discontinuities in the eighteenth century, this one took place as the social realm became something distinct. Before, the notion of ‘society’ had been precluded by visions that prioritized God or nature as suprahuman authorities to which humans must conform, and political regimes were defined according to their relation to divine plan or natural law. The Enlightenment inventors of a new understanding of humanity insisted, by contrast, that the structure of social institutions does most to determine a people’s way of life, including what they believe about the divine and what sort of political authority they embrace. There was ‘a fundamental transformation in what might be called the vocabulary of human relations during the period.’ The newly coined notion of ‘society’, described ‘an entity which did not owe its existence to any religious or political authority or indeed to any principle external to itself.’ It signified a profound transformation in how Europeans ‘imagined the world around them: from a perspective in which the human terrestrial order was seen as subordinated to exterior (particularly divine) determinations, to one in which it was seen as autonomous and self-regulating.’ And before ‘society,’ there was no possibility of ‘social justice.'”