Bloor St. Culture Corridor Founder/Director Heather Kelly recently sat down with Novae Res Urbis: Toronto, a publication that reports on planning and municipal news for the City of Toronto.

In an article titled 'Protecting Neighbourhoods Cultural Offerings' that focuses on how a cultural districts program "could be an important way for the city to protect the distinctiveness of its unique communities and neighbourhoods in the face of the rapid development and intensification the city has been experiencing", Kelly highlighted the importance of arts and culture in a neighbourhood and their direct relation to economic recovery and impact.

She also highlighted how organizations like the Bloor St. Culture Corridor will require financial support from the city to make cultural district plans viable.

Here's the full article, by Rob Jowett:

A cultural districts program in Toronto could be an important way for the city to protect the distinctiveness of its unique communities and neighbourhoods in the face of the rapid development and intensification the city has been experiencing and will continue to experience for many years ahead.

At its meeting November 9-10, City of Toronto council will consider developing a cultural districts program for the city. Cultural districts are areas of the city with a long history of accommodating a cluster of cultural offerings, distinctive local businesses, non-profit organizations, and city residents which, when combined, make up a unique area of the city. Prominent examples of such areas in Toronto include Little Jamaica, Chinatown, Geary Avenue, and Kensington Market. Due to the wide range and variety of neighbourhoods that could qualify for designation as cultural districts, each ‘district’ identified for a cultural districts program in Toronto would require a unique approach and set of municipal supports to keep it vibrant.

“The proposed cultural districts program, once developed, will… ensure the efficient use of city resources, creating a transparent and clear process, and establishing new tools to address ongoing and emerging challenges for communities and neighbourhoods,” City of Toronto economic development and culture interim manager Cheryl Blackman told NRU. “The cultural districts program will be a new strategic placekeeping and place-making methodology to address local cultural planning in a coordinated way and in partnership with communities.”

Toronto has many communities with unique cultural offerings. Blackman says the city is concerned that rapid development is harming many of these distinctive communities and that the cultural districts program would be meant to help protect what makes those communities unique.

Bloor Street Culture Corridor director Heather Kelly told NRU that while development can bring major changes to a neighbourhood, it also brings new residents to a community who can then participate in and add to their local cultural offerings. Bloor Street Culture Corridor is an organization that represents cultural organizations like the Bata Shoe Museum, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, and the Museum of Estonians Abroad along Bloor Street between Bay Street and Bathurst Street. Kelly is also performing arts director at The Royal Conservatory of Music, another member organization of the Bloor Street culture corridor.

“What [this rapid development has] really highlighted is the importance of arts and culture in a neighbourhood,” says Kelly. “Right now, there is a focus on a need for main streets revitalization. And arts and culture organizations, especially the ones that are already destination organizations… attract people to these significant corridors throughout the city… [and are] directly related to economic recovery and economic impact.”

Though the city has several cultural initiatives like cultural corridors trails, it has never had a cultural districts program. Blackman says the city is drawing on work done by other cities like Mississauga and San Francisco to determine what would comprise a cultural district. She says most cities require a prospective district be located in a culturally or historically significant area and have inventory local cultural assets. She says involving the public at every step is also an important way to create a meaningful cultural district.

“A ‘renewal’ process whereby [identified] cultural districts report on their activities and demonstrate that they continue to be meaningful for the neighbourhood has been used to [evaluate and] ensure their ongoing cultural impact and community engagement,” says Blackman. “For example, in San Francisco, Cultural Districts are required to prepare a Cultural History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategy (CHHESS) report every three years.”

Blackman says the city will also need to provide financial support to neighbourhoods identified as cultural districts, including funding organizations managing the districts, providing rent discounts for businesses and residents in homes that double as art spaces, and offering other financial supports for local business. Kelly says making sure that districts have financial support from the city is vital to making the districts and ultimately, the city’s plan, viable.

“The Bloor Street Culture Corridor is volunteer-led currently, and that is not ideal for operations or sustainability,” says Kelly. “Healthy culture districts require leadership, partnership and collaboration and stewardship, strategic planning and initiatives, marketing and communications… a meaningful role and relationships with the local neighbourhood ecosystem, a great working relationship with the city… and so many other things that require time and expertise to develop and implement well.”

The city’s plan is a good opportunity for the city to support its distinctive neighbourhoods and cultural areas, Friends of Kensington Market chair Serena Purdy told NRU. She says Kensington Market is one of the city’s most unique and distinctive areas, but that it has faced a lot of redevelopment and change that threatens what makes the area special. She says in particular, large cannabis retailers have been pushing local businesses out and driving up rents, making it hard for the local businesses there to survive.

“I think there’s a lot of hopes riding on this one,” says Purdy. “One of the biggest things that would be important for maintenance of culture [in Kensington Market] would be the ability to own space [in the neighbourhood]. There’s a difference between having a mural of a Rastafarian and having Afro-Caribbean-owned spaces in the neighbourhood.”

Purdy says at the moment, the most important thing the city can do is support businesses that have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic so they can continue operating as the economy slowly recovers, and to make long-term investments in local cultural and community spaces. She says the city needs to focus on preserving not just built heritage specifically, but on supporting the total history and legacy of different parts of the city.

“Another critical concern that we have is Kensington Market’s culture is a little bit tough to actually define,” says Purdy. “We want to make sure that it’s not focused around the idea of being like one set ethnic group or [another specific group]… because what defines this is that we are so many different cultural groups together in one place.”

If development of the program is approved, city staff plan to return to council with eligibility criteria for determining what qualifies as a cultural district, identified program components for districts, a defined community role for districts and an update on the city’s ongoing engagement efforts with Toronto communities, and the projected financial impacts of developing a cultural districts program for the city.

The above article was published Friday, October 22, 2021 in the Novae Res Urbis: Toronto (Vol. 25, no. 41).