Building Healthy Communities: LYAC in Review

This report details the meeting of the LYAC on July 30th at 7pm. The focus of this meeting was to review the previous few weeks of meetings, including topics of London as community, public transit, the LYAC visit to the mosque, and the London Plan.

Who should read this?

  • Londoners interested in the London Plan
  • Cyclists and riders of public transit
  • Youth looking for jobs in London
  • Western students and Londoners in general looking to connect with the London community

London and Community

The discussion began with the question of what makes a community. One of the councillors said that she feels community forming through her connection with the LYAC and the people she has met through council. This brought up a conversation about connection and relationships, and if London feels like a connected city. One of the councillors mentioned that the approachability of the city councillors helps London feel more like a community. However, she thought politicians in larger cities may have more barriers to creating these kinds of connections. Another councillor noted that community is formed as people go to different ‘hubs’ and areas that they frequent. These are typically places with food, coffee, live music, and other people. Hubs can also occur in unexpected places, and one councillor noted how elementary school students hanging out at the mall creates a kind of unconventional community. Similarly, one councillor mentioned how a McDonald’s restaurant she visits has a sort of community, as it’s a popular spot with familiar faces. The councilors eventually started to discuss one of the most recognizable communities in London: Western University. Western is often perceived as being insular and is frequently referred to as the “Western Bubble” for this reason. The councillors discussed how they would burst the bubble if they had no restrictions on money or resources.

  • Elizabeth suggested offering tutorials on how to take the bus in London. She explained that a friend of hers did not know a lot of the places in London because she lived in residence and did not know how to take the bus elsewhere.
  • Skylar suggested increasing the downtown presence for Western, similar to Ryerson or the University of Toronto, putting the campus in the core. She also suggested that Western should have events at Aeolian Hall or other venues outside of campus to better integrate the university into the city.
  • Evan said that he would bring back the London Ontario Live Arts Festival (LOLAfest) and the fall festival to create more draws for students during the school year. He talked about his experiences going to LOLA as an undergraduate student and how it made him more interested in London beyond campus.
  • Jana suggested that instead of having club events on campus, having them off-campus might bring students out into the city.

The idea of Western being its own municipality was brought up by the councillors, and how Western provides all the services that students need. One participant noted that tours for incoming students emphasize that everything is on Western campus, suggesting that there is no reason to explore other areas of the city. Two others recalled their experiences of Summer Academic Orientation, and how there was very little mentioned about London during the event.

These experiences made the councillors feel like Western puts little effort into informing students about London. This perception of Western may make it difficult for youth to develop connections and want to stay in the city. One councillor said that the key to staying in London can be to find a job you really like – doing something you like with people you like is important to create a connection to the city. Another councillor agreed, commenting that there is more to life than just economic factors, and life cannot just be measured in GDP.1 Turning the issue on its head, the councillors then discussed what London needs from us to thrive. One councillor argued that London needs commitment; the city has a lot of talented people, but all that talent is pouring out and London will not grow. She explained that progress isn’t instantaneous, and that a whole generation needs to see the potential of London and stay in it in order for the city to change. Another councillor agreed, but argued that staying in the city is a difficult thing to ask of people when they don’t have jobs or resources. One councillor suggested that a possible way to combat joblessness is for people to create their own jobs, and he argued that the city should make small business organizations more available or visible. The idea of creating more micro-grants and student-focused competitions was also brought up.

1 Reporter’s note: GDP means gross domestic product, or the dollar value of everything made in a country over a certain amount of time. We often determine how successful a country is based on its GDP, rather than social factors or other measures that may give us more insight into the experiences of people who live there.

Attractive Cities: What does ‘attractive’ mean?

A popular city building idea right now is the notion that attractive places and spaces, can help to attract and retain people in cities. Over the last few months the LYAC Councillors have thought about this idea and tried to decide how to understand the idea of ‘attractiveness’. The Councillors pointed out that attractive means different things to different people. Sometimes, when we talk about building attractive spaces and places we assume that there is a common or objective standard of attractiveness that everybody will agree with. This isn’t the case, so we should always make sure to speak with as many community members as possible before making a decision about how to design a new space or place.

Here are some of the different ways that the LYAC Councillors described ‘attractiveness’ of space/place:

  • Green space makes a place more attractive
  • Architectural attractiveness
  • Walkability of an area makes it attractive
  • Community atmosphere and the willingness of people to interact with each other makes an area attractive

To highlight the idea that attractiveness means different things the Council talked about an example about two different grocery stores: the former Metro at Westmount and the Valu-Mart in Wortley Village. The group discussed whether the Valu-Mart was saved because it was more ‘attractive’ than the Metro. The Councillors generally agreed that some aspect of attractiveness contributed to the decision to close one and not the other, but again explored how broad and varied definitions of attractive can be. For example, Evan agreed that Wortley is an attractive place, but Skylar added that beyond attractiveness, the Wortley Village Valu-Mart is more walkable than the Westmount Metro. Overall, this discussion was important because it reminded everyone that attractiveness is a subjective measurement, made up of many different variables. Each person has a different idea of what attractiveness in place design means.

Understanding Generations: Entitlement or Not?  

In conversations about city building and planning it is difficult to avoid occasionally using generalizations about different generational demographics. LYAC Councillors are trained to pay attention to the way that young people are understood in the context of conversations about the past, present, and future of our city. The Councillors spent some time discussing how different generations act differently and often have difficulty understanding one another. The Councillors explored how perceptions of young people influence the way that cities integrate or do not integrate younger demographics into decisions about the city.

Here is a selection of some of the thoughts that the Councillors raised:    

  • Asala explained that people often think that the current generation of young people is allowed to do what it wants. There is a perception that things are not necessarily as strict as they were before. As a result, she thinks that some people view today’s youth as entitled because they push for more than they currently have (despite what they have being fairly good in comparison to what came before2). However, she does not think that it is fair to characterize the majority of young people as entitled.
  • Cedric explained that he believed that the “me” generation started with baby boomers. He knows that all baby boomers do not think this way, but he thinks that popular narratives about the way that the world works are greatly influenced by individuals from the boomer years.
  • Skylar Councillor added that she does not like the entitlement argument because she worked hard to get where she is now, just as many other young people from this generation have.
  • Jana stated that she does not believe that we live in a meritocracy. She said that the only people who believe in the concept are people who have positions of power and feel that they have their power purely because of their merit.
  • Asala added that the boomers ruined the job market for the current generation, and are now telling them not to complain.
  • Emma pointed out that things have changed over the years with things like University. It used to be possible to work part time and pay for school, but that isn’t possible anymore.

Ultimately, the Council rejected the idea of entitlement (recognizing that some people in every generation are entitled) and identified its widespread acceptance as a barrier to youth in the workplace, classroom, and broader social sphere. They think that the presence of the entitlement narrative makes it difficult for young people to be taken seriously, particularly when trying to tackle and discuss issues like youth unemployment.

2 Reporter’s Note: Young people tend to recognize that they have privileges that their parents did not have. They are told this over and over again by parents, teachers, pop culture, and the media, however there are things that are more difficult about life as a young person today that are very infrequently talked about. For example, young people face tremendous pressure to achieve economic success, to maintain personal brands, to negotiate the extreme amounts of information/data available, etc. Young people rarely feel empowered to talk about these challenges because many laugh and say, “that’s nothing compared to when I was a kid” or “it’s so much easier to be a kid now so just be thankful for what you have.” This attitude often leads to people understanding the younger generation’s desire for continued ‘change’ (not even progress) as being entitled or even dismissive of the battles fought before them. The point isn’t to pit one generation against another or to suggest that one group had it ‘worse’ than the other, rather the point is to understand that the pressures and challenges of growing up are relative to one’s context and to understand that what one generation might view as entitlement might actually be the questioning of a major assumption about the way that the workplace, classroom, or social structure should work.

A Growing City: Growing Up Not Out

The next area that the Council discussed was the issue of urban sprawl. Generally the group agreed that London should aim to ‘intensify’3 rather than spread out.

Here are some of the reasons why the Councillors supported the idea of growing ‘up not out’:

  • Evan explained that he is for growing up instead of out, though it seems to be easier, politically and maybe even from a construction perspective, to expand instead of going to inner parts of the city and fixing them.
  • Asala Councillor agreed that it is better to be building up and in to form a stronger community.
  • Skylar Councillor added that urban sprawl is problematic because it creates a reliance on cars. It also costs the city money related to development of new land which causes residences to pay increased taxes.

At this point the Councillors spent some time trying to think beyond the positive aspects of growing up not out. They wanted to make sure that they considered some of the risks of doing so. If you consider some of the challenges associated with a new direction it might be possible to create solutions before they become problems.

Here are some of the points that were raised:

  • One of the staff remarked that there needs to be a discussion about pedestrian-friendly areas, and whether ideas such as the urban beach would raise prices downtown. This might make it hard for certain kinds of business owners, potential residents, and consumers to access the ‘new’ downtown environment.
  • One of the most important questions to ask is: Who will not be able to afford to live in the downtown as a result of potential changes?
  • Another question asked was: If rent increases in the core will that cause services that low-income people need to move outwards? As the services move outwards, they will likely move to places that are less transit-accessible, even though population that requires these services relies on transit. Not only will this make it harder for people to access services, it will disrupt the community of people that currently meets downtown.
  • Another participant brought up the argument that a reduction in the number of homeless people downtown does not necessarily indicate positive change. It might mean that people are being pushed out of downtown.
  • Skylar argued that sometimes people think that changing the way that the city grows will help to address poverty in our city. While changing the way that we develop our downtown might help, poverty is a systemic issue and that requires an overhaul of our social welfare net. She emphasized that tackling poverty is a provincial and federal problem, not just municipal.

3 Intensify means adding more into existing areas rather than building on brand new land on the edges of the city. This prevents the city from growing larger in area, but allows for more people, businesses, and public spaces to exist in places where there are already certain services.

The London Plan: It’s better than most official plans, but can it be better than it is?

One of the questions that the Council considered was whether the London Plan (LP) achieves its goal of being accessible to the population at large. The Councillors recognized that the LP was a landmark citizen engagement process, but they think that it’s still worth mentioning how it can get better.

Here are some of the things that they said:

  • Asala argued that despite there being less technical jargon, the plan is still hard to understand and feels repetitive.
  • Evan Councillor suggested that London Plan should have more visible marketing to citizens excited about the plan.
  • Jana pointed out that when the London Plan was being created, the planners emphasized that they went out into the community, but the plan, in its final draft form has not reached the communities that she engages with.
  • Skylar commented that no one will read the whole plan unless they have to. She suggested mailing out condensed versions of the plan to the community. She added that public engagement is expensive, but worth it.

LYAC Visits the London Mosque

In this discussion about the city, the councillors recalled their time visiting the mosque and what it was like to see that particular community. One of the councillors commented that she was not aware of a lot of the history of Islam. She noted that sometimes when you’ve been brought up with a religion, you won’t venture out and seek your own information, and visiting the mosque was a chance for her to explore her own religion. Another councillors had never been to a mosque before, and he enjoyed the experience. He said that he has a lot of ties to Christian communities and found many similarities between the mosque and the religious communities he’s seen.

Shift London: Cyclists and Public Transit

The discussed ended with a conversation about how the councillors experience cycling and transit?

  • Elizabeth feels unsafe when biking on the street, particularly when turning.
  • Cedric noted a feeling of having to compete with cars for space when riding his bike.
  • Evan argued that there is not enough material on the current G1 test that addresses safely sharing the road with cyclists.
  • Skylar argued that people don’t know how to drive alongside bicycles, and that when taking public transit, buses are infrequent.
  • Asala added that busses do not run late enough or early enough.
  • Jana argued that the city needs to advertise the LTC’s google maps functionality to new students.

One councillor suggested the idea of creating LTC day passes for families as a way to make transit more accessible. Another councillor suggested that a bus pass could be implemented into student fees for high schools similar to the Western bus pass that is included in tuition. However, another councillor argued that only specific high school students would need the pass and implementing a bus pass as a universal school fee might not work. One participant suggested that schools could switch from yellow buses to LTC buses in city boundaries, and that giving the contract to LTC rather than school buses could pay for the number of bus passes needed. A councillor mentioned that the LTC buses could be made free to ride by putting the cost into taxes, and one participant argued that the city currently does not collect enough taxes or put enough money into transit. Transit remains an issue with an elusive solution, and throughout the discussion several other items were brought up regarding city spending. What should London’s priorities be? How do we pay for these changes? The answers to these questions are difficult to surmise, and more complex than they are often assumed to be.

Personal Stories

Jana noted that the “bubble” around the university is not a uniquely Western issue. She explained that her brother went to Singapore, and the campus he was on is even more elaborate and an even bigger bubble than Western’s to the point where he barely went out into the city. In many ways and in many places, students seem to constitute a group of people cut off from the places in which they study.

When discussing the possibility of combating joblessness with small business and entrepreneurship, Elizabeth explained that a friend of hers at the University of Toronto is participating in a business summer scholarship where the goal is to create a business with friends. Start-ups certainly are a huge trend, and London has its fair share. Perhaps we need to do more research on what opportunities exist in London similar to those at U of T and what has come of them.

Big Questions

  • What does it mean to be an attractive city?
  • Where do we find community?

Reporter’s Notes

This review and debrief of LYAC meetings had many common threads weaving through it. The councillors felt that the London community suffers due to a lack of communication and manageable information, whether it is a lack between Western and the greater London community creating a Western bubble, or a lack between city planners and the citizen populace in the creation of a London Plan that is still to an extent inaccessible and leaves important questions unanswered. Perhaps one way to improve the situation is to encourage the building of hubs, which by all accounts sound like attractive places from the qualities described by the LYAC. At the same time, many of the examples given by the LYAC involved corporate space or acts of consumption. What alternative hubs can we think of? Beyond the malls and coffee shops, are there examples we can find even outside of London of community spaces that thrive without the obligation of purchases?

As the LYAC often does, the group interrogated the issues that the current generation faces, issues often without clear solutions. Personally, as a university graduate who is hiding in the shelter of post-secondary for one more year of postgrad college, many of the problems we discussed weigh on my mind constantly. Jana made an excellent point about change being gradual and London suffering due to people unwilling to put in the effort, but Skyler’s point rings true as well. How can we ask someone to stay when they have no livelihood in London, even if that person truly wants the city to flourish? Creating a job is not something that everyone can do.

Things We Still Need to Learn

 

  • What are some community hubs we can find in London that do not involve corporate space or consumption? Do we have enough of these hubs?
  • How have other cities balanced enhancing their attractiveness and the rising prices that can occur from such efforts with helping low-income populations?

 

 

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