The Cultural Awakening of Toronto’s Suburbs

by Tim Jones

Arts and culture have been powerful drivers of Toronto’s growth and change over the last 50 years. They have transformed swaths of the central city and ushered in profound shifts in how we see ourselves. In a few decades, Toronto’s global reputation has vaulted from “Hogtown” to a dynamic cultural centre that sits at or near the top of several liveability indices. But most of the vibrancy and wealth generated by culture is clustered in the city’s core.

It’s now time to use the knowledge gained in leveraging arts and culture for change to unleash the cultural potential of Toronto’s suburbs, which are teeming with creative talent and rich in cultural diversity. Imagine if Malvern, Thorncliffe Park, South Etobicoke, or other similar communities became hotbeds of creative talent driving trends in art, fashion, food, and music. Imagine such communities showing the world how to build social cohesion by celebrating cultural heritage and fusing cultures to create new forms of art. Our suburbs have the potential to do that.

While our suburbs are diverse, they are decades behind in levels of creative development and infrastructure relative to downtown neighbourhoods. Cultural facilities and occupations across the city are currently densely clustered on the shoulders of downtown Toronto. For example, only 3 percent of occupations in Weston are in creative fields, compared with 18 percent in West Queen West.

This figure should not be misinterpreted as suggesting that the city is made up of cultural oases in the downtown and deserts in the suburbs. Organizations such as UrbanArts, Arts Etobicoke, and the Scarborough Arts Council are doing amazing work in these areas with modest resources. Nor are suburban neighbourhoods culturally asleep; many have come alive with street festivals, arts in the parks, and other events during parts of the year. What’s missing in many of these communities is the frequency of cultural programming, the density of cultural venues, sustained investment, and reasons for creative people to stay in, come home to, or be attracted to the neighbourhood.

Toronto’s cultural evolution occurred because of a dramatic rise in its cultural diversity and a small number of super-catalytic collisions of culture and place. Waves of urban revitalization have reshaped the design, culture, social fabric, and economies of certain neighbourhoods. When the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s was focused in Yorkville, it became the centre of hippydom, art, fashion, music, design, and fun. The explosion of the indie arts movement in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s helped reinvent Queen West and gave rise to Toronto’s take on hipsters.

In addition to these super-catalytic transformations, cultural projects serve as points of urban acupuncture. This term, coined by Barcelonian architect Manuel De Sola Morales, has been taken up by many others, including Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who wrote a book on the subject: Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life.

The renewals of Parkdale, West Queen West, the Distillery District, the Wychwood area, and Regent Park are rooted in projects intentionally designed as catalysts for urban and community development. Similarly, the creation or remaking of many of Toronto’s cultural institutions under the banner of “cultural renaissance,” as well as new developments at OCAD U, the Evergreen Brickworks site, and the TIFF district on King Street, provide case studies in how cultural projects can catalyze the transformation of an institution, neighbourhood, and city at the same time.

Artscape coined the term “creative placemaking” in the early 2000s to describe methods of leveraging art and culture for change in urban and community development. Toronto, recognized as a world leader in creative placemaking, is in a position to initiate the next generation-defining, super-catalytic collision of culture and place: the cultural awakening of its suburbs.

Artists and suburban communities in Toronto have more reasons than ever to be drawn to each other. According to the World Cities Culture Forum, the housing affordability crisis has become the biggest threat to culture in global cities. As artists are priced out of downtown Toronto, cities like Hamilton with cheaper real estate become more attractive. Toronto’s suburban communities can and should compete to retain or attract this talent.

The concentration of wealth and opportunities in Toronto has created disparities between downtown and suburban communities. Many suburban communities struggle with the effects of poverty, including social isolation and lack of opportunity, leading to hopelessness, ill health, income disparity, and crime. Artists and cultural institutions can play an important role in building social cohesion, helping people connect to new pathways of opportunity, engaging marginalized youth, and building new narratives about a place that can erase old stigma. By bringing together the needs of suburban communities and artists, we could spark what could be the most significant collision of culture and place ever in the city.

I’d like to stress that I’m not calling for a conquest of the suburbs by outsiders or for a new round of gentrification and displacement. Any cultural awakening of Toronto suburbs should arise from the ground up. Growth and urban development stimulated by these interventions must be carefully managed so that these communities remain inclusive.

Artscape Weston Common, envisioned though a community design process, will open in 2019. Built in partnership with The Rockport Group, the City of Toronto, Artscape, and Weston community leaders and residents, it will combine affordable housing for artist-led families with creative programming space and new homes for two 30-year-old organizations: UrbanArts and Shakespeare in Action. It is a model for transit-oriented development, tower renewal, and creative placemaking, developed at a modest cost to the city, and intended to be financially self-sustaining.

A network of community cultural hubs like Artscape Weston Common could act as points of urban acupuncture. Let’s encourage more brave choices like those made by the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum to establish themselves outside Toronto’s core.

Artscape invites all who are passionate about a culturally strong city to join us by awakening culture in all corners of our city.

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Tim Jones is CEO of Artscape and a city-builder, social entrepreneur, and change agent who works at the intersection of arts and culture, urban development, community activism, philanthropy, and public policy. Under his direction since 1998, Artscape has grown from a Toronto-based artists’ studio provider to a globally recognized leader in creative placemaking.

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