The City Institute at York University, the York University research centre known to its associates by its short name “CITY”, celebrated its 10th year of achievement on April 5 with well-wishers from near and far.
With CITY, critical urban research now has a recognized address at York University. A mere decade ago, CITY was but a gleam in the eye of a few urban scholars at York University: Patricia Wood from Geography, Engin Isin from Urban Studies (and now at the Open University), and Roger Keil from the Faculty of Environmental Studies. Together they created the first City Seminar, developed the idea of the City Institute, and ensured that it was chartered.
Since then, CITY has become an internationally recognized research centre, facilitating critical, interdisciplinary and collaborative urban research, public policy interventions and community activism, both locally and globally.
“I hope it can be said that we are never satisfied to rest on our laurels,” said CITY Director Linda Peake in her opening speech at the event. “We successfully rechartered a few years ago and we have just submitted an application for a large SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Partnership Grant.
“Our goals for the coming year involve developing a fundraising plan to enable us to financially support more visitors to CITY and to further our research. Yes, we spend time searching for money – but we also spend time building up a community of future researchers, without whom, the money would be pointless.”
CITY has been a presence across various scales where urban issues are subject to progressive political action and path-breaking critical research. Locally, the institute was involved in relevant municipal debates in Toronto and its suburban neighbours; regionally and provincially, CITY researchers have been called upon to speak to issues related to greenbelt and growth planning as well as transit equity; federally, the institute has been part of building a progressive national urban agenda for cities across the country; and internationally, CITY has developed a profile, among other things, through its research on global suburbanisms and its recent focus on a critical reevaluation of planetary urbanization. A two-day workshop on the latter topic preceded the anniversary celebration and brought distinguished international speakers to York University.
To mark a vibrant decade of research and community-building and to further promote critical dialogue on Canada’s urban agenda, CITY hosted a panel discussion of renowned urban thinkers and practitioners on the evening of the anniversary titled “Toronto in Crisis: Challenges, Possibilities, and Actions”. The discussion was introduced by former mayor of Toronto, David Miller, and moderated by journalist and founder of Jane’s Walk, Jane Farrow. Panellists focused on the socio-spatial disparities and the politics of redistribution and recognition.
Drawing on her expertise as an urban political geographer, Ranu Basu, a CITY faculty member, revealed how the city’s social fabric has been hollowed out through public school closures, but also strengthened through the adaptive re-use of inner-suburban industrial and commercial spaces by newcomers. It is the grassroots activism of marginalized city residents that Angela Robertson, executive director of the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre, also identified as of great value – particularly the Idle No More and Black Lives Matter solidarity movements.
Robertson directly attributed Toronto’s crisis to systemic racism that manifests in intense poverty, dramatically foreshortened urban Indigenous lives, discriminatory police carding practices and the violence disproportionately enacted on black male bodies.
Further insight into the complex interactions between space, power relations and civil society was provided by award-winning Globe & Mail writer Doug Saunders, who recounted how his initial foray into journalism as a York University student sowed the seeds for his acclaimed book, Arrival Cities: The Final Migration and Our Next World (2010).
As political attention turns ever-outwards to the suburban periphery, City of Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre – Rosedale) closed the discussion by reminding the audience of the marked socio-spatial divides in downtown Toronto.
The entrenched rationalization of neoliberal discourse at City Hall and the political power of Toronto’s suburbs frustrate her, she said, because they often inhibit a unified social justice agenda to combat exclusion, dispossession and displacement within the city. She congratulated CITY on its accomplishments and enjoined its members to continue their cutting-edge, critical urban research, noting it has the power to enrich urban policy and to facilitate constructive political debate.
In a decade, under the inaugural directorship of Keil – and now Linda Peake – CITY has blossomed from an idea into a research centre with a global reputation. Their leadership has been a source of inspiration for urban scholars, for York University and for urban knowledge production worldwide. CITY has become a place where ideas are generated, knowledge disseminated, funding secured and a welcoming community created – from graduate students to world-renowned scholars.
By Alison Bain, acting director, The City Institute at York University