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Where are Toronto's urban manners?

Ken Greenberg

This week on CBC's Metro Morning, host Matt Galloway told an anecdote about a dog who decided to relieve itself in Galloway's front yard while Galloway was gardening. The radio host wondered if the owner was being rude in not redirecting his dog to somewhere more private (or at least not in Galloway's work space) or whether it was all within the bounds of acceptable urban behaviour.
What's rude and what's not in our densifying city is a question we all seem to be grappling with. Last month, in an article for Planetizen, Ken Greenberg—architect, urban designer, teacher, former director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto, principal of Greenberg Consultants and author of Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder—mused on the growing importance of urban manners.
"We grew used to spreading out in the auto-oriented suburbs established in the decades following World War II, avoiding friction with our neighbours by using space as a buffer, driving from place to place for specific purposes but rarely overlapping on foot in public spaces," wrote Greenberg. "Backyards on leafy neighbourhood streets were the outdoor living rooms for kids to play, dogs to run and the focus of family life. As this change to greater density gathers momentum a combination of urban newcomers—often young people living on their own for the first time and from an increasingly polyglot mix of cultures with as many assumptions as to what constitutes acceptable behaviour, find themselves thrown together in close quarters."
Greenberg's essay declares that "Every city has its unspoken codes, along with its more formal written laws and regulations, that shape the course of daily life and frame the ways people experience each other as fellow citizens and members of society."
So when I got him on the phone, I had to ask him what Toronto's unspoken codes were. Unfortunately, Greenberg didn't offer any advice on the etiquette of dog curbing.
"There are many Torontos," says Greenberg. "If you think about the area where I'm living now, which is King-Spadina on the periphery of Kensington Market and Chinatown, there is an understanding of the waves of immigration that have come into this area and a certain courtesy and tolerance that are part of this area. That's very different from many US cities where people settled in areas that were very homogeneous and they weren't that accustomed to dealing with so-called outsiders. I think that's part of the DNA of this area."

For Greenberg, Toronto's courtesy and tolerance includes everything from peer groups made up of young people from many cultural backgrounds and the propensity to eat "more authentic versions of others' food…. There's an enjoyment of each other that's characteristic of Toronto."
Greenberg worries, though, that in Toronto's suburban peripheries, residents are settling in more homogenous ethno-cultural groups. There isn't quite that sense of welcoming other people or even dealing with other people. "Will the kids growing up in those areas be as comfortable as the kids downtown with 'others,' so to speak?"
In the Planetizen article, Greenberg lists New York, Boston, San Francisco and Montreal as cities where residents are more accustomed to living in tight quarters. They're cities with lots of renters, particularly in smaller apartment buildings, while Toronto has been dominated by home owners for much of its history. The slab apartment towers, some mammoth, that finally gave Toronto much greater density starting in the late 1950s tend to be surrounded by parking lots, isolated from each other and from commercial activity. We're not as accustomed to mixed-use neighbourhoods, parks and streetscapes as we'd like to think.
"You have people who have been used to satisfying their needs or wants without having to think very much about the presence other people. I'm talking about a whole generation of people who grew up with suburban environments where you really don't bump into people that much," says Greenberg. "So you get into a city park and you have all these young people now who have dogs. Often multiple dogs. They're all in the park and they want to play with them and they have these devices to throw the ball further. And at a certain point you see there's so many of them and then there's people with kids, people eating lunch—you realize that something has to give."
Of course, tempers will flare in parks and at busy intersections, but Greenberg thinks these are growing pains. Or densification pains, so to speak.
"It's fascinating to see and sometimes it's messy and a lot of time it depends on intermediaries like city councillors who are called on to play the role of referee or mediator trying to get people to come up with a common protocol for sharing spaces," says Greenberg. "We're a city that's never had generous sidewalks. We have these narrow, mingy sidewalks. For the longest time, it wasn't a city where people were walking. Now we have large number of people walking, literally pushing each other off the curb. We have to learn how to make way for other people."
So yes, we are putting more pedestrians and bikes and light rail vehicles onto streets where only cars had roamed. In the long run, it will sort itself out. "The prize at the end of all this is that the more we make cycling and transit and other alternatives to the car workable and appealing to people, the more space there will be. Because all those other forms of transportation take up less space than cars," says Greenberg.
That might not answer the question of what to do when a dog chooses an inopportune place as a bathroom, but it gives us all a little more room to breathe.
Ken Greenberg's book Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder will be published in softcover in August.
Paul Gallant is Yonge Street's managing editor.
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