Zainab Abbasi is one of the almost 200 emerging leaders who attended ELNStudio 2015 at U of T (photo by Johnny Guatto)

CivicAction and U of T asked 200 emerging leaders how to revitalize public space

Urban experts, activists, scholars and young leaders turned out for CivicAction's seventh annual Emerging Leaders Network(ELN) Studio conference held in partnership with U of T on Nov. 7.

“The University of Toronto has a true commitment to its engagement with the city,” Professor Charlie Keil said, as he welcomed almost 200 participants – a record number – to U of T's Chesnut Conference Centre.

“For me, CivicAction represents the best of what the city can do and the U of T is proud to be part of what CivicAction is trying to do.” 

The day-long conference was entitled “Reimagine Where We Live” and the discussions focused on what constitutes public space and how to best use it for citizens in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region. 

Panelists included  Zahra Ebrahim, who has previously taught human geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and alumna Denise Pinto. Pinto is executive director and Ebrahim is chair of the board for Jane’s Walk, the annual event named after Jane Jacobs, the internationally renowned author and activist who wrote the 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  

One of President Meric Gertler’s priorities is to commit to a “renewed and growing engagement with the city,” Keil said, adding “the University of Toronto can do much more to engage in partnerships to do something important in terms of city building.”

Zainab Abbasi, one of the U of T students who attended the conference, also did some advance work as an intern for CivicAction, creating posters and sending out email reminders about the session.

Abbasi, in her fourth year working on a double major in urban studies and architectural design, said in an interview that her internship started last September. Utilization of public space “is a personal interest of mine,” she said pointing to projects she has studied that include the High Line in Manhattan, the elevated rail line that has been rejuvenated over the years and turned into a public park.

“It is important to activate such places, and make them more useful,” she said. “My personal favourite is the High Line. It is an excellent use of public space.”

Nine U of T students took part in the breakout sessions on various components of public space. Keil said “I believe the discussions will constitute an inspirational moment for them.”

Many of them were inspired by the comments from the panel members – live tweeting during sessions was so frequent that #ELNstudio15 was trending number two across Canada.

Along with Pinto and Ebrahim, panelists included Dave Meslin, Pigeon Hat Industries; Ken Tanenbaum, vice-chairman Kilmer Group and Jason Thorne, a planner with the City of Hamilton. 

Moderator Hamutal Dotan, Focus editor of the Globe and Mail, asked each of the panelists to explain in 30 seconds what public space is.

Pinto said “it is the space between buildings, it is the space we all occupy and share.” Ebrahim said “public space to me is when you walk into an outdoor environment that looks like a living room – people are feeding their kids, or kids are playing and people are having conversations, things that would normally happen behind closed doors. If people use it, it is public space, if people just look at it, it’s not public space.”

Dotan asked Pinto about the “magic secret sauce” that makes Jane’s Walk so successful. Jane’s Walk was created in Toronto and grown to more than 100 walks around the world, from Calgary to Calcutta. 

Pinto said the “joy of being in those walks, opening up conversations where people feel they have a place to speak” allows them to have a tremendous sense of participation in the city they call home.

Asked later about proposed solutions to creating better utilization of space in the city, Pinto said Jane’s Walk is all about “bringing together diverse voices, creating active listeners,” although she conceded that it is sometimes difficult to make the “transition from passive participants” in such activities.

Ebrahim agreed, and said in an interview after the panel session that as a professor in the teaching stream in urban planning at U of T Scarborough, she has created a new course on utilizing public space called “workshop.”

The panelists talked about “tactical urbanism” and the need at times to “break the rules” to get things done. Ebrahim said one of the most important things is to get city bureaucrats involved early in the process so everyone believes they are a partner in getting things accomplished.

The crowd and the young people tweeting became quite exuberant when Meslin talked about how City of Toronto bureaucrats are trying to stop “road murals” in Toronto, with one tweeting: “sometimes breaking the law creates a change in policy.”

Another tweet quoted Pinto as saying: “ask for forgiveness, not permission.”

CivicAction was founded in 2002 at the Toronto City Summit Alliance, and changed its name to CivicAction in 2012. It provides a neutral platform for collaboration and leadership focused on improving the region’s social, economic and environmental future. U of T alumnus John Tory, now Toronto mayor, was CEO of the Summit Alliance and Mitzie Hunter, an alumna and now an Ontario cabinet minister, is a former CEO of  CivicAction. 

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