This post is part of a series covering ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities Spring 2017 Symposium which took place on April 24 and 25 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. ULI Toronto’s second city building symposium saw over 1,000 industry professionals gather to learn and engage on topics revolving around placemaking, mobility and technology.
“People are not persuaded by facts, but enticed by perspective,” remarked keynote speaker Maarten Hajer as he gazed across the packed ballroom at the 3rd annual Meet The Chiefs Gala, a unique seated dining experience that celebrates the public-sector planning and city region building leadership of the Greater Golden Horseshoe. As an integral part of April’s two-day ULI Electric Cities Symposium, chief planners and urban planning leaders from across the region were invited to be part of the dinner, sponsored by Toronto Pearson, Uber and WSP and held at Toronto’s Delta Hotel. Hajer, professor of “Urban Futures” at the Faculty of Geosciences of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, asserted that bold urban thinking is required to tackle two global challenges: social equity and climate change. At the intersection of these two significant global urban challenges is land use and Hajer argued that engaging the imagination of the public is one of the greatest tools to inspire change on a regional scale.
Hajer noted that the challenge of the 21st century is to undo the failures of the 20th century. Marked by the “Great Acceleration” in human enterprise and the impacts on the Earth system over the last two centuries particularly since the 1950s, carbon dioxide levels have now reached a critical high. Case in point: $85 billion of real estate in Boston is at risk of flooding due to high tides from rising sea levels from global warming. Many cities built within the 20th century were designed for the car, which Hajer said was in part because the public was inspired by the vision of the future that automotive technology offered. Le Corbusier’s “City of Tomorrow” and the legacy of the 1939 World’s Fair where General Motors presented a tangible vision of a future with automobiles both captivated the imagination of the people. However, with the increase in population and the explosion in carbon emissions, this model is long outdated.
In a post-fossil fuel city, how do we navigate between bureaucracies while defining what a “good” city is? Hajer noted that people often have a negative perception of post-fossil cities as places with limits placed on growth, but it’s important to rethink that, despite the difficulties at a regional level. There are already elements of post-fossil cities in countries such as Denmark where 98% of electricity is generated from wind and inhabitants of its major cities move almost exclusively on bicycles and public transit. To really bring about urban change aimed at achieving a sustainable tomorrow, Hajer recommends using an ecological approach. He advocates for considering the regional model and making it into a tangible experience where everyone can see his or her role in the future, much like how Le Corbusier and General Motors captivated the baby boomers with their vision of the automobile-centric city.
“We shape the world through the stories we tell; let’s find a way to tell the story to think about spaces,” urges Hajer “City planning then is world building. That’s how we move past complexity and bureaucracies that dominated the 20th century. Design is a powerful way to shape these narratives to coalesce loosely organized coalitions and persuade through imagination to secure active participation by stakeholders.”
In a conversation with Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner of Toronto, the question regarding the magnitude of the scale in the Golden Horseshoe dominated the discussion. For this sustainable vision to materialize, practical things within this sprawling region needs to happen, like adding density, infrastructure and wider sidewalks for pedestrians. From a regional perspective, the Golden Horseshoe still has a very long and difficult way to go. “Try it,” suggested Hajer, “my work is only about research… adapt systems; allow people to test it out and see if it’s for them. Decisions should be guided by perspective rather than facts; you need to allow people to experience alternative possibilities.”