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Philanthropists take Toronto's future in their own handsTaking stewardship of the growing megacity.

Fran Deacon

Earlier this month, Fran Deacon, 93, was handed a cheque for $2000 dollars. As the fundraiser for the Regent Park chapter of Out of the Cold, an organization dedicated to helping the homeless, she has never had a problem making the yearly budget of $16,000, but this marked the first time she'd received such a large single donation.

"It was a thrill!" Mrs. Deacon says, "I never set an amount, I just tell them how many people we feed, and then they see the difference it makes in the community."

Mrs. Deacon has been working with Out of the Cold for 20 years, but began volunteering at the age of 14, on her father's suggestion, by reading to veterans during the Depression. Four years later she married Fraser Deacon, who would go on to found the Toronto Foundation, a community foundation that works to ensure the vitality of Toronto through the power of giving. 

When Fraser died in 1988, Mrs. Deacon continued her relationship with the foundation, acting as the manager for the FH Deacon Fund. The year Fraser died, the fund was responsible for just over $250,000. Now the foundation has nearly $300-million in assets and distributes money to over 450 high-impact community organizations.

When asked about the importance of philanthropy in changing the culture of a city, she pauses, saying, "that's hard to answer, because philanthropy means different things to different people. I think it's giving of yourself, but some people feel it only refers to money that you give."  

Deacon believes that giving back is everyone's obligation. The founding slogan of the Toronto Foundation was "It's time to have Rosedale cross the street." The idea that connecting people from different areas and different backgrounds can improve the city has continued to be her driving force.

"When I was a girl, my father would ask me how many people I made smile that day," she says, "I don't think people get asked that question that much."  The urge to reach out, to share a community, she argues, has been replaced with fear. "When I was a little girl, everyone talked on the streetcar. But, now, when terror is spoken of almost commonly, that changes the climate of what it means to be a citizen. You have to be able to look at a stranger and smile."   

Ken Greenberg, an urban planner and designer, agrees. "We live in a world that's fraught with social division and conflict and strife and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we live isolated from each other,"  Greenberg said. "In a city like ours where we’re coming from all over the world, we need those common living rooms, spaces that we share to come together and do things together."

In mid-November it was announced that Judy and Wil Matthews had donated $25 million to help make Ken Greenberg's dream of a new public space a reality. The Under the Gardiner project will be a mix of performance spaces, parks, and trails and span 1.75 km through the neighbourhoods of Fort York, Liberty Village, and City Place. It's meant to not only beautify a space that has been traditionally ignored, but also unify the city.

The Matthews were looking for a legacy project when Greenberg introduced them to the idea. He had been thinking seriously about transforming the Gardiner since 2010, when he wrote a piece about the unused land becoming a central park for all the new little neighbourhoods surrounding the waterfront. Greenberg says, "Once the Matthews saw this idea, they thought it captured what they wanted to do in terms of tying people and places together."

"The city is in the throes of a transformation," Greenberg said. "One of the biggest challenges is social equity. Being aware of what a ‘them and us society’ looks like, and we have to be proactive in dealing with it. That's why creating a great common space, so the 70,000 new residents who have come to live in the formal industrial lands, and are lacking in public spaces and disconnected, is so important. Under the Gardiner is providing a new kind of urban tissue."

The project is a reminder of what philanthropy can do for city building that the city’s government alone cannot. Greenberg clarified, "but for the philanthropy it wouldn't happen. It's not obvious that something like this would have emerged from the normal thinking." Greenberg continues, "there's a boldness that can happen when a project is funded by private donations."  

Fran Deacon echoes his point, "one of the early rules for the Toronto Foundation board was to not have a politician on the board. Politician's priorities are just different. They have to be."
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