Category Archives: The Fourth Wall

Ottawa unveils new design for development signs

[note: this is cross-posted on the spacing wire]

We often lament the lack of citizen engagement in our cities. But the blame shouldn’t be directed solely at residents, but rather at the municipal bureaucracies that often make it difficult for citizens to become engaged or informed.

A great example is our public development notices. Their purpose is allegedly to inform citizens and solicit participation, but they accomplish neither. They are designed so poorly, and filled with so much alienating jargon, they only serve to further disengage and alienate the average person.

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If a billboard falls in a forest… Part 1

[note: this is cross-posted from spacing magazine]

Bathurst and Davenport cross each other just below the steep shoreline of ancient Lake Iroquois. The intersection is lush with greenery and steeped in history.

On one corner lies the TTC Hillcrest Yards, where our streetcars have been repaired and rebuilt for ninety years. A recent makeover has transformed the landscape adding new shrubs, trees, interlocking brick and public benches to the corner.


Across the street is a public park, the home of Toronto’s historic Tollkeeper’s Cottage museum.

tollkeepers park

Just steps away you’ll find the Wychwood Park neighbourhood, a former artists’ colony and the first residential zone in Ontario to be granted heritage status. Walking north on Bathurst, you’ll find yourself in a picturesque Toronto scene with large trees leaning across both sides of the wide street casting a broken leafy shadow on the streetcar tracks below.

And then suddenly, like one musical instrument terribly out of tune with the rest of the band, something sharply interrupts the thick green grove of trees. Steel structures protrude from the maple branches, inserting two massive commercial billboards into the scene.


Someone might ask themselves “Who would possibly allow billboards like this to get a sign permit?”. It turns out the answer might be: nobody would, and nobody did. In fact, I have been told by City Staff that they do not have any records of permits for these signs. This is not an isolated scenario.  It’s quite possible that dozens of billboards across Toronto, if not hundreds, are illegal signs without any proper permits.

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‘Empower LA’ research tour • DAY ONE

Empower tour

I’m in Los Angeles, spending an entire week with the Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment.  I’ll be posting updates each day!

Four years ago, I was researching innovative methods of citizen engagement for the upcoming Fourth Wall exhibit, hosted at the Urban Space Gallery.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 10.03.26 AMI stumbled upon a group in Los Angeles called the Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment.  It sounded too good to be true: a city-funded program that promotes public participation in government and coordinates 90 autonomous locally elected Neighbourhood Councils.

Four years later, I decided that I needed to see it for myself!  So I’m here in LA for one week, embedded at the Department as a foreign researcher/admirer.

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My mom: Chief Director of Customer Service

With all the talk about increasing “customer service” in Toronto, you would think that our own City Hall would have a couple of full-time receptionists who can help people find their way.  In fact, you would think that in a city of 2.5 million people, our City Hall would have three or four receptionists! Hey, why not even go a step further?  We often hear that we should run the city “like a business”.  Well, the smartest businesses are the ones that have swarms of customer service reps and ‘greeters’ who are readily available to offer assistance.

But here at City Hall we have one part-time receptionist on duty, sitting behind an enormous desk.  Often, her chair sits empty and there is simply a sign that says:

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The first DNA award goes to…..Pemberton, BC!

Village of Pemberton CAO Daniel Sailland, Communications Coordinator Jill Brooksbank & Mayor Jordan Sturdy.

Last week, I had the privilege of delivering an award to the Mayor of Pemberton, British Columbia.  Here’s the story behind the award:

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Crowd Funding: Help bring the Fourth Wall exhibit to life!

Six months ago, the Fourth Wall exhibit was installed at the Urbanspace Gallery for a successful three month visit.  The exhibit explores 36 proposals aimed at transforming our local democracy.  At the end of January, the exhibit was removed from the walls of the gallery, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to bring it back to life in other formats. Continue reading

Fourth Wall: City Hall Scorecard

As I wrote on January 24th, the recommendations from the Fourth Wall exhibit are already making waves at City Hall.  With strong support from both City staff and City Councillors, individual items are being brought forward one by one.  The ball is now rolling, and this blog post will serve as a ‘living document’, tracing the progress of all 36 proposals.

I’ll list them in two formats: By status & by item (1 – 36)

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Fourth Wall is coming down: Saturday tours

The  ‘Fourth Wall’ exhibit, is closing down on January 31st.

The exhibit, which has been up at the UrbanSpace Gallery for three months, proposes 36 simple recommendations for democratic renewal, exploring ways to make local politics more inclusive, accessible and participatory.

For those who would like a guided “walk-thru” of the exhibit, I’ll be hosting three tours on Saturday January 28th at noon, 2pm, and 4pm.

The exhibit is at 401 Richmond Street (at Spadina) on the main floor, beside SWIPE bookstore.

Transforming City Hall, with Paul.

17 recommendations going to City Hall this week

It’s been three months since I launched the ‘Fourth Wall’ exhibit, exploring ways to make local politics more inclusive, accessible and participatory.

The response has been overwhelming, with hundreds of people attending the gallery including student groups, City staff, City Councillors, journalists, the mayor of Calgary, and my mom.

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“Is there a map?” • Recommendation #34

(The Fourth Wall exhibit has 36 recommendations.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll highlight a few of them….)

Recommendation # 34:  “Better signage and outreach/education materials should be created in our City Hall lobby.”

If a citizen walked into City Hall today looking for some information about our local democracy, they could be excused for thinking they were in the wrong place.  The main floor of 100 Queen Street West is currently configured primarily as a kiosk for developers and an information centre for tourists.

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