Weeks on from the Toronto shooting, how is the city coping?

Residents of the Danforth commemorating the shooting in late July 2018. Image: Getty.

We’re several weeks out from the latest episode of mass casualty violence in Toronto, and the city is still grappling with the impact of the shooting that left two dead in the bustling area of the city known as The Danforth.

The shooting came just three months after the van attack that killed 10 people in Toronto’s north end, traumatising a city unaccustomed to such acts of mass violence.

In the first four weeks after the July 22 mass shooting, events included two funerals, a benefit concert, community vigils and the creation of temporary memorials along The Danforth.

As an expert in disaster and emergency management at York University, not far from where the latest attack occurred, I’ve been making detailed observations at the scene in order to both document and understand the first month of this newest disaster recovery for Toronto — a city that is unfortunately becoming too well-versed in mass casualty disasters.

Public mass shooting

Danforth Avenue was the site of the shootings in Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood. It’s an area of the city known for its vibrant public spaces and busy patio culture.

The motives of the deceased shooter remain unknown as the investigation proceeds. But we do know that for some reason he targeted one of the city’s most high-profile neighbourhoods, symbolic of Toronto’s summertime festival culture.

Like the van attack, terrorism came to mind as a possible cause in the immediate aftermath of the violence. After the shooting, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant) issued a communique claiming responsibility for the event, but authorities indicated the claim doesn’t match what their investigation has uncovered.

The shooting on The Danforth is best defined as a public mass shooting. These incidents occur in relatively public places, usually involving four or more deaths, and a gunman who somewhat indiscriminately selects victims. A public mass shooter’s agenda stems from their specific personal experiences and psychological conditions, not broader socio-political objectives.


The initial response

Like the van attack, the mass shooting resulted in a large crime scene with multiple deaths and injuries at different locations. The rampage occurred along a 400-metre stretch of Danforth Ave. and involved sites ranging from a public parkette to individual businesses.

At the time of the incident — approximately 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening — it was initially difficult for those in the middle of the mayhem to identify the type of crisis that was occurring around them. A roving gunman randomly targeting people was completely unexpected in that setting.

Immediate civilian responses included rapid first-aid provision to the wounded, followed by actions to evade the gunfire, including evacuation, sheltering in place and lockdowns. Out of necessity, ordinary bystanders improvised lifesaving medical assistance until first responders converged on the scene within minutes. Some of the bystanders acted heroically and sustained injury as they attempted to save others.

A 10-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman died from their wounds, and 13 people were hospitalised with various prognoses for physical recovery.

The shooter, identified as a 29-year-old man, died from a self-inflicted wound when confronted by police. As in the van attack, hundreds of people on the street were directly exposed to trauma by witnessing the carnage.

Organising recovery

The disaster response efforts obviously began immediately following the shooting. Police response protocols relating to gun violence incidents transitioned to first responder actions to manage mass casualties. These immediate actions were followed by subsequent crime scene investigation and cleanup, all of it taking place within hours.

Given the multiple urban functions (recreation, retail, residential and transportation) of Danforth Avenue, it was necessary for normalcy to return to the street quickly.

In the week after the shooting, one business, a popular dessert café where one of the casualties occurred, remained boarded up, though it has since reopened. Other businesses that were impacted quickly repaired bullet holes, erased remnants of the violence and resumed business as usual.

While the physical recovery of the neighbourhood was accomplished in short order, social recovery will take much longer as the neighbourhood comes to terms with what it means to be the site of a public mass shooting.

One of the ways that the Danforth is coming to terms with the public mass shooting is via memorials. Residents of the Danforth, businesses in the neighbourhood, the local business improvement association and churches worked quickly to reclaim the streets after the violent attack. An evening vigil held three days after the attack was one of the first public events. Temporary improvised memorials to the victims also materialised.

The main site of grieving was a city-owned parkette, the focal point of Greektown. At the Alexander the Great Parkette, a memorial grew around an existing fountain and garden.

In addition, two sidewalk memorials also emerged, and the temporarily boarded-up dessert café became a collection point for items of grief expression. At a third site, in proximity but not directly related to the tragedy itself, the blank plywood boards of construction barricades provided a canvas for mourners to memorialise the dead.

After the van attack uptown from The Danforth, a temporary disaster memorial was in place for 40 days before being completely dismantled. On The Danforth, makeshift memorials were relocated due to the annual Taste of The Danforth festival. The event is one of Canada’s largest street fairs with an estimated 1.6n people in attendance.

The long-term fate of the disaster memorials will involve a balancing act between the need to remember and the need to move forward.

Looking ahead at a new normal

Following the van attack, I suggested that there was a new normal in place for Toronto and I posed the question: what can we expect in the weeks and months ahead and beyond?

The answer to that question is now becoming clear: The greatest strengths of Canada’s largest city also represent significant weaknesses.

One of the factors that makes Toronto a desirable place to live, work and visit is neighbourhoods like The Danforth. The open, active public life at street level provides for many opportunities ranging from creativity hubs to opportunities for social and cultural diversity and the promotion of active local economies.

But those neighbourhoods also represent “soft targets” to exploit by people driven by antisocial and violent motives. These are places that are by their nature open access, not well-defended — and security posture is not top of mind.

The question now is: How does Toronto maintain its active and bustling neighbourhoods while also defending itself?

The Conversation

Jack L. Rozdilsky, Associate Professor of Disaster & Emergency Management, York University, Canada.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.