"Great things happen at City Hall," said Edward Keenan, Wednesday night at Harbourfront Centre, "but really great things happen somewhere else." "Great things happen at City Hall," said Edward Keenan, Wednesday night at Harbourfront Centre, "but really great things happen somewhere else." TED RAWSON
The Mayor’s been taking up a lot of space in this city lately, but Ivor Tossell and Edward Keenan, authors of the recently released The Gift of Ford and Some Great Idea respectively, used Wednesday night’s edition of Harbourfront’s Toronto Talks series to discuss how citizens are engaging in city-building apart from City Hall.

Mayor Ford won’t be mayor forever, someone said somewhere, and, duly reminded of the fact, half the city breathed a sigh of relief.

“We’ve talked about Rob Ford enough,” said Tossell. “Rob Ford is the navel of Toronto that we enjoy staring at so much.”

“But the age of Rob Ford is over. The time of Rob Ford as a political force in this city is on the wane. And I wonder how that understanding has propagated itself throughout the city.”

What he’s done for the city, Tossell argued, is to make Torontonians think of Toronto as more than just a city of taxpayers and commuters.

The discussion’s focus emphasized how citizens are building communities in the city. The best example Keenan provided was Friends of Dufferin Grove Park. Formerly a derelict, crime-riddled park, Friends took it upon themselves to take ownership over Dufferin Grove by simply making use of it, adding a bake oven, a basketball court, community gardens, and turning the ice rink house into a de-facto community centre. Crime dramatically decreased and Dufferin Grove was revitalized as a gathering place for the community, children included.

Wednesday’s event highlighted four other groups conducting city-building projects of various kinds.

David Buchbinder, from Diasporic Genius, presented on the work his organization is doing in Thorncliffe Park, Canada’s most diverse neighbourhood. Diasporic Genius seeks to answer the question, “What would happen if we put the creative imagination at the centre of city-building and utilized the true power of diversity?” In an effort to create something like a 21st century village square, Diaspora hosts storytelling circles and other events to foster a “culture of celebratory-participation.”

Kristi Herold is founder and director of the Toronto Sports and Social Club, which has expanded at such a rate that the City can’t accommodate its requests for more playing time. When Herold came here from Sudbury as a kid, Toronto was a “big, scary city.” Now she’s created the largest such organization in Toronto, so that “big kids are getting out there as well,” to bring people together around an active lifestyle.

Boris Chan is director of engineering at Xtreme Labs, a jewel of Toronto’s start-up scene. The mobile software company counts Bell, AlJazeera and CBC News among its clients, marking Toronto as a start-up hub.

Lastly, Michael Labbe, CEO of Options for Homes, presented his not-for-profit company’s vision of providing the quality, affordable housing that Toronto desperately needs.

A city is more than just the government that provides the necessary services and infrastructure. It’s more than just a collection of diverse neighbourhoods. At its heart it’s built by groups like these, knitting the individual citizens of the city together.

“Great things happen at City Hall,” said Keenan, “but really great things happen somewhere else.”

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  • Subtitle: Two Toronto authors and guests discuss non-governmental city-building
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