04 Oct Open Streets Toronto is a Labour of Love, Pure Love
8 80 Cities and Open Streets TO have worked hand in hand in making open streets in Toronto happen. As an OSTO board member and 8 80 staffer, I’ve had a front seat in witnessing every program date since the first one in 2014. Recently something became massively apparent to me. It’s a minor miracle Open Streets TO wrapped up our fifth year of existence two weeks ago. I’m not a religious person, but miracle does seem like the right word. At various points over the last five years, we’ve been told to go home because we were causing traffic Armageddon, that we’d need $250,000 for police costs alone, that we should leave streets alone and do our ‘bike thing’ in parks (that was a former Mayor). We’ve had to scrimp and save every year, never feeling comfortable with our financial footing. We’ve been told by the public sector that we should seek funding from private sponsors and told by private foundations that we should look to the city for funds. We’ve heard a lot more ‘no’s than we have ‘yes’s. That can get demoralizing after a while. Lots of non-profits and new enterprises fold in similar circumstances, and yet Open Streets TO carries on. With our fifth year in the rear-view mirror, I find myself wondering ‘what keeps us going?’
To be clear, I don’t mean to complain. Anytime you start something new, you’re ordering yourself up a big helping of work. When that new thing is a mass recreation program that reimagines how we use the largest single piece of public infrastructure our cities have, there’s going to be a large side order of resistance to going along with that work. Now, I’ve always had an appetite for work (my grade 8 math teacher would be surprised to hear that), so I’m certainly not complaining about how hard, how much work, getting to five years has been. But as I mentioned, the fact we keep fighting the same battles every year can get demoralizing.
I was recently asked, given my experience and learning over the past five years, what is the one quality someone starting a new open streets program needs to have? Given all that work and rejection, my first thought was determination. Our organizing team is certainly a determined bunch. We don’t take no for an answer, and as a result, people, groups and organizations that were dead set opposed to us in 2014 are in 2018 some of our biggest champions. So determination (or stubbornness if you want to be less charitable) is a key quality for sure. But on reflection, I don’t think that’s the right answer.
Versatility is the next thing that came to my mind. Our team has a variety of professional backgrounds, from urban planning to finance to Shakespeare to international development. Because of this, we approach the work from different places and view the program through varied lenses. This has allowed us to quickly, efficiently and effectively roll with the punches, and there has been a boatload of jabs in addition to a few haymakers. Open Streets TO wouldn’t be here five years later if not for the varied talents and experiences we all bring to the table. But while versatility is another key ingredient, I don’t think it’s the number one reason we’re still plugging away at this.
So what do I think is the number one thing someone contemplating starting their own open streets program needs to have? What is the biggest reason our team keeps going at this, bringing Open Streets TO back year after year after year?
Love for the program itself, of course. Love for our city, as well. But speaking for myself, the biggest reason I keep coming back is that I love working with these people. Working with Jeff, Emily, Alyssa and Michelle has been and continues to be a constant source of joy, laughter and happiness in my life. Open Streets TO exists as a labour of love. No matter where we go over the next five years, I know what’s going to be driving us. Love, pure and simple.