Russ Ford's Blog

Planning for people and why saving a church matters

Wesley Mimico United church is in survival mode.  It  has a building built for the size of congregation it had, not what it has today.

But rather than succumb to the wreckers ball, the church is trying to reposition or reinvent  itself by creating a building that will also house seniors  and have  community  space. Yes, it will still be a house of worship but it is also trying to be relevant to the needs of the community.

Now if you are not a member of the Wesley Mimico, and I am not, why does the future of this congregation matter?  Main stream religions seem to be in decline and it is certainly not unusual for a church  to no longer be economically viable.

Well it does matter because institutions like churches, service clubs, volunteer organizations are the glue that keeps a community together and its loss further erodes community.

When I was a child the church was an integral part of my life.  I had two sets of friends, my school friends and my church friends.  I saw my school friends during the week  and on Saturday I played hockey for the church and on Sunday the sticks were exchanged for crosses.

Communities are often defined by geography.  The lakeshore for example is a community but within the larger lakeshore there are a number of sub communities that make it up.  Those sub communities include churches, book clubs, service clubs and a host of other groups that people voluntarily attend.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam users bowling as a metaphor for the problems of our modern cities.  According to Putnam in the United States there are more bowlers  today than ever before but there are far less bowling teams. Hence the title, Bowling Alone.

Putnam argues that this is an example of how more isolated we have become  from each other.  Engagement in any  group within a community, he argues,  makes for a healthy community as voluntary participation in  a church or service club  is exponential.  If you are engaged in one group the greater likelihood you will participate in other civic activities like voting.

Participation changes the  relationship you have with  your government.  You are more likely to be less of a tax payer and take on  more of the characteristics  of a citizen.  You don`t just pay taxes and in exchange receive services.  Rather you are engaged in the issues and concerns of your community or city.

Subsequent to Putnam, another book came out about Chicago called the Great American City. It is similar in theme  and makes the case that voter participation or other  activities of citizenship is directly tied to  community capacity.  Two low income communities with similar demographics were studied.  In one community there were a number of non profit organizations like LAMP and in the other there were none.  They looked at voter participation and those with the higher number of community based organizations in it, had a significantly higher voter turnout.

What that says is maintaining a democracy is not easy and the solution to low voter turnout dos not rest solely with the individual voter.  There has to be structures in place for people to engage.  It means that it is incumbent on organizations like LAMP not to just provide services to people and  for churches like Wesley Mimico not just to provide a place of worship.

To have a truly working democracy in which voter participation is not defined by income,  we have an obligation to do more. If we want as civil society we need to engage people in fellowship around issues in their community.  The service model that exists in many non profits is not enough.

Organizations like Wesley Mimico or any religious organization  creates  community.  In my view one of our greatest human needs is the desire to affiliate with others with whom we have a  common bond.

At a  recent community council meeting  we heard deputations on the  Mimico secondary plan.  LAMP argued for the on-site retention of the affordable housing units as well as a comprehensive human services plan.  We must end the building  of sterile developments that only serve to disengage people from each other.

The need to maintain on site residency for the Mimico tenants is a significant issue.  Why should people who have been living in the community for many years,  now have to move somewhere else, change churches, change schools in exchange for a developer`s agreement to reduce a bit of density.  We need to build community not tear existing ones down.

We also told the committee that while you cannot predict exactly what services will be needed by future residents, you have to build in the capacity to respond.

Community facilities like rec centres, day cares and even churches need to be part of the planning process .  If we want to build healthy communities we need to build community spaces.

We need a planning process that goes well beyond looking at issues of bricks and mortar. And we need a process that is truly participative.  No more public consultations after decisions have been made.

Redevelopment is not new to Toronto and I suspect it is something that will continue to occur.  Urban areas like Toronto need to intensify.  We cannot keep sprawling all over Ontario eating up farm land and forcing us to be even more  car dependent.  That is just not sustainable.

We cannot have a viable public transit service unless we concentrate our population to support it.  Why is the Sheppard subway line such a losing proposition,   because there is not the population on Sheppard to support it.
So if Intensification  is necessary, surely  it is time to review  how we do it.  As Yogi Berra used to say, ``you can see a lot by watching.``

In the case of planning I would argue we can learn a lot by studying what we have already done.

At the last community council meeting, a plan to study the human impact of Humber Bay shores, a development that has been there now for years was supported.  It is not a bad idea.  In fact it is great that we are moving away from bricks and mortar planning but talk about the cart before the horse.  That should have been done before it was built and it should have been used to inform what was built.
The decision by the city to look at the needs of Humber Bay shores I suspect will have a limited impact on the residents of that community.  But the review of it and other developments can inform us of the potential impact of future developments and with that knowledge we can actually build new  and vibrant communities .

Prior to the last municipal election George Smitherman then running for mayor,  set up a  seven person task force  whose job was to look at the way the city does business with the intent to make it more open, transparent  and  democratic.

I was one of those seven people that also included former mayor John Sewell and former Chief City Planner Paul Bedford. We were not  supporters of Mr. Smitherman,  but we were all supporters of the idea  that citizens should have a meaningful voice in how the city is governed.   Of course the plan was killed when Mr.Smitherman lost his bid for election.

But while our task force never got off the ground, Mimico serves as an example of how useful its work could have been.

We actually could have had a planning process that does not just build buildings,. We could have had one that builds communities.
Wesley Mimico is trying to do just that and I applaud them for their work.  We will all lose if they do not succeed.


Toronto Preservation Board Supports Designation

Hi Russ,

Just a quick follow up to my comment above. The Toronto Preservation Board voted on October 3rd to support the designation of Wesley Mimico United Church under the Ontario Heritage Act.

It should be noted that an amendment was also passed which removes the interior sanctuary space from the list of "protected heritage attributes". This is a significant concession by the Preservation Board and should be welcome news for the church as it leaves the door open for revisions to their current plan.

The city's Heritage Preservation Services staff have also expressed a willingness to work with the church to ensure their plan respects and protects the other key heritage features of the building - yet another positive step by the city!

For those who are interested, here's a link to the Toronto Preservation Board's decision:

Hopefully the church will seize this opportunity to work with the city's heritage experts on a revised, heritage-friendly plan we can all get behind.

All best,

Michael Colvin

churches and community

Hi Russ

Thank you for this very insightful critique of the recent debates about Wesley Mimico United Church's development plans. you raised some valuable and compelling points. Agencies and organisations that promote and build healthy communities are essential for for societies to prosper.. We are blessed by the work of LAMP in South Etobicoke. Area churches are a valuable presence in a community for the reasons you describe and also for fostering virtues of faith, hope and love - qualities that brighten lives and neighbourhoods.

I was somewhat mystified by the small but vocal opposition to the plans of the WMUC. Those who insist on the preservation of the building must know the cost - who do they think will have the $1,500,000 to restore and bring the building up to code? Also... There are extenuating realities of retrofitting an old established building that may require some flexibility of the laws and codes. Grace. The congregation has worked hard with the community to find a win win solution that preserves the key facade of the structure and brings housing, community space and preserves a worshiping, caring congregation in the community.


Mimico's Heritage Matters

Hi Jim and Russ!

Just a quick note to demystify community opposition to the church's plans. Those who oppose the current - and I emphasize CURRENT - plans have no desire to lose the Wesley Mimico United congregation, nor are we opposed to the idea of seniors housing on the site. The real issue at play here is the fact that the church's redevelopment team has seriously underestimated the important heritage value of the Wesley Mimico United Church building.

This is one of Mimico's last remaining historic landmark buildings and great care must be taken with redevelopment of the site. A report declaring the intent of the City of Toronto to designate Wesley Mimico United Church under the Ontario Heritage Act will be considered by the Toronto Preservation Board next week. Here's a link to that report:

So far the church's redevelopment team have thumbed their noses at established municipal, provincial and federal heritage preservation guidelines and have proceeded according to their own whims. Furthermore, the housing model being proposed does not provide enough funds to preserve the building according to these well-established and well-respected heritage guidelines. If their plan is to succeed, further revisions will be necessary. Hopefully the church's redevelopment team understands this and will rise to the challenge.

All best,

Michael Colvin

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