Top 10 Lessons from Toronto

Bridget Marquis
Oct 17, 2018 · 7 min read
A visit to Dufferin Grove Park as part of Civic Commons Learning Journey: Toronto. Image credit: Kyle Kutuchief.

In July 2018, the Civic Commons Learning Network and 8 80 Cities co-hosted a journey to Toronto to tour public places spurring community change, and to hear from the people behind the movements. This is what we learned.

Active citizenship is a powerful force worth harnessing

Many of Toronto’s greatest public spaces exist because of the tireless efforts and dedication of local champions and engaged residents. Jutta Mason of Dufferin Grove Park and Sabina Ali of Thorncliffe Park are civic commons heroes who are leading the reimagining of neighborhood parks. They commit their own time, resources, energy and capacity to create welcoming and inclusive parks that reflect the unique character and needs of their neighborhoods. Too often residents are treated solely as users, not co-managers and creators of parks. The good news is that every city has these champions. Our challenge — and yours — is to support them and adapt municipal policies and procedures to keep up with and foster this grassroots action.

Jutta Mason shares Dufferin Grove Park. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

Celebrate the public in public-private partnerships

Sabina Ali of Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee reminded us that attitude matters. By celebrating the public sector as partners in this work, you can help frontline and midlevel city workers feel good about what they can do, even in the face of bureaucracy. Working in collaboration means holding the public sector accountable while staying positive and sharing your success with your public sector partners. Whether it be through a joint press announcement, a nod to an elected official in a media interview or praise for a frontline city worker to his or her manager, make time to acknowledge the individuals who make city government work. When a city employee is used to nothing but complaints, these small acts build a more productive relationship.

Sabina Ali encourages us to celebrate our public partners for wins like the tandoor oven now installed in Thorncliffe Park. Image credit: Bronlynn Thurman.

Social enterprises offer a way to sustain civic infrastructure

Kevin Lee of Scadding Court Community Centre shared the many different social enterprises emerging from that single site. From aquaponics to retrofitted shipping containers serving as a street food and retail market to a commercial kitchen, Scadding Court is generating funding streams with high social benefit. It looks for opportunities to build the capacity of local residents and encourage social bonding, while also finding ways to monetize programs and projects. The community center’s entrepreneurial mindset not only invests in people through social enterprises, but also keeps programming free by developing other revenue streams beyond public and philanthropic dollars.

Kevin Lee describes the many social enterprises that support Scadding Court Community Centre, including the shipping container outfitted as a commercial kitchen behind him. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

High-quality civic assets can make socioeconomic mixing the norm

Regent Park is a recent example of integrating mixed-income, mixed-use development in the city. The neighborhood has been in revitalization since 2009 and has since transformed into a community with subsidized and market rate housing, townhouses and condominium buildings. But along with newly built mixed income housing, the neighborhood incorporated a new park, aquatic center, recreation center, cultural center and new retail and office spaces. Regent Park is home to many different immigrant groups, so these civic assets play an important role in bringing people together across divides to build community. And the development didn’t scrimp on quality — the aquatic center is state of the art, while the recreation center has a sparkling commercial kitchen and a rock climbing wall. Given the quality of the assets and their programming, residents share in the neighborhood’s civic commons equally, regardless of whether they live in public or market rate housing. Socioeconomic mixing is a daily occurrence in Regent Park.

Sureya Ibrahim of Toronto Centre for Community Learning & Development provided our tour of the many high quality assets in Regent Park. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

Honor play as exploration

Play is important. Play is critical for a child’s cognitive and physical development and key to honing negotiation and relationship skills. But it’s often taken too seriously. Playgrounds across North America follow the same cookie-cutter template that might put parents at ease with their safety features but risk putting kids to sleep with their sanitized design. The sand and water pit in Dufferin Grove Park is a valuable reminder that play is adventure, and it’s best when children can use their imaginations and get dirty. Simple ingredients like sand, water, shovels and pails provide hours of entertainment and possibilities.

Dufferin Grove’s sandpit teems with life on a summer day. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

Simple amenities can bring people together

Humans are social creatures, and they don’t need much incentive to meet and mingle. Even simple and inexpensive features can do the trick. Take the pizza oven and campfire pit in Dufferin Grove. It becomes an outdoor kitchen where neighbors meet and gather on a weekly basis. The tandoor oven and café in Thorncliffe Park proves the same concept but demonstrates the power of adapting simple ideas to suit the unique needs and culture of the surrounding community. Finally, the shipping container market, Market 707 at Scadding Court, draws people from across the city and abroad to sample diverse cuisines, all while supporting local entrepreneurs and community programs. Regularly sharing food in a communal setting creates moments for interactions among strangers, which over time can become the basis for trust.

Dufferin Grove’s campfire circle is the perfect outdoor living room or classroom. Image credit: Bronlynn Thurman.

Reconsidering abandoned spaces as public assets

Toronto has recently grown its public space network by turning to overlooked civic assets like the former brick quarry at Evergreen Brick Works and the underside of the Gardiner Expressway at The Bentway. These projects are urgently needed in a rapidly growing and densifying city like Toronto, but all cities could make public space more accessible by uncovering and repurposing old infrastructure or forgotten spaces into places for people. Through innovative design and creative programming, both Evergreen Brick Works and The Bentway have become thriving civic assets by embracing their unique and unlikely settings.

The Bentway maximizes a formerly forgotten space into a public place to gather. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

Environmental sustainability as a motivating mission

Evergreen is actively engaging Canadians in creating and sustaining healthy urban environments, and it has manifested its environmental sustainability mission into its home at Evergreen Brick Works. Since 2006, working with the existing buildings and land, Evergreen has incrementally transformed the former Don Valley Brick Works site into a public place with sustainability at its heart. But the Brick Works is much more than just the organization’s offices. It is also a hub for experiencing sustainable ideas, for outdoor learning and nature play and for public markets, all the while serving as an entry point into Toronto’s ravine system. A mission-forward re-use project, it holds nature in the city and resiliency as paramount.

Evergreen Brick Works imbues its environmental mission. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

If political leadership doesn’t support your core values, become the political leadership

Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for the City of Toronto, set the context for our learning journey with a presentation on the rapid growth of the city over the past 30 years. She shared how policy-driven planning, such as the Greenbelt established in 2005, advances density and infill development rather than sprawl. In the public engagement process, she encouraged us to “embrace conflict for insights and opportunities,” as through this tension you can learn together and transform skeptics into believers. And just days following our visit, Keesmaat threw her hat into the ring for mayor on a dual platform of liveability and affordability that supports living life in public and counters economic segregation and distrust.

Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for the City of Toronto is now running for mayor. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

While delivering site and neighborhood-level projects, keep your eye on systems-level change

The people and places we met and explored on the Learning Journey highlighted how civic assets can be created, managed and maintained through people-led, grassroots initiatives. But civic commons are where the bottom-up and top-down inevitably meet. Evergreen’s Future Cities Canada program seeks to bridge that gap and create a supportive policy environment where civic assets can flourish. On our last day, we engaged in a lively discussion with Toronto-based public servants and leaders of nonprofits and foundations on the topic of systems-level change. We discovered that Toronto and demonstration cities share common challenges related to policy and funding but all agreed on the need for sustainable and strategic support for our civic commons networks at all governance levels.

Geoff Cape shares the future of Evergreen in the context of Watershed Consciousness by Ferruccio Sardella, a living map of the city’s watersheds. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

Co-authors: Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network and Ryan O’Connor, director of programs for 8 80 Cities.


Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

Bridget Marquis

Written by

Director, Civic Commons Learning Network; cities, civic commons and importance of place in our lives

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

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