host picture

September 2010 Archives

Civic Muscle

This morning, as part of our ongoing series, Civic Muscle, the CBC's Mary Wiens looks at one of the public institutions that has struggled hardest with public consultation.
Listen audio (runs 6:19)

Civic Response

Matt Galloway spoke with the CBC's Mary Wiens.
Listen audio (runs 5:55)

Civic Muscle 4

This morning, on our series, the CBC's Mary Wiens takes us to Roncesvalles, where construction crews have been at work for two years, digging up water mains, and repairing the streetcar rails.
Listen audio (runs 8:05)
Civic Muscle 1, September 6.
Listen audio (runs 9:33)
Civic Muscle 2, September 7.
Listen audio (runs 6:42)
Civic Muscle 3, September 8.
Listen audio (runs 6:35)

Civic Muscle 3

This morning, on our series, Civic Muscle: Building Toronto, the CBC's Mary Wiens tells us why many Torontonians are turning into civic activists for the first time in their lives.
Listen audio (runs 6:35)
Civic Muscle 1, September 6.
Listen audio (runs 9:33)
Civic Muscle 2, September 7.
Listen audio (runs 6:42)

Civic Muscle 2

Matt Galloway spoke with the CBC's Mary Wiens. This morning she tells us the story of an historic city park and the citizens who set about to rescue it.
Listen audio (runs 6:42)


It's the kind of conversation that's happening not just in Toronto, but in cities across North America, as citizens find that the biggest obstacle to city-building is often their own civic institutions.
Harry Boyte is co-founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Michigan.  He also chaired the civic engagement committee for President Obama's election campaign.

He says municipal governments across North America have adopted what is sometimes called a corporate model of governance, in which civil servants are the experts, providing citizens with services.

But Boyte believes the root of the problem goes much deeper, and that civic engagement has atrophied in recent decades because of a "global consumer culture".

"It's a culture," says Boyte, "that produces a me-first attitude and a kind of whiny-ness, a grasping-ness -- instead of a sense that WE'RE building this place."

Boyte says young people, in particular, are looking for a bigger role as citizens -- a hunger reflected in Public Achievement, a campaign he helped create in which teams of young people build a project around a public issue - anything from recycling to reducing crime in their community to building a skateboard park.  The initiative has now spread to 23 countries yielding a wealth of data on civic engagement. 

"We see a real hunger among young people to feel consequential," says Boyte. "Young people grow up in an environment in which they're entertained or sold things as consumers or filled up with knowledge.   But there are not many opportunities for young people to be challenged to be productive or to be consequential or to make an impact. "

The CBC's Mary Wiens spoke to Harry Boyte. 

You can hear more of that conversation here. audio (runs 9:33)

Elinor Ostrom's groundbreaking research into the role of citizens in maintaining public resources won her the Nobel prize for economics last year.  In her book, "Governing the Commons," Ostrom argues that the best way to manage public resources - from parks to fisheries to forests -- is not through privatization or by government, but through citizens, who are given significant control over their particular piece of "the commons".

Boyte, a colleague of Ostrom's at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, says Ostrom's research underlines the importance of what he calls "civic muscle".

"Civic work of that kind," says Boyte, "is sustained and it's consequential and it's hard and it takes time and it develops civic muscle." 

And, says Boyte, there is nothing sentimental about this view of citizenship. 

"When people learn how to work with people who are not in their friendship circle or in their family -- people who are different, who have a different political ideology, or a different religious orientation, or a different income - that's work.  It means learning to deal with people who make you uncomfortable, learning to see different points of view, learning that people who are very different have something to contribute to a community project.  So there is a growth involved, a development, a public growth involved in that process.

Civic Muscle 1

Matt Galloway spoke with the CBC's Mary Wiens. She is producing our series, "Civic Muscle: Building Toronto".
Listen audio (runs 9:33) Listen to all the audio from the series.


We start with the story of Victoria Memorial Square, a small historic park in downtown Toronto.  The park is the site of Toronto's oldest European cemetery, where the bodies of the soldiers stationed at Fort York from 1794 through to the early 1800s were buried.

Scott James, former City Archivist and former managing director of the Toronto Historical Board, says that when those soldiers weren't guarding the fort against invading Americans - a rare event, in any case --  they were armed with spades and pickaxes,  and set to work building Toronto's first roads and sidewalks. 

Today, the original cemetery is marked by a granite monument, where the few remaining tombstones of those early soldiers have been remounted.  Of the original 600 or so tombstones, only 17 of which remain, many were of children and infants.  You can faintly make out one such inscription commemorating the brief life of a 9-month old baby, born to one of the soldiers posted at Fort York.

For James, who lives in the condo building overlooking the square, the story of this public park and the historic burial ground is a story of civic engagement.

"As the first people to move in," says James, "we knew the potential for the park." 

As an archivist, one of his first projects for the City of Toronto was organizing the original records of the Military Burial Grounds Commission.

But it was as a resident living next door to the military cemetery that James became intimately acquainted with the site.  Together with his neighbours around the square, he began a campaign to rescue the delapidated park and its eroding tombstones from more than a century of neglect. 

The City's Parks department had no money to help, so James, together with his neighbours, raised money to hire a landscaper to brainstorm the future of this park.
These were no ordinary residents. Scott's neighbours included architect Ken Greenburg, a former director of the City of Toronto's planning department.   But even with all that high-end talent, Scott was dismayed to find how difficult it was to get the city's parks and recreation department onside.

"I worked for City Hall for 30 years," says James, "and I don't remember it being as difficult to get decisions made, and difficult to get contracts let, and difficult to get contracts adhered to and completed as I've seen in this case."

The residents -- educated, powerful and well-off -- were fortunate to be represented by two consecutive councillors who were eager to help.  They were also savvy enough to work closely with developers in the area, who put up much of the money for park improvements.  And yet, in spite of an abundance of goodwill on the part of so many, James says the municipal government bureaucracy -- from Parks to Public Works to Planning -- was "elaborate, labyrinthine, clumsy and often not transparent."

Dozens of departments all with different, often unco-ordinated agendas, made it hard even for former insiders like James and his well-connected neighbours, to navigate City Hall.
Two centuries ago, the soldiers buried in Victoria Memorial Square helped build Toronto. Perhaps it's no accident that more than 200 years later, the people living next door to their burial ground are prepared to fight for the right to continue building it.

"We're supposed to be partners in this enterprise," says James.   "We're not customers that can be marketed or ignored as the councillors or civil service sees fit.  We're not clients or customers of the government.  We are citizens.  We are the government."