The city above Toronto

[attach]5137[/attach]What if you could construct a new Toronto in the sky?

It’s an implausible concept of course, but it’s an idea that can lead great discourse about the kind of city Torontonians want to build for the next generation, say the co-creators of Upper Toronto.

Conceived by artist Jacob Zimmer as a “science fiction city-planning thought experiment,” Upper Toronto asks us to envision a new Toronto suspended in the air above our current city.

It’s an insane premise, co-organizer Tim Maly says. But it allows for conversations to happen — conversations like the ones that took place among 30 people on a recent Sunday afternoon at Fairview Library, where Maly and Zimmer hosted their latest Upper Toronto community consultation.

The idea is to get citizens to push the envelope and think about the kind of urban metropolis they would build from the ground up if given the chance.

“This isn’t the next election cycle, this isn’t next year, this is a city that would take 75 years to build, so this is a city for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Zimmer says during his opening remarks. “It’s not my personal beef about the tree outside my house.”

The community consultations are the first stage of this five-year art project that began about two years ago.

[attach]5138[/attach]Zimmer, who is the creative director at theatre company Small Wooden Shoe, said the idea sprung from an interest in maps, of all things.

“But how do you make a play about maps?” he says with a chuckle.

He started thinking about cities, and the lack of civic involvement from those who inhabit densely populated urban spaces.

“Those zoning signs go up and they say a public hearing will be held at such and such a time and I never go and I don’t think I’m alone in that, in not seeing those signs,” Zimmer says.

So, Zimmer decided to combine civic involvement and city building in the form of an art project.

This particular workshop, held on Oct. 30, was a result of a meeting with councillor Shelley Carroll, who after hearing about Upper Toronto, encouraged the pair to consult in a suburban part of Toronto: namely, her Don Valley East ward.

Zimmer has held community consultations at North York Central Library, Buddies in Bad Times theatre, and various festivals across the GTA.

During the two-hour session, participants break into small groups with a facilitator at each table. After a brief presentation of Toronto past and present, Maly poses hypothetical questions such as the likelihood of Toronto becoming a waste-free city, or the possibility of the East Don Parklands becoming a world-class tourist attraction.

Participants are encouraged to discuss and write their ideas down, and create. Lego pieces are provided to stimulate the imagination.

Students from Art Starts, an organization facilitating youth art projects, also participated in the discussion, creating illustrations based on ideas from the consultation.

From the consultations, Zimmer and Maly compile the ideas and feedback.

Once the workshop stage is complete, Upper Toronto will move on to design work with architects, urban planners, realtors and engineers, Zimmer says. The final stage will be presenting Upper Toronto through models, animation and model suites at libraries and other public venues.

The pair hopes Torontonians will eventually write their councillor to propose a referendum on the adoption of Upper Toronto.

The referendum suggestion is a tad tongue-in-cheek, Zimmer says. But he’s hoping for a realistic end result: the formal consideration by government of the ideas behind Upper Toronto.

The project has already caught the attention of community members.

Don Mills and Finch resident Ian McGibbon said he decided to participate because it was an opportunity to give some input about where Toronto goes from here.

“I think it’s a good zero-based budgeting re-start to figure out what we need,” he said during a snack break.

Zimmer hopes to keep the momentum.

“There’s a lot of energy for this now, and that’s exciting.”