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Cities for People: Reimagining the Cities of Tomorrow

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August 16, 2016

According to a United Nations report, over half the world’s population live in cities. In Canada, close to 80% of Canadians live in urban areas. As cities become denser, an important question arises: 

How we can make our urban spaces more livable, joyous and socially connected? Currently a pan-Canadian initiative is looking at ways to build more inclusive, innovative and resilient cities. Cities for People is a collaborative initiative that aims to find diverse solutions to create more liveable cities. With a team of curators across Canada, Cities for People focused on innovative projects that explore four main themes during its experimental phase between January 2014 and June 2015. These pillars were art and society, new economies, cityscapes and citizen spaces. At the heart of each of these themes was social inclusion.

Jayne Engle is the National Curator for Cities for People. Engle emphasizes the importance of social inclusion,explaining that it stands as a core value in each of the organization’s activities. “It’s our feeling very much, that people living in poverty or situations of exclusion are best placed to lead the way in developing solutions. To bridge social divides, our experience tells us collaboration and working in solidarity are essential,” she says.

Cities for People originally planned on having social inclusion as a separate theme, but the team decided to integrate it as an essential element of each pillar in the experimental phase. Moving forward into Cities for People 2.0, social inclusion is deliberately highlighted. “The overarching values of inclusion, innovation and resilience are not underlying but front and centre at the same time,” Engle says about the initiative’s next steps.

In Cities for People 1.0, the initiative connected with over 2500 Canadians in over 30 cities via the We are Cities campaign. The campaign resulted in an action plan, representing perspectives from all over the country on how to build more resilient, livable cities. These consultations included perspectives gained from urban aboriginal citizens. From preventing and addressing brain drain to improving public transit, the roundtables and online forum gave citizens a chance to envision their future cities.

In addition to We are Cities, there were also a number of demonstration projects supported under each pillar. From artistic senselabs connecting people through mapping and art to The Binners’ Project, a number of innovative projects were developed and supported. The Binners’ Project is an example of how cities can act as incubators for new economic opportunities. Binners are waste pickers – or people who make a living through rerouting or upcycling reusable materials from landfills such as cans and bottles. The Binners’ Project is a collaboration between waste pickers in Vancouver and Montreal which aims to reduce the stigma associated with waste picking and improve the economic opportunities associated with the activity. According to Engle, it not only gives value to the work these people do in environmental and social terms, but also recognizes and respects waste picking as a profession. The Binners’ Project not only connects waste pickers on a national level, but is also connecting with alliances in the Global South to learn strategies for better organization as well as creating a sense of social connectedness at an international level.

Moving forward into Cities for People 2.0 the initiative is also focusing on strengthening civic commons, which are places and spaces in a city that provide the opportunity to collaborate and step out of social isolation. “These are public spaces but also civic assets – a network of libraries, parks and post-offices and schools in some cases. These are underutilized buildings or places that could be better used in order to create changing economic and community needs,” says Engle. For instance, the initiative supported Salon 1861, a church transformed into a coworking space and special event place, open to all kinds of community uses.

According to Engle, cities are places where we can manifest values of reconciliation, saying that this “is such an important moment in Canadian History with truth and reconciliation, what we do with that will define who we are as a society in Canada.” Engle says though Indigenous art and public space projects are already in place, she feels they have the potential to become more visible in common spaces in cities.

Engle believes integrating the values of reconciliation into our public space, “strengthens social fabric and puts us on our way to creating more inclusive cities.” Cities for People is planning to integrate Indigenous peoples and perspectives into their placemaking program area. “I feel like we could learn a lot from Indigenous peoples and traditions,” says Engle, adding that she believes Indigenous peoples are amazing stewards of the land.

Moving forward, Cities for People will also be supporting initiatives that connect neighbourhood revitalization and poverty reduction.  Vibrant Cities and Centraide Montreal’s Collective Impact Project  are two examples of making intentional space in planning to integrate newcomers and Indigenous peoples in building equitable Canadian cities of tomorrow.

“Any time you bring diversity together, if you have an open mind and willingness to learn there is an opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas. We had that in Cities for People 1.0 and we are  building on what we learned from that,” says Engle.

To learn more about the lessons learned in Cities for People 1.0 and what lies ahead for the initiative, you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.