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Urban studies program discusses important questions for Innis College’s 50th anniversary

Logo: Innis 50

How do we narrow the divide between the suburbs and downtown? What role does transit play in making Toronto a first-class city? How do we effectively celebrate the rich cultural traditions of our immigrants?

And are postwar, suburban towers part of the plan or just plain eye sores?

These questions and many more were on full display at a recent forum at Innis Town Hall − part of the College’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The Urban Studies Program at Innis College, in partnership with The Martin Prosperity Institute and the Toronto Star welcomed four panellists with expertise on planning, immigration and transit, as they engaged students, alumni and the wider community in a lively public discussion.

“In 2012, the United Nations stated that our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in the cities,” said alumna Cherise Burda of the Pembina Institute. “I believe that our struggle for sustainability will be won or lost in the suburbs.”

With the exception of families with three or more children, most people don’t choose to live in car-dependent suburbs, Burda said. They live there because they believe the suburbs are more affordable than the city. But she said a comparison of two houses of the same size – one in downtown Toronto, the other in Oshawa – shows that belief is an illusion.

“If you took into account the transportation costs with the housing costs, the most costly place to live monthly and over time was actually the house in Oshawa,” Burda said − even though that house had the lowest purchase price of several she looked at in the Greater Toronto Area.

Making the suburbs more attractive for the right reasons is an important goal for policy makers, said Burda.

“There’s a myriad of policies, lots of fiscal tools,” Burda said, “great ideas to turn our suburbs more into walkable, vibrant neighbourhoods where people can get around without a vehicle.”

A crowd of 300 guests turned out to hear the panel, which also included transit advocate Steve Munro, Maytree Foundation president Ratna Omidvar, and alumnus Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects.

The event was more than a forum for constructive debate on complex urban issues and prescribing ways to improve the city, said Principal Janet Paterson of Innis College. She added that it was also an opportunity for the university to engage the wider community by encouraging discourse around difficult, seemingly intractable issues in the heart of one of the city’s most important assets – the University of Toronto.

“It reflected key priorities of our new president and the University, the College and the Urban Studies Program: community outreach and fostering partnerships between U of T and the city,” Paterson said.

For his part, ERA Architect’s Stewart offered an optimistic vision for the nearly 2,000 residential towers dotting the GTA landscape − more than in any other North American city. More than a million people reside in these high-density communities, said Stewart, adding he sees a great deal of promise made possible by a shift in zoning laws that would yield vast economic and social benefits.

Recently awarded the prestigious Jane Jacobs award for city-building, Stewart said he was heartened to see so many community members engaged, from students to seniors.

Award-winning Toronto Star urban affairs and architecture columnist, and celebrated champion of cities, Christopher Hume, moderated a lively discussion following the event. For Shauna Brail, senior lecturer in the Urban Studies Program and co-organizer of the event, it was an opportunity to showcase the importance of youth involvement in civic discussion, youth that will play a critical part in shaping the city for years to come.

“Students and young graduates of the university will be the stewards of our great city,” said Brail, “and must be given meaningful and engaging learning opportunities like this one to achieve their dreams and their goals.”