Saturday, May 1, 2010

Politics: One of Jane's Legacies

Max Allen spoke during a Jane's Walk at Grange Park in Toronto, Ontario on 1-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This weekend, all over the world, people are remembering the legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by participating in Jane's Walks. Toronto, Jacobs' chosen home and the origin of the Jane's Walk just three years ago, will have 120 mostly neighbourhood-based walks to partake in this weekend. I managed to participate in only three today.

One of the delightful things about Jane's Walks is that one never knows what one will learn. From a possible renaming of Harbord Park to what kind of pedestrian signal activation is preferred by the city of Toronto (PS2MVG--I'll get around to explaining that in some future post) to the fact that Grange Park is actually owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario, there were a multitude of interesting facts that I would not have otherwise learned had I not gone on these walks today.

The most unexpected revelation came during the "360 Degrees: Grange Park as a Time Machine" walk in the evening with local resident association chairman Max Allen. In the course of explaining how the Ontario College of Art and Design's famous stilted building, he launched into an explanation of how development is normally accomplished in Toronto, and then went into a sidebar on how Toronto Ward 20 Councillor Adam Vaughan has tried to change it.

I had heard about the standard process plenty of times before, which could be summarized as back-room dealing between the local councillor and the developer usually leading to the local residents going before the Ontario Municipal Board in an attempt to stop the project. I hadn't heard that Vaughn decided that was all backward, and tried to change it. Rather than cutting a deal with the developer himself, he forces a community meeting and public buy-in before he will endorse the project. What usually happens is that the residents don't outright reject the proposal, but tell the developer to go back and do it better, and then they go and do it. The improved design is not only accepted by neighbours, but tends to be more attractive and thus sells better for the developer. Why don't developers do this by default? In the opinion of Allen, it's because they were never asked to before. When they are so challenged, architects usually love the chance to do something interesting.

Jane Jacobs fought to establish livable communities. If Max Allen is correct, Adam Vaughan has stumbled on one way to help make that happen, and it is as simple as deviating from the normal development process to get public input earlier.

Jane's Walks continue tomorrow, in cities all over the world; see the official website to find out if there are any where you are located.

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