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posted June 3, 2004

Editorial: Visions (June 2004)

Monday June 14: This evening I was bidden to Jane Jacobs' house for a potluck supper. I get an invitation once a year, a week or two before the new Jane Jacobs Prize winners are announced, because I'm one of the stable of past prize winners. We get to meet the winners for this year first at Jane's house, but we're not allowed to tell who we saw there, until the public ceremony a few weeks later.

Jane, almost ninety, sits at the head of the table and grins like the Cheshire cat and asks questions, and here and there she tells a story. This year she talked about her book tour (her book Dark Days Ahead just came out). She was in Portland Oregon, she says, where she knows a lot of people, and she would have expected them to be a pretty enlightened audience. But they said some very strange things, she said: they talked a lot about "visions." These visions were all grand stories about what might happen in the future. She said to them, why do you talk about this make-believe future? They said they have to talk that way, because of the foundations. In order to get money from foundations, they have to have a vision that sounds good to the funders.

I said, in Toronto it's not only foundations, it's every department at city hall, that has people sitting around in planning meetings, making up visions. Mary Lou Morgan (from Foodshare), who was one of the first people to get the Jane Jacobs Prize, agreed. She said most of the visions are so huge that the city could never afford to carry them out.

The latest visions for Parks and Recreation are now being developed by journalist <b>Elaine Dewar</b>. I went to a meeting about the departmental strategic plan which the strategic planners are developing for city council approval on July 5. Brenda Libricz, the acting general manager of Parks and Recreation, said they hired Dewar to "toughen up the document." They want a journalist to make the plan "street proof" - so that the public will pick it up and read it and go "wow."

The third draft of this document is up on our Research page ( at Parks and Recreation Revolution, right column). It is certainly floating in a sea of visions. I wish Jane Jacobs would come to one of the strategic planning gatherings, to tell the city planners exactly what she said she told the vision seekers in Portland. She told them: stop talking about visions. Do what's right now, and the future will turn out the best way it can.

What's right now is taking good care of the sports fields and the flowerbeds, the benches, the picnic tables; putting good staff in the playgrounds to keep them friendly and interesting; fixing what's broken; removing the bureaucratic blocks that keep people from enlivening the parks with their picnics and their performances and their diverse street foods. Then people will go "wow." Visionary documents developed in meeting rooms by computer data analysts (which is the way we're headed) will never nourish public space in that way - or in any way at all, seems to me.

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