UTS presents 'School in the City'

UTS conference


On March 6th, both Professor Seasons and Rob Rappolt attended the ‘School in the City, City in the School’ conference, jointly hosted by University of Toronto Schools and Maximum City. The theme of the conference addressed two questions; How can schools build cities, and what can cities teach us?’.

The format of the proceedings was discussion based, beginning with a keynote address by Sheldon Levy, and followed by two separate panels of experts and practitioners in the fields of education, city building, and community engagement.

The day was rounded out with an afternoon exercise that had practical application. Participants were asked to breakout in to several teams and develop solutions to the Bloor Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto School sites by applying the key ideas from the morning discussions. In the end, presentations were made on these solutions by teams who volunteered to do so.

Setting the stage: Introduction by Josh Fullan

Josh Fullan is a teacher at University of Toronto Schools, and the founder of Maximum City, a program that offers a curriculum in sustainable urbanism and civic literacy for students aged 13 to 18. In his opening address, Mr. Fullan highlighted some of the challenges facing southern Ontario, with a particular focus on the Greater Toronto Area. Referring to demographic and population projections, Mr. Fullan identified the anticipated growth of the regional population, projected to be nearly three million by 2036. The City of Toronto proper will grow to 3.45 million during this same time period. From his perspective, this begs an imperative and very pressing question regarding the capacity of the education system to meet future academic needs wrought by this growth. In other words, are there enough schools to accommodate the significant population increase within Toronto and the surrounding region?

One of the key focuses of Mr. Fullan’s address was the pattern of school closures across Ontario, and Toronto in particular. He highlighted these concerns by stating that building schools in the suburbs is not necessarily the issue, as growth will inevitably occur as will a subsequent increased demand of academic opportunities. On the other hand, at the core of the issue was the seemingly widespread closure of inner city schools. In lieu of this, Josh evaluated what he identified as three main categories of schools; the ‘functional box’, the ‘ivory tower (.jpg)’, and the ‘steps and podium’. In doing so, he was alluding to the design of schools and how they fit within their surrounding environment and streetscape; a very insightful observation in to the broader purpose and functionality of these institutions.

However, a schools functionality or utility is not only limited by it’s incorporation through design into its surrounding neighbourhood. Alternatively, it has to do with the academic and educational approaches utilized by these facilities. In addition to this, he demonstrated that schools should also be designed and operated to be flexible spaces of learning and experiential opportunities, and reflect the model of ‘good planning’ with respect to mixed land use, by the schools themselves reflecting this same approach. To demonstrate this, he showcased several different examples including schools from Regina and the Tenderloin Community School in San Francisco.

Keynote address: Sheldon Levy

Sheldon Levy is the current President of Ryerson University, and has been responsible for much of the transformation of both the campus and the surrounding neighbourhood during his tenure. While he described in detail the context of Ryerson University (being an ‘urban’ campus), it was his insights in to the relationship between schools and city building that were most interesting. Highlights in this regard focused on the fundamental question of ‘who are you building for?’. As Ryerson is at the heart of Toronto, he noted that developing the campus without recognition of the broader context of the surrounding neighbourhoods would be amiss. Astutely, he noted that where you are located must dictate your responsibility to build appropriately. As examples, he discussed the Ted Rogers School of Management, the redeveloped Mattamy Athletic Centre, and the Student Learning Centre. In the end, Mr. Levy concluded that his take away message should be that whether building a city, neighbourhood, or community, it must be based on communication, relationships, and sense of place.

Panel one: How can schools build cities

Andre Sorenson

The first panel of the conference addressed the question of how can schools build cities? Andre Sorenson is a professor and chair of the Department of Geography and UTSC, and he organized his discussion in to three parts. The first point Mr. Sorenson made was in regards to schools, the integral role that they play in the part of city building, and how closures are severely detrimental to in this regard. In particular, he noted that permanent schools closures are extremely short sighted, especially with respect to the selling of infrastructure and property. In this regard, Sorenson described it as ‘using prior capital to fund current projects’ and ‘borrowing from future generations’. In other words, he felt strongly that school closures forfeited the long term ability for neighbourhoods to remain resilient, and that this reflected poor planning on behalf of the school boards by not serving to the best interest of communities. The next point he made was his belief that community space was imperative to vitality and resiliency. In order to support this, schools needed to be high quality shared spaces that have a diverse focus including a vehicle for communication, accelerating innovation, and overall, working to build communities. On a final note, Mr. Sorenson described a current initiative at UTSC that focuses on engaging community partners in decision making, and the importance that location makes in this ability in being part of the broader community. Ultimately, this plays a direct role in the contribution that academic institutions can make to communities, and vice versa.

Craig Morrison

The next panel participant was Craig Morrison, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, and founder of Oasis Skateboard Factory, an alternative TDSB curriculum for students. The focus of Oasis is to take part in collaborative projects with the community, while also enabling students to manage their own skateboard business and/or professional design studio. This alternative option for students within the TDSB allows experience in collaborative projects and meeting real world deadlines. The take away message from Mr. Morrison was that academic institutions may benefit from offering alternative curriculums for students in an effort to meet local needs at the community and neighbourhood level.

The following video takes an in-depth look at Oasis:

Remote video URL

Richard Sommer

Richard Sommer is the Dean of Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at University of Toronto. His discussion offered an interesting perspective in to the association between education and business, echoing some of the insights that Mr. Levy offered. In particular, Mr. Sommer explained some of the analytical tools used to determine the ultimate design and development of urban academic infrastructure that meets the needs of stakeholders, the institution, and the municipality. In the end, it is the ability for institutions to be resilient over time, rather than altruistic, that has the most potential benefit for all.

Question period

The questions for this panel were excellent. In particular, there was some discussion regarding the role of students in the community, as well as the viability of vocational and collegiate institutions in the contemporary academic environment. With regards to the first query, Mr. Morrison made an interesting point by stating that students and adolescents are both producers and consumers of their environment, and therefore have an important role in any decision regarding their curriculum, institution, and community. This demographic posses’ a unique perspective on the surrounding environment, and therefore has the capacity to offer interesting and important perspectives, and should undoubtedly be included in the decision making process. In regards to the role of vocational and collegiate institutes, it was widely agreed that these institutions offer greater learning options, and in doing so have increased flexibility with respect to the education streams offered. Ultimately, this has an important role in keeping schools open that may be antiquated, or exist in older inner-city neighbourhoods with declining enrolment.

Panel two: What can cities teach us

Zahra Ebrahim

The second panel discussion began with Zahra Ebrahim, founder and principal of archiTEXT, and a professor at OCADU. Ms. Ebrahim was a strong supporter of experiential learning, and passionately believed that young people are the stewards of the future. To support this, she asserted that adolescents often have the courage to turn attention to problems that adults don’t know how to frame or discuss. Zahra also firmly believed that cities need to be co-created to reach full potential, and that this can only be achieved through increased and better discussion regarding challenges and opportunities.

You can watch a TEDx presentation by Zahra here:

Remote video URL

Catherine Vlasov

Catherine Vlaslov is a representative at the Civic Action Regional Transportation Champions Council, as well as a University of Toronto Schools student. Ms. Vlaslov became interested in joining Civic Action after learning that there was no youth representation on the Council, eventually contributing a voice to the discussion on behalf of the younger generation of residents living in the Toronto area. Most of all, Catherine’s message called for an urgent need to resist being passive and embracing decisions at face value. Instead, she called on younger people to be the leaders of today and voice their opinion by contributing to the decisions that affect the communities and neighbourhoods in which they live. In addition to this, she stated that youth need to be the leaders of today, not just tomorrow (as the old adage usually goes). She reiterated that this generation posses’ the ability to offer a lot, and can help inform key decisions. As a side note, Ms. Vlasnov also noted that Maximum City is a very pragmatic and dynamic program that is not only highly relevant, but also had an in-depth academic approach with respect to the exploration and discussion of urban issues.

Shawn Micallef

Mr. Micallef is the co-owner and editor of Spacing Magazine, an author and writer, and University of Toronto instructor. Shawn believes strongly that one of the foremost ways in which to experience a city and better understand the challenges and opportunities it faces to take what he describes as ‘psychogeographic walking tours‘. In his words, this enables the researcher or observer to develop ground up stories and form a bottom up approach with respect to the understanding and interpretation of urban issues. His many roles, as noted above, have given him a unique perspective on the challenges and issues facing Toronto. But he, like the panel members before him, felt that these experiential learning opportunities (such as walking tours) enable the students to develop a better understanding of urban issues and a real life perspective on gaining insight in to practical and pragmatic solutions and alternatives.

Question period

There were two questions that seemed to gain the most interest and response from the panel members. The first related to the relationship between schools and cities. Ms. Ebrahim noted that by in large a planners objective is to build a complete community, while social workers are building better communities; a significant parallel in objectives exists here. Zahra noted that to maximize the potential benefit of this relationship, there needs to be a set of common goals and objectives established, as well as having a shared common language between both parties. The second question pertained to the ability to frame leadership in a manner that has the capacity to make real change. Resoundingly, the panel members expressed that it was about experiencing place, participating in the community, and possessing the courage and willingness to become involved in civic leadership that would have the most impact on positive leadership.

Design challenge

The design challenge asked participants to review and address two sites in Toronto: Bloor Collegiate Institute and University of Toronto Schools. Both institutions are in jeopardy of remaining in their current location; Bloor Collegiate may be closed down and consolidated in a new building (within the same neighbourhood), and UTS may have to move due to the University of Toronto’s interest in utilizing the building for post-secondary purposes. While both cases had variations with respect to the challenges (i.e. funding, enrolment, alternatives, etc.), the themes of neighbourhood resiliency, community involvement, and best practices were prominent in all of the groups final decisions. Interestingly, there was a strong willingness to build new facilities with funds from the sale of either land or the existing institutions. However, there was also a strong opinion that these new facilities must be mixed use and reflect the needs of the broader community. These decision making criteria, funding alternatives, and creative ideas seemed to be strongly influenced by the days discussion.

Conclusion and take away messages

At the end of the day, there were several key themes and messages that emerged during the panel discussions and the design activity. First, there is a clear relationship between schools, communities, and the neighbourhoods in which they are located. There is also an important link between neighbourhood resiliency, community morale, and academic institutions. Further, there was the unanimous belief that increased communication and citizen participation in the decision making process is imperative. Whether this is directly related to the school closure process, or other decisions that have potential implications on communities, there must be a greater effort on behalf of the principle stakeholders to offer opportunities for meaningful consultation.

Another key theme that emerged was the importance of urban design and architecture in the context of the broader neighbourhood. This should reflect questions such as who is the building for, is it dynamic, and what broader purpose does it serve? The capacity for a building to be accessible, have good design, and be a cornerstone of the community seems to be integral to its long term viability. It also contributes to the positive experience of place, as discussed by Mr. Fullan and Mr. Micallef. Another important theme that emerged was the ability for school boards and institutions to offer alternative and unique academic programs or curriculums that would maintain higher levels of enrolment and therefore be more applicable in a local context.

It was also very clear that a strong leadership is required to address the challenges emerging from school closures. This requires ideas that may seem ‘outside of the box’, but are in fact a starting point to gain momentum on this issue, and to develop alternatives that may allow schools to be partially or fully repurposed. Ultimately, this will enable schools to remain open during fluctuations in enrolment, funding, and applicability in a local context. A universal set of guidelines and policies regarding accommodation review is not the way forward, and the lack of a clear and concise policy framework from the provincial government may be detrimental to the process itself.

There must be greater accountability for meaningful and real public participation during accommodation review that results in the immediate needs of the school board, and does not sacrifice the long-term resiliency and viability of communities. In the end, the issue of school closures highlights the more important and pressing challenge of developing collaborative and place-base policy that reflects these needs, and is in the long-term best interest of the places where we live, work, and play; from an urban planning perspective, this is a reflection of ‘good planning’.

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