o visit the ryerson City Building Institute, you enter at 10
Dundas St. East, which is steps from Toronto’s noisy Yonge
Street, sky-high billboards and the often chaotic Dundas
Square. Turn right at the busy Starbucks kiosk on the main
floor and take a tiny elevator up to the 10th floor.
The institute’s modest offices – it has four staff members –
are a few storeys above the home base of Ryerson University’s
ever-expanding business incubator, the DMZ. It’s also some
floors higher than the Cineplex Odeon multiplex, whose
theatres double as lecture halls on weekday mornings. The
institute’s executive director, Cherise Burda, calls this a
“really good use of space.”
Ms. Burda’s organization writes – either on its own or in partnership
with others, including Ryerson faculty – policy papers on issues such as
housing costs, rent control and public transportation. It helps run events
such as Yonge Love, a “meet-up” which gathered together urban planners,
policy-makers, representatives from others cities and Ryerson to talk
about development plans along Yonge Street.
While the institute does not physically build anything, its projects –
and location – dovetail nicely with the infrastructure work that Ryerson
has championed in this dense corner of downtown. The university moved
its Ted Rogers School of Management into the Eaton Centre, took over a
part of the historic Maple Leaf Gardens for a recreation centre (the public
gets frequent use of the iconic ice surface) and recently built a student
centre on the site of the old flagship Sam the Record Man store.
By virtue of its location and its driving ethos, Ryerson is one of the
Canadian leaders in city-building – a multi-pronged approach that universities are taking to lead urban development. “It’s not just building a city
with our physical infrastructure. It’s the social programs, it’s the services,
it’s the policies. And the investment and thinking and imagining and vision
around how we grow our urban areas,” Ms. Burda explains.
Universities have always built buildings, and over the decades have studied and given evidence-based input on issues related to urban planning,
architecture, housing, transit and social programs. But the city-building
movement – which is happening across Canada and around the developed
world – takes a proactive approach. Through shared spaces, partnerships,
university-led public symposia, grassroots projects and media conversations, universities increasingly want to influence the development agenda
of the cities in which they reside.
“There’s a real, intentional effort being made to connect with the city
we’re in the middle of in so many ways,” says Shauna Brail, the presidential
adviser on urban engagement at the University of Toronto. “It’s about being
purposeful about what kind of city we want to see.”
And by transforming the cities around them, universities are trans-
forming themselves. “It’s not the city or the university,” says Janet
Moore, associate professor with Simon Fraser University’s Centre for
Dialogue and co-founder of CityStudio Vancouver, a project that has
students, community members and city staff working together. “It’s this
hybrid space of learning.”
Indeed, as city-building projects get more sophisticated and universi-
ties grow creatively into their surrounding neighbourhoods, the lines blur.
No one knows where a campus begins and ends. The university is “of the
city,” says Ryerson’s Ms. Burda. “It’s not just a little fortress; it’s integrated
into the city.”
universities carved out their early identities as sanctuaries of prestigious learning. They stayed gorgeously detached in stately buildings
surrounded by green fields behind stone gates. Then, starting around the
middle of the 20th century, the emerging idea of the public university
linked schools to regional economic and social benefits. Canada encouraged new colleges and universities to open up, although mainly in suburban
locales. “The campus away from the city became the norm,” says Andrew
Petter, president of SFU.
Ironically, many of these new campuses on cheap farmland, far from
housing or transit hubs, put up gates. While some universities nurtured
community relationships from the start – SFU’s history of building out its
Burnaby campus with community input and growing its Vancouver site
right into the neighbourhood is notable – many schools felt little need to
interact with locals.
At York University, in Toronto’s north end, “we had this terrible relationship with the nearby community,” recalls Roger Keil, who’s been at York
for 25 years, where he holds the York Chair in Global Sub/Urban Studies.
The Black Creek valley was effectively “a moat to keep the kids out,” he
says. Meanwhile, downtown institutions such as Ryerson paid little heed