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City-builders need to look beyond the downtown core for inspiration and issues

The need for beautiful buildings and vibrant activities extends beyond downtowns, and so should the work done by architects, planners and politicians.

Jay Pitter is a city-builder, author and public engagement expert.

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Jay Pitter is a city-builder, author and public engagement expert.

Downtowns can suck up all the attention, attracting marquee buildings, services and cultural festivals. Though there is good reason to concentrate efforts, there is a movement to expand attention beyond the core.

In a recent keynote speech, Michelle Obama told the American Institute of Architects to plan parks and community centres for everyone, not just downtowners. 

It’s a call echoed by Jay Pitter, a city-builder, author and public engagement expert, whose work includes Toronto’s Honest Ed’s redevelopment. 

Often the suburbs and quieter corners that surround a bustling metropolis are home to culturally diverse populations, many lower-income earners, newcomers and non-native English speakers, she said.

The distance can sometimes hide poverty and homelessness, she said, but at the same time the neighbourhoods are filled with the people, energy and ideas that make communities thrive.

“The core is benefiting from that rich cultural life,” Pitter said, pointing to hip hop culture, newcomer-run businesses like kitchen hair salons and catering companies run from basements, and thriving suburban LGBTQ+ communities.

She says the outskirts have “absolutely” been overlooked, not just by institutions, but also by a pervasive attitude of superiority that comes from downtowners. 

“They fancy themselves more progressive, more cultured — whatever that means — and more forward thinking.”

This is part of the reason conversations can be so polarizing, she said. Pitter has seen it first hand, growing up in Scarborough and now living in downtown Toronto.

So how to bridge the gap? Creative, decentralized approaches. “Get outside of bricks and mortar and take the richness of the programming … and take it outside,” she said, citing public libraries as a leader for community building. 

She also recommends mayors and planners spend time outside the core, not just “parachuting in,” to develop an understanding, and trust, from the local community.

“You can’t do that from city hall.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to include more examples of cultural and economic activties in suburban communities. 

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