We often don’t realize what something means to us until it changes. And it doesn’t help that the culture we live in keeps up its constant exhortation: eyes front, move forward, reach for the sky – unsought reminders to focus on the “next” with little inducement to reflect on the “now.’’
All this was in my mind as I studied an artist’s rendering of Toronto’s skyline as it might appear once all currently approved waterfront developments are complete.
Shown to an audience mostly of Ward 20 residents February 4 at City Hall, the drawing was part of a presentation on community mapping, a project of downtown councillor Adam Vaughan and a handful of Ryerson city planning students.
With such pressures for change, we could use a bit of Buddhism applied to planning, some deep breathing exercises to fix our attention. Vaughan’s project, plus an awakening of public engagement, may be just what’s needed.
The partnership between Vaughan’s office and Ryerson planning students is still in the pilot stage, but its goal is to collect relevant information about Ward 20 neighbourhoods and present it in a dynamic, online map open for community use and, to some degree, modification.
So far, mapping has been completed for the entertainment district, and the rest of Ward 20 will follow.
The resulting map uses colour-coding to classify properties as heritage-designated, city-owned, or either “areas of stability’’ or “opportunities for change.’’ The plan is to translate the data to a Google Maps implementation where users will be able to easily cross-reference relevant city documents, developer information, planning reports and perhaps add or maintain their own information.
Suggestions for other data fields quickly popped up from those in attendance. Someone mentioned an ongoing Canadian Urban Institute economic mapping project in Saint John, New Brunswick, that charts geographic interactions within the city’s business centre. Perhaps a similar approach could be used here to show how development proposals could affect surrounding small and independent businesses, for better or worse.
The mapping concept helps shift perspectives; qualitative data collection permits more qualitative conclusions.
“One of the things we found is that development tends to happen on the boundaries of neighbourhoods,’’ says Vaughan. When people don’t feel an area is part of their neighbourhood, they don’t feel any responsibility, and bad changes can occur.
Sometimes the tool precedes the job; new ideas come only when there’s a context waiting for them to happen.
While the project is only slated for Vaughan’s website for now, adoption of a similar approach in other wards could encourage collation of disparate planning data such as geographic poverty, cultural census data and types of dwellings.
I remember trying to find information on the latter, specifically the number of family-sized rental and condo units in the downtown core. After many calls, I found a planning department librarian who said the information did exist, and he could find me those numbers – for a fee of several hundred dollars. Pardon?
That’s small change to a big developer, but a huge barrier to reporters and many community groups. Community mapping could help balance the game.
The maps would also be available to developers, a point not lost on Mary MacDonald of the city’s heritage section.
“My concern is that a developer would just see an area that’s ‘clean,’ from a heritage point of view,’’ she said, hinting that ease of use isn’t always compatible with depth of insight. We musn’t mistake the map for the territory.
The project leaves more room for emotional reality than is present in the language of traditional planning. In preparing the maps, students considered how the feelings of different neighbourhoods are defined by their location.
In the Grange, the prominent view is the CN Tower; in the entertainment district, it’s the downtown core. At the waterfront, it’s back to the CN Tower. From that we can see, incongruously, that the Grange might have more in common with the waterfront – or the Islands – than with its immediate neighbour.
Perhaps people settle in these places because they psychologically feel attracted to a particular presentation or context in the urban environment.
Of course, there’s no replacement for protecting neighbourhoods through old-fashioned community meetings and door-to-door canvassing. But community mapping could provide a powerful complement.
At its best, planning is meditative, an exercise in realizing what something means before it changes. But too often there’s no time for clearing the mind; city budgets are perennially tight while development applications keeping pouring in. Growth is interpreted literally, and it often happens when there are few resources or little time to reflect on existing assets – until they’re about to disappear.
Community mapping suggests there may be simpler solutions than we generally think.
Says Vaughan, “We want a conversation before the application, rather than argument after it.’’