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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Chrome cows, giant ducks, robot battles: Let’s embrace weirdness in our cities

I want more fun in my city and I want more people in the streets — and so I will always be here for the weird.

In addition to being a piece of art rooted in the local history of Markham, Ont. — before she was a statue Charity was a very famous milking cow — the cow sculpture is gloriously weird, writes Matt Elliott.

Steve Somerville/Metroland / Pearce, Sean

In addition to being a piece of art rooted in the local history of Markham, Ont. — before she was a statue Charity was a very famous milking cow — the cow sculpture is gloriously weird, writes Matt Elliott.

I need to defend a cow.

In recent weeks, a shiny metal cow sculpture named Charity has drawn all kinds of headlines. First because residents of the Markham, Ont., neighbourhood Charity calls home wanted it known that they think the cow is super ugly. And then later because some of those same residents were upset about the crowds that showed up to take selfies with the sculpture.

But what’s been missing from most of the coverage milking the controversy is the recognition that this cow sculpture is amazing – and exactly the kind of thing our neighbourhoods need.

Because in addition to being a piece of art rooted in local history – before she was a statue, Charity was a very famous milking cow -- the cow sculpture is gloriously weird.

And weird works.

Over the last couple of months, there’s been a welcome surge of weird.

There was June’s opening of a dog-themed fountain in downtown Toronto’s Berczy Park, complete with twenty-seven canine statues, some of which shoot water from their mouths.

There was July’s epic battle between a giant spider and a dragon-horse staged by French theatre company La Machine on the streets of downtown Ottawa.

And there’s Charity, Markham’s shiny metal cow, first drawing controversy, then drawing crowds.

What do all these oddities have in common? They’ve brought people together by creating points of interest in communities. They’ve prompted people to get out and explore.

Urban planners call these kinds of things “activations.” They understand that it’s generally not enough to plunk down some benches and trees and hope the public shows up. Public spaces need to be activated with permanent and temporary installations — art, events, markets, murals, music, fountains, cows, whatever.

And whether they know it or not, when residents oppose these installations they’re opposing activating public spaces.

Taken to extremes, opposition to things that attempt to activate public spaces can lead to a kind of boring sameness  — empty streets and cookie cutter communities where residents stick to private backyards instead of coming together in public.

The recent embrace of the weird has worked to counter this because weird stuff acknowledges that public spaces can be fun. Weirdness rejects the kind of dull formality of much of our history. It’s bold and jarring in all the right ways.

And I want more of it. As I’ve spent some time on Twitter over the last few weeks professing my appreciation for the cow sculpture, one of the most common responses has come from people asking, incredulously, if I would really want a cow sculpture right outside my house.

My answer is simple: sure. I don’t, however, want to take Charity away from her rightful home in Markham. But if anyone wants to bring a similar piece of art to my street, I’ll be the first to roll out the red carpet. I want more fun in my city and I want more people in the streets — and so I will always be here for the weird.

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