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2007 11 06
Reading GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto

Bursting with creative visions for a sustainable Toronto, GreenTOpia (Coach House, 2007, $24.95 CDN) is not only one of the most beautiful books to be released this year, surely it is one of the most useful as well. Its forty-two contributors' proposals for a greener Toronto offer a powerful antidote to the ceaseless barrage of ecological doom-saying and punitive prescriptions that have depressed and disheartened even the most ecologically-minded among us. Without understating the gravity of contemporary environmental challenges, GreenTOpia reminds us that even modest modifications of our perspectives and practices can improve local well-being in the here-and-now as well as global ecological health in the distant and difficult-to-imagine future.

As a contributor (alongside fellow Reading Toronto contributor Peter Fruchter), I'll admit my prejudice right away. But GreenTOpia's prescriptions -- which range from quick fixes (such as Liliana da Silva and Man-Hin Aaron Cheng's poop-and-scoop park composters) to long-term strategies (such as Jerry Englar's proposal to turn Toronto's island airport into a solar wind park, or Darren O'Donnell and Marney Isaac's redesign of the Gardiner Expressway into a multitude of allotment gardens) -- will challenge every resident and reader to reimagine Toronto as a greener city.

One of my favourite essays is Mark Fram's excellent "Planning walking zoning greening" (which by its title pays homage to philosopher Martin Heidegger's poetic arguments for ecological preservation in "Building Dwelling Thinking"). Fram succinctly diagnoses Toronto's most pressing urban design challenges and suggests practical (and practicable) planning models that might lead to more equitable and sustainable cities and suburbs. A map of marijuana grow-ups across the city provides an amusing backdrop to his argument that most neighbourhoods can support a considerable mix of land uses.

I am also very fond of John Degen's "In Praise of ugly," which counsels against "cosmetic impulses" to clean cities aesthetically without regard to their cultural, architectural and ecological heritage. Degen's essay is a natural companion to Catherine Nasmith's "Waste not, want not: Buildings are not garbage," which argues that old buildings should be retained and retrofitted rather than torn down and replaced. Nasmith's observation -- that single-paned wooden windows will outlast and outperform vinyl thermopanes by decades and degrees -- is especially instructive, and is consistent with what I've been hearing from contractors for many years.

Other favourites are Chris Hardwicke's "Ravine City," which imagines a Toronto whose ravines are (re)exposed and integrated into the city's architecture through terraces and podiums, and Eduardo Sousa's "The water commons: Moving from watershed management to watershed consciousness in Toronto," which proposes principles for restoring Toronto's 'water commons'. But many other essays are equally innovative and original. In "Can you feel it? Finding the spirit of Toronto with the help of Aboriginal Torontonians," Kerry Potts explores First Nations' approaches to sustainability, echoing Wayne Reeves' observation in "From the ground up: Fragments towards an environmental history of Tkaronto" that the (ab)original meaning of 'Toronto' refers to "trees standing in the water" -- an etymology cautioning us to consider nature as well as culture in our city-building exercises. Both Potts and Reeves' essays resonate with Todd Irvine's essay on Toronto's urban forest, "Growing our canopy, one tree at a time."

As these diverse but interwoven essays suggest, GreenTOpia is a tightly curated anthology. The essays, which include 20 short briefs on ecological ideas and 23 longer articulations of principles and programs, are lucid, thoughtful, and optimistic. The commitment of the writers (and editors) to a sustainable Toronto is unmistakable, and is further evidenced by the detailed environmental directory (included as a giant appendix) listing sources and resources to help readers implement many of the GreenTOpia's proposals.

GreenTOpia will launch this coming Sunday, November 11 at the Gladstone Hotel from 2:00 pm onward. All are welcome to attend this event, which will feature panel discussions and a psychogeographic walk to a night of Toronto-inspired music at Sneaky Dees. Details on the book and launch are available here.

[Amy Lavender Harris and fellow Reading Toronto writer Peter Fruchter are among the contributors to GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto. Their essay, "Acts of Salvage," explores the political economy and ecology of dumpster diving.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 11/06 at 11:54 AM

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