An Introduction (to Urbanism)

Corner grocers, Jane Jacobs and what led to this column

By Anthony Greenberg

My name is Anthony Greenberg and I love cities. When I was asked by the editors of TheGaze to write a column on urbanism, I couldn’t say no. For my first post, I wanted to introduce myself, what I’m all about, and what place a boy like me has in “an equal opportunity feminist magazine for Canadian women.”

I’m a born and raised Winnipegger who got up and moved to Toronto at age 21. I made the move like many other youth from small and mid-sized cities. At the time, I felt that I was “too big for this town” and would benefit from being somewhere with more people, more options, and somewhere that seemed a bit worldlier.

I’ve loved big cities since I was a kid. When other kids asked their parents to take them to Disney World, I asked mine to take me to New York, Chicago and Toronto. I romanticized the cities I saw in films and TVs. When visiting family in Toronto, I fetishized the urban qualities that Winnipeg lacked. Little things, like corner grocers, main streets, different ethnic neighbourhoods that Torontonians take for granted — these things excited me.

When I first moved here, I was in that transitionary early 20s period trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Up until then, I had been heavily involved in Winnipeg theatre. It was sort of the thing I “did”, but not the sort of thing I really loved anymore.

My first year living in Toronto, I dated an older guy who grew up in Toronto, and had just returned after years of living in Montreal and Berlin. To him, Toronto might as well be Winnipeg. He didn’t bat an eyelash at those “urban qualities” I cherished as a young boy. They were a natural part of living in a city. To him, Toronto was a stick-in-the-mud—a boring, less exciting version of elsewhere and too self-conscious.

He was one of the first people to make me realize how subjective the way we perceive a place is. He made me begin to look at Toronto in another way. Instead of a Canadian urban Mecca, I began to critically recognize that while Toronto is a great city in many ways, there’s a still a lot of potential for even more greatness.

Around this time, someone handed me Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. This took things further.

For those who aren’t familiar with Jane Jacobs, she was a community activist from New York City who in the sixties made a splash with this work. The book was one woman’s love letter to the poetic chaos of the traditional city. Published as a response to major modernist urban renewal efforts of the 1950s (tear down the “slums” and erect modern apartment buildings surrounded by gardens), the book was one of the most accessibly written and thoughtful critiques of that way of city building. Fifty years later it is still one of the most influential books on urbanism (if not the most influential) and Jacobs’ tenets—mixed-use neighbourhoods promote vibrancy, density is good, old buildings have value—still inform the way we build cities.

However, perhaps more valuable than any topic Jacobs wrote about in her book, was what she herself represented. Jacobs was not a trained planner or designer. Jacobs was a woman. An extremely insightful and brilliant woman who knew that being an “expert” yields very little and understood on a human level, what made her neighbourhood (Greenwich Village) great. Cities are places where people live, and the community at large understands cities better than the elite few.

Since Jacobs’ publication the role of the urban planner has changed. The planner has transitioned (for the most part) from expert to facilitator. Today, a large percentage of the urban planner’s job is to co-ordinate and synthesize information from multiple parties. While a large part of planning is the ability to present complex problems in an accessible way to the public, so that the community that will be affected can meaningfully provide input. In Canada, public consultation is a statutory component of the planning process.

It is no coincidence that the same period in time that Jacobs released Death and Life was also when second wave feminism was transforming the world’s point of view. Her influence occurred at the same time it was being argued that the personal is the political.

Jacobs provided me with the confidence to transition my common love for cities into a career. I’ve never felt like an “expert” in anything, but the plain language used in Jacobs Death and Life reassured me that my simple love for the corner store has meaning, but more importantly, I didn’t need to feel like an expert. I took this confidence, went to Planning school, and now—just a few years later—am loving my first job as an urban planner in Toronto, the very city whose corner stores got my heart-thumping as a young Winnipeg boy.

I’ll admit I very often feel a little over my head. As this profession is new to me, I often lack the confidence that my point of view should have any authority over others. City and neighbourhood development are complicated manners, and very rarely does everyone agree on what’s best going forward or what’s the right “solution” for a certain place. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I think of the beautiful simplicity and honesty of Jacobs’ work.

I hope for this column to be a safe place for exploring ideas under the broad spectrum of “urbanism” with an underlying sense of personal experience, subjectivity, and healthy criticism. With these qualities guiding my writing, I’ll get settled in here in my little corner of TheGaze.

See what inspires Anthony by following his tumblr: thespacebetweenbuildings.tumblr.com 

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Categories: Cities, Urbanism

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3 Comments on “An Introduction (to Urbanism)”

  1. Anna
    February 29, 2012 at 3:44 PM #

    Wonderful! Look forward to more.

  2. Stewart
    March 1, 2012 at 11:45 AM #

    This is excellent, Anthony. I’ve spent about a year quietly following the strange and elegant (and sometimes even bland – but nicely so) photographs you post to tumblr, regarding them as an interesting window to the everyday life of a city I’ll probably never get round to visiting, but have always wondered what you actually thought about the places you photograph. Well, I shall wonder no more and just read your next column.

    • March 1, 2012 at 8:20 PM #

      Stewart, Thank you for the kind words. The way you describe my Tumblr is probably the exact same way I would. Keep on checking back here.

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