Dateline: Toronto: ISLAND AIRPORT REDESIGNED; Jane Jacobs Dies PART VI

Like a cancer, this thing is metastasizing. It threatens to spread its diseased tentacles throughout the otherwise healthy ALLDERBLOB [well, somewhat healthy. Well, not completely sick. Never mind. Carry on –ed.]. It threatens to strangle and obscure our well-formed call for a moratorium on car ads in all their nefarious forms.

We need an experienced surgeon. Barring that, we need an accomplished urban designer. But this is the ALLDERBLOB, and we take what we can get. What we get is Jacob Allderdice, our wrap-up pitcher. He’s there in the bullpen now, firing them in [they look like lobs to me –ed.].

Here he comes now, trotting onto the field. Watch out kids, he’s said to have one stinking floater.

Thank you. Thank you Blobby. Thank you “–ed.” Let’s see if I can’t get us out of this muddle.

First things first: Janet Rosenberg. Nice lady. Landscape architect. Works with the best of them and has an impressive portfolio of work. I have nothing against her beyond the healthy jealosy anyone might feel for a more capable and industrious colleague.

Especially one so youthful. How’d she get where she is today?

Hard work? Focused attention? Political skill?

Or something else. Luck? Personal contacts? Personality?

But I want to accentuate the positive. I want to offer constructive criticism. Such, after all, is the tao of the ALLDERBLOB.

Okay. Let’s say you’re brought in to facilitate a design charrette. That means you’re charged with helping a group of disparate people reach consensus and work toward a common design goal. You have a limited amount of time for this work. How do you go about it?

Here, briefly, are “Seven Points in Search of Consensus.”

1. You find out who you’re dealing with. You have six or eight people sitting around a table, eager to work. What expertise do they carry? What are their interests and passions? What skills do they bring to the project? It doesn’t take much to ask for introductions. It doesn’t take much time to provide them. Anyway, you have all day. Might as well start out all warm and fuzzy. In the words of the immortal Fred McFeelie Rogers, let your participants hear “You are important to me.”

2. You elect a note-taker. This person can still contribute to the discussion, but their responsibility is to keep track of the meanderings and mutterings of the group. Maybe it’s come out in the introductions that someone’s eager for the job. If no one volunteers, it may befall you to take notes. Be prepared for that. The notes get written down, with accompanying sketches as required, on the giant pads of paper provided by the charrette sponsor. This way everyone can see what’s recorded as it’s put down. Part of the note-taker’s job is to ask, at critical junctures, “Hey–did I get that right?”

3. You have “all day?” What needs to be done in that time? What are the milestones? The intros are over; it’s 9:15 by now; soon it will be coffee break, and then lunch. Your group is to present “initial findings” at lunch. How do you get there from here? You neeed a rough map, one that each participant can see and understand. I said a rough map. It can be flexible. But if everyone knows the milestones, you can maintain momentum over (or around) any hurdles that come up.

4. You conduct the discussion. You encourage contributions from all, especially when some area of expertise (which you will remember from the introductions) is touched upon. Especially when you notice some poignant silence or other nonverbal cues. Especially when you notice someone’s being shut out of the discussion.

5. You follow the “roadmap.” This means periodic stopping to review. Where are those elusive milestones? Keep your eyes on the prize: consensus. What does everyone agree on? Where are the lingering doubts? On what points may you all “agree to disagree?”

6. There will be crackpots and folks with unwavering agendas in your group [speak for yourself! –ed.]. You need a mechanism to allow those with an “axe to grind” to be heard without disrupting the process. This too is part of the roadmap. You can stay on track if you encourage those with off-target comments to save them for “later.” When is that? After the next milestone, of course. By then maybe they will have cooled down about their pet peeve.

7. You elect a presentor from the group. Will it be you? That depends. Is anyone else on the edge of their chair for the job? Let them do it.

There you go. Seven points. Consensus. Also, lively discussion, reasoned debate, and a clear record of the process.

Now you can proceed to the design work in good faith, knowing each person in your group has contributed to the definition of the problem at hand and is prepared to stand by its rules.

I didn’t make these procedures up. Everyone knows them. Or they do if they’ve ever paid attention during a consensus-based group decision-making process. The night before my day-and-a-half’s adventure with Janet Rosenberg, for example, two labourers from the Office for Urbanism factory gave a perfect example of how to do it right (see part I of this series).

[So where did Janet Rosenberg go wrong? You reached consensus, right? Your team presented a design along with everyone else on Saturday, right? What are you whining about? You unhappy with the results? Maybe it’s you who’s “passive-aggressive.” And when are you going to nail down the connection to car advertising, anyway? –ed.]

I’m trying to be nice about this, is all. But maybe it’s time to take the gloves off.

After all, Ms. Rosenberg had her own “seven points in search of consensus.”

In a nutshell, we all shouted at each other, or whispered at the sidelines, or some hybrid of the two, haggling each in our own way for our point to make it to the final list. Ultimately it was a question of “survival of the fittest,” or “consensus by attrition.”

Hereafter follows the Rosenberg system: “consensus by attrition.” I leave it to you to do the necessary “compare and contrast” exercise.

1. Hold a private conversation with a member of the group as the participants arrive at the table. Continue to hold it, allowing it to morph into a wider and larger conversation as people catch on that there will be no definitive “start” to the session.

2. Let the conversation go where ’twill, willy nilly. Eventually it strays into something that seems like it’s related to the job at hand, and someone, who appears to be Ms. Rosenberg’s associate at the table, mentions “I guess I should be taking notes on this!” But it’s an aside, and there he goes, on his little notepad in front of him. Someone else is also taking notes. Why, two or three people are taking notes. Whose notes will triumph? It’s a mystery. Meanwhile, the loudest voices seem to be prevailing, except there, someone is quietly saying something to Ms. Rosenberg under the tumult, and there, everyone is hushing to catch what it might be. Now it’s back to shouting again! How thrilling. What a ride we are on!

3. Don’t bother with introductions. After all, time is precious, as you see. Why we’re already making important observations about the work we must do. Besides, most everyone has nametags. I feel proud at one point when Ms. Rosenberg reaches over to cast a closer eye at mine. I must have said something wise! Eventually we garner most everyone’s names, and their take on the situation. Who needs introductions. Why stand on formality? Look at me. I got who most of the participants were, eventually. There’s Janet Rosenberg, the boss. She’s a Landscape Architect of note in the city, famous for her remarkable project with the clever name HtO (as in H2O (water) meets TO (Toronto)–get it? Turns out clever names are important to Ms. Rosenberg. Keep this in mind). The guy taking notes? That’s James Roche. The guy with the quiet observations that everyone shushes to catch? That’s John Bessai, a documentary filmmaker who lives in a harbourfront condo or co-op. His is a familiar face to me–turns out his brother, who’s at another table today, is the architect Tom Bessai, well-known as the designer of the “airport as a park” scheme so favoured by the Bill Freeman gang at Community AIR (and actually, Tom’s wife or partner is here today too somewhere, working at another of the six or so tables–that’s nice–or is it nepotism?). The aforementioned Julie Beddoes is at our table. She’s a top honcho in the Gooderham-Worts neighbourhood association, and is here, it seems, both to trumpet the fantastic park setting that her work has helped create at the mouth of the Don River, but also to make sure that no houses be built on the airport site. What she hammers home over and over is the notion that “nothing” should be built there “that can be built somewhere else in Toronto.” Somehow it doesn’t register with her that sterile, underused parkland can be found all over the city, while the notion that “People and Parks belong together,” which rallied the island residents in their fight to save their Toronto Island houses in the 1970s, is unique, almost in the world. Ms. Beddoes argues that if a person (or 500 of them, in the case of the Island Residential Community waiting list) wants houses in a carfree setting, they can work for that on Toronto’s Port Lands site–after all, it’s slated for 40,000 units of housing. There’s another woman who agrees with Ms. Beddoes on most points; I never caught her name. Her main concern was about how to prevent Canada Geese from clambering up onto the new parkland that would replace the Island Airport. She told us the most important thing is to have sightline controls, because if the geese can’t see the open land from their perch on the water, they won’t climb up. It’s the goose droppings we need to worry about, of course. An urban designer from the city of Toronto, named Mark Van Elsberg was also in our group. He argued in favour of a community to be built on the island site. He agreed with me that any development that excluded residential uses would be dead, unsafe at night, unpleasant. He revealed that he’d lived in Christiana, Denmark, for god’s sake. He knows how a pedestrian-oriented community could work. Then there was me, Jacob Allderdice. I brought the drawings I show in Part V above, and argued, of course, in favour of a development that sustainably treats the existing runways as something to build on, copying the successful model of the existing carfree housing plan of Ward’s and Algonquin while modeling mainstreet developments of walkable-height mixed-use buildings along new transit lines on the existing runways.

4. It’s Lunchtime already! We’re supposed to present our intitial findings. Who will do it? Do we even have intitial findings? It’s Ms. Rosenberg, by default. No one else has a clue what we’ve agreed on, if we’ve agreed on anything at all. Then we hear what she says. Something about a university campus. Something about the need for parking lots on the mainland, so families can come down in their minivans, unload their bikes, and spend a day in “nature.” Something about the importance of links around the backbone of the island, including the Eastern Gap, so recreational cyclists and hikers can walk the length of the waterfront without being endangered by the car and truck traffic that’s inevitable there. Okay…

5. Go back to the drawing board and shout at each other some more. John Bessai makes a radical move, switching seats so he’s to the left of Ms. Rosenberg and across from me. Better for the nuanced conversation? Julie Beddoes tells me, when I once more speak about the need for houses on the site, “Haven’t you heard? There are to be no houses. You’ve been outvoted.” We took a vote? It’s possible. It might have happened in one of the side conversations with Ms. Rosenberg.

6. Make some notes and drawings. James Roche is drawing something. Mark Van Elsberg is drawing something. I draw something. People are hoarse from shouting. John Bessai is in a private conversation with Ms. Rosenberg. Julie Beddoes is making notes. The woman who was worried about geese has left. We are near the end of the day. There’s a locker-room feel about the place. We all need showers.

7. Seven? There’s a point seven? Why don’t you give it up already, for goodness’ sake.

Success! Consensus by attrition. However, we all feel vaguely nauseous, the debate’s put us on edge, and there’s no clear record of the process–or the points of agreement.


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