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Citywatch: The taste of cohesion

My first memory is of Riverdale Park near downtown Toronto. My grandpa spent the day with me there on September 26 many years ago, while my parents were at the hospital bringing my new baby sister into the world.

Though the park was only a block away from our apartment, it was a big outing for me—a special treat that told me I was still special and that there was still more than enough love to go around for me, and plenty of people and places to share it. I was only four years old, but how can anyone forget a whole day with a grandpa in a lovely little corner park that was part zoo and part farm, and had all sorts of animals to pet and snuggle up to. A kid’s version of a place of one’s own, evocative hideaway central to what Gary Paul Nabhan calls The Geography of Childhood.

I wonder if that glistening memory of special people and places that were there for me on a big day prepared me many decades later to hear a new word that may well freshen up our understanding of cities in this century – not just as centers of crowds, excitement, entertainment, or business opportunity, but centers of cohesion, perhaps environmental as well as social cohesion.

Food planning can play a lead role in ensuring that food provides what’s needed to stick to the ribs of city cohesion. The historic neighborhood surrounding Riverdale Park is known as Cabbagetown, a reminder that locals once used their backyards to grow their own food, and the park has blossomed into a food-centered place where organic farmers markets and open air baking ovens match the century-old farm theme. It’s become what planners call “a third place,” the runner up just behind home and workplace where people like to “hang” during some free time – a concept I usually explain as being something like the old hit TV series, Cheers.

Riverdale Park, along with a wide range of similarly-inspired places throughout the city, are high on the public mind these days because a new civic administration aims to cut the city budget down to size by chopping services that are “nice to have,” but not “need to have.” Defenders of these social services, mindful of Toronto’s reputation as “the city that works” — also the most multicultural city in the world, a transformation that has been managed without any bitter or polarizing clashes – have pinpointed cohesion as the invisible but “need to have” force that makes the city work.

Back in July, when the City Executive held its first all-nighter pajama party for hundreds of citizens who deputed against budget cuts, FoodShare head Debbie Field tossed off a line at 1:30 in the morning. One of a city’s core responsibilities is to maintain social cohesion, said Field, executive director of the largest citywide food security organization in North America.

I jotted her phrase down in my “mull it over” file, and it came rushing back to me a few weeks later when the ghettoes of southern England broke out in riot. Stores were looted for bling that is normally only accessible to people who believe they’ve earned their money the hard way, through real estate and stock market speculation. Suddenly the whole world saw the reality TV version of what happens to people who are deprived of many things, among them cohesion.

It suddenly became clear that cohesion is a lot more effective, safe and economical than the sheer force of law. Cohesion has what might be called a “social system value” that adds a layer of worth to what economists are increasingly calling “ecosystem values.”

Champions of neighborhood parks and planted boulevards argue effectively that the “urban forest” has an invisible “ecosystem value” that more than pays for any costs through savings on home energy bills, because trees cool a street in summertime and absorb chilling winds in winter, thereby saving heating and cooling bills for nearby homes. Likewise, the sense of place, belonging, sharing and connection learned in neighborhood parks more than pays for any costs by savings on expenses of dealing with social breakdown.

My guess is that cohesion will become one of the watchwords of 21st century city planning. Now that most humans are urbanized, the very density of daily life means that good and bad “contagions” – from exciting new niche markets and social trends to worrisome bedbugs, germs and demoralization — travel very quickly, easily bypassing the flimsy barriers of gated communities based on racial and income exclusion.

I’m thinking of cohesion as the social force akin to “core strength” in the body —which protects the nervous system and spine while various limbs are stretched and extended beyond their comfort level.

Like the force behind gravity, cohesion is invisible, but unlike gravity it pulls up, down and sideways toward the centre —the countervailing and balancing force to all the centripetal pressures from pursuing individual, sectoral and class interests. It may be that cohesion is the social and cultural force that counters the effect of entropy, allowing human societies to move human energy toward organization, rather than giving in to disorganization — as heat, light and other forms of energy do when they inevitably lose force. Hot baths eventually become cold, as do hot fires, but hot ideas and trends, not to mention the positive magnetic energy of certain people, can gather force as they go.

Food has always been the tie that binds and makes for human cohesion, since the days when humans hunted and gathered and shared whatever was caught and found, gathering around a fire to eat together and tell stories.

Cohesive forces used to operate for minimal cost in olden days when cities were smaller, more homogeneous and less complex. In those times, the pillars of cohesion were informal and formal institutions, such as family, neighborhood, church and workplace – all more fixed than anything that exists today.

Cities face a fiscal crisis because they’ve been left to pick up the costs of cohesion that were once performed informally and for free.

In today’s world, food projects remain the most economical and effective ways for cities to produce cohesion services. Community gardens, school gardens, and farmers markets are among the best community-building and capacity building sources around. My own favorite is the baking oven in neighborhood parks — what gathering in kitchens is to house parties, and what the barbeque is to extended family get-togethers, the baking oven is to hanging out in neighborhood parks.

The baking oven is one of the centerpieces of Riverdale Park, perhaps helping some young child and grandpa today see how the glow of an oven can shed light on the true richness of life.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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