Happy Birthday, City Institute at York University! The York University research centre, known to its associates by its short name “CITY”, celebrated its tenth year of achievement on April 5 with well-wishers from near and far.
Since then, CITY has become an internationally recognized research centre, facilitating critical, interdisciplinary and collaborative urban research, public policy interventions, and community activism, both locally and globally.
“I hope it can be said that we are never satisfied to rest on our laurels”, says Director, Dr. Linda Peake in her opening speech of marking the special moment. “We successfully rechartered a few years ago and we have just submitted an application for a large SSHRC Partnership grant. Our goals for the coming year involve developing a fundraising plan to enable us to financially support more visitors to CITY and to further our research. Yes, we spend time searching for money – but we also spend time building up a community of future researchers, without whom, the money would be pointless!”
CITY has been a presence across various scales where urban issues are subject to progressive political action and path breaking critical research. Locally, the institute was involved in relevant municipal debates in Toronto and its suburban neighbours; regionally and provincially, CITY researchers have been called upon to speak to issues related to greenbelt and growth planning as well as transit equity; federally, the institute has been part of building a progressive national urban agenda for cities across the country; and internationally, the City Institute has developed a profile, among other things, through its research on global suburbanisms and its recent focus on a critical reevaluation of planetary urbanization. A two-day workshop on the latter topic preceded the anniversary celebration and brought distinguished international speakers to York University.
To mark a vibrant decade of research and community-building and to further promote critical dialogue on Canada’s urban agenda, CITY hosted a panel discussion of renowned urban thinkers and practitioners on the evening of the anniversary: “Toronto in Crisis: Challenges, Possibilities, and Actions”.
David Miller, the former Mayor of Toronto (now President of the World Wildlife Fund and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies) eloquently framed the discussion and set the stage for Jane Farrow, journalist and founder of Jane’s Walk, to introduce each panelist with humour and elegance. For David Miller, the primary urban challenge is to rectify growing social inequalities – intensified by political exclusion of newcomers from municipal voting, and by a public transit system that has not kept pace with the GTA’s dramatic growth.
Socio-spatial disparities and the politics of redistribution and recognition were addressed by all presenters. Drawing on her expertise as an urban political geographer, Dr. Ranu Basu, a CITY faculty member, used counter-maps to reveal how the city and its social fabric have been hollowed out through public school closures, damaging the ethno-cultural community-building-capacities of marginalized residents. To showcase the possibilities she sees in Toronto, Dr. Basu narrated with photographs the artful adaptive re-use of inner-suburban industrial and commercial spaces by newcomers into sites of multifarious suburban/subaltern cosmopolitan activism.
Focusing on the value of grassroots activism, Angela Robertson, Executive Director of the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre, did not mince words. Ms. Robertson directly attributed Toronto’s crisis to systemic racism that manifests in intense poverty, dramatically foreshortened urban Indigenous lives, discriminatory police carding practices, and the violence disproportionately enacted on Black male bodies. With critical intensity she reinforced the value of Brown and Black lives and the powerful strategies of resistance by the Idle No More and Black Lives Matter solidarity movements.
Further insight into the complex interactions between space, power relations, and civil society, was provided by award-winning Globe & Mail writer Doug Saunders who recounted how his initial foray into journalism as a York University student sowed the seeds for his acclaimed book, Arrival Cities: The Final Migration and Our Next World (2010). Where inner-suburban politicians once enacted discriminatory by-laws to prevent immigrant settlement in shared accommodation, Toronto’s urban landscape has now been radically shaped by waves of migration.
As political attention turns ever-outwards to the suburban periphery, City of Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre – Rosedale) closed the discussion by reminding the audience of the marked socio-spatial divides in downtown Toronto. The entrenched rationalization of neoliberal discourse at City Hall and the political power of Toronto’s suburbs frustrate her, because they often inhibit a unified social justice agenda to combat exclusion, dispossession, and displacement within the city. She congratulated CITY on its accomplishments and enjoined its members to continue their cutting-edge, critical urban research, noting that it has the power to enrich urban policy and to facilitate constructive political debate.
In a decade, under the inaugural directorship of Dr. Roger Keil – and now Dr. Linda Peake – CITY has blossomed from an idea into a research centre with a global reputation. Their leadership has been a source of inspiration for urban scholars, for York University, and for urban knowledge production worldwide. CITY has become a place where ideas are generated, knowledge disseminated, funding secured, and a welcoming community created – from graduate students to world-renowned scholars.
Congratulations CITY on ten successful years! May the coming decade be even more inspiring.
Dr. Alison Bain, Acting Director, The City Institute at York University