By Jason Menard
When did diversity become a bad word in this city? At least when it comes to differing perspectives.
The other day, I spoke of bubbles that needed to be burst. Yet the continued rhetoric of this city seems to indicate that those bubbles are, in fact, growing more solid — and more divisive.
It seems some have forgotten that “differently informed” does not equal “uninformed.”
I saw this again in a recent post by Ed Stephens, who continued an emerging trend of pitting downtown residents against what they perceive as suburbanites. His recent post, which was rooted in some good ideas about city development, was undermined by cheap shots against the “complacent, apathetic, suburban drones” who care more about overpriced coffee than the well-being of the city.
This follows another comment last week by another downtown advocate who stereotyped suburbanites as non-engaged, with their heads in the sand, removed from the real world. He then backtracked on that blanket statement stating that this was simply his experience.
Fair enough. But is there any doubt as to why there’s a disconnect amongst the various components of this city? It’s not just about judgement, but a fundamental lack of common courtesy and respect to equally value differing perspectives.
There are those who profess to work for the betterment of the city, but the question has to be asked, “What city?”
Who defines the city? Is downtown at a premium to the suburbs? Who defines engagement? When people criticize a lack of engagement amongst a certain group, is that fair? Or are they simply saying, “You’re not as engaged as me, as I define it.”
After all, are those suburbanites truly apathetic? Or is apathy in the eye of the beholder? Could those comments and allegations simply be a reflection of someone being less interested in something that you’re passionate about.
Engagement takes many forms. When someone casts a ballot in an election, they’re essentially saying “I believe in you and bestow upon you the responsibility to act on our constituency’s best behave. I give you my voice.” Others get involved in various community organizations, Church groups, volunteer organizations, and schools.
If there are those who choose not to shop downtown or attend council meetings, does that mean they don’t care about the city? Instead of actively rejecting the downtown, could it mean that they’ve made a decision based upon personal preference?
There are no global rights or wrongs in this city. There are only individual decisions, and it’s important that we all work to understand our differences and work towards solutions that impact our commonalities.
Are we actively listening to all sides of a debate? Instead of dismissing all suburbanites as cookie-cutter drones, maybe we need to appreciate how engagement can take different forms?
Would a single male, or a double-income, no-kid family, living in a downtown apartment accept being criticized for a lack of engagement because they don’t participate in a school board, PTA, or suburban community group? Conversely, should a two-adult, two-child, suburbanite mortgage holder totally ignore the opinion of someone stuck in the downtown bubble to whom Pond Mills is as present in their reality as Narnia?
The fact is that we’re never going to all have the same beliefs or priorities. It’s easy to be altruistic about raising property taxes when you’re an apartment renter; just as it’s easy to devalue transit programs if you’re a two-car family.
Personally, I’m not prepared to make judgement calls on anyone’s level of engagement, affiliation, or caring for the city. The are over 350,000 different versions of London out there for every person. This city means something different to everyone, so to improve we must work together without assuming that one area, or one group, is more vital than the other.
Where are those commonalities? How can we learn from each other? Take transit, for example. It would be simple to design a system that’s best for those living and working in the downtown core, but how do we make it as effective and accessible to suburbanites? Instead of criticizing a perceived car-dependent lifestyle, maybe we need to ask whether those commuters would use transit if the system was more effective.
As a long-time South London resident, I can tell you that our London can be vastly different than what I see and experience working downtown now, or on-line. And as a car owner, I can tell you that I use public transit far more often now that I can get where I’m going in 15 minutes, conveniently, as opposed to my previous job where a seven-minute drive to 1.5 hours by bus (and only one hour on foot).
Most importantly, we have to ask ourselves one very tough question: Do we want a better London, or a better London for me? Sometimes we get so caught up in our bubbles that we think we’re working towards the former, when it’s truly the latter that’s motivating our beliefs, actions, and behaviour.
Instead of passing judgement on people, perhaps we should save that scrutiny for our ideas. And that starts by understanding that terms like informed and engaged change meaning based on your perspective. And instead of undermining levels of engagement, we need to find a way to benefit from that diversity of perspective.
An all-inclusive appreciation of the different types of engagement? That’s an idea I’d be happy to marry.
I based my tirade on two understandings:
First, my experience in low density, residential car only neighbourhoods has been a nightmare. Those who are unwilling or unable to conform can feel persecuted. These areas can be hostile to people growing up and can lead to mental health problems, suicides or drug addiction. An example of the effects suburbia can have would be my blog post previous to the one mentioned.
Second, the economic sustainability of such areas is increasingly impossible. The high infrastructure costs and changing lifestyles will kill these inflexible neighbourhoods. London can not survive as is or with increased car based infrastructure. The focus on cars at the expense of people will leave London for the archaeologists to find under farm fields.
I admit I was nasty and that isn’t adding to the debate. It is evident that London is a series of tribes or silos that are to narrow in view to get along. Disengagement is everyone’s problem when this happens. Why I think we need community hubs people can engage each other at. This city lacks effective leadership to engage the various tribes in creating a workable, flexible vision for London. People still need to sacrifice a Starbucks for the greater good.