A big piece of inspiration to start your weekend

A dear friend just forwarded me this.  This really is the type of thing that gets me inspired.  And the real beauty of it is that I know that this idea would work so beautifully here in Regina.  So… think about it (with this in mind).  Let’s start planting the seed with these kinds of ideas and keep building on the socially vibrant, creative, innovative city that Regina is!


Matchmaking for a better city

Tonya Surman, left, executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation, digs into the salad bar with colleagues. The centre brings together creative people with a passion for change, making magical ideas possible.


By Catherine Porter Columnist

I bring an olive loaf and two avocados to the Centre for Social Innovation’s Tuesday salad club. This, I’m told, is a good offering. Now, all that’s needed is an open mind and some conversation starters.

I fill my plate with olives, sharp cheddar, mixed lettuce, strawberries, red pepper strips, a scoop of canned tuna, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and then squeeze into the last seat at a round table, buzzing with chatter.

My lunch mates include an environmental researcher, a documentary filmmaker, a woman working to green Toronto schools, a community activist seeking to make Toronto’s election rules more democratic, a former social worker helping NGOs launch and a woman working on some sort of social venture I don’t yet understand.

None of them work together. But all of them work together.

This is the genius of the centre, built into one of those big, old brick warehouses on Spadina Ave. It pulls people with a passion to change the world out of their basements and mixes them together. It puts them in a beautiful space with big windows, Persian rugs, a communal kitchen with a continuously bubbling pot of coffee. And it encourages socializing, with regular yoga classes, documentary film showings, local speakers and networking nights. Then, like any good matchmaker, it waits for the chemistry.

“How do you make social change happen?” says Tonya Surman, the centre’s executive director. “You create the space, attract the right people and create a culture of possibility.”

One result: the annual weekend of community-led walking tours around the city in honour of city visionary Jane Jacobs. Chris Winter came up with the idea for Jane’s Walks four years ago during a meeting in one of the centre’s glass-windowed rooms. He runs the Conservation Council of Ontario, which means he’s bent on energy conservation, not walking. But he kept talking about the idea, and soon two of the centre’s creators, developer Margie Zeidler and city thinker Mary Rowe caught wind of it. Less than two months later, they launched the first 27 Jane’s Walks around the city.

This year, the organization expects to host 400 walks in cities across North America, from Kamloops to New Orleans.

“They took it far beyond my little idea,” says Winter. “That’s the magic of this place.”

If only the city could work like this.

Other results are subtler. For many activists, the centre provides camaraderie and beauty they can’t get in their basements.

“It’s nice to not be treated like rat sh– by your environment,” says Jane Farrow, the executive director of Jane’s Walk.

Here, they can rent an office, a desk, or just hours at communal work spaces called “hot desks,” which include access to photocopiers, fax machines and big, glass-walled meeting rooms. They also gain impromptu mentors, neighbouring computer experts and focus groups for their nascent ideas.

“We get the support here,” says Desi Benet, executive director of a non-profit that helps other non-profits get off the ground called The Raft. “It’s a family.”

Here’s the most exciting part:

Since it opened five years ago, the centre – which has received no government money other than a provincial Trillium Foundation grant – has quadrupled in size. It’s about to double again.

Surman has just signed the paperwork to buy a $4.2-million building near Bathurst and Bloor. It is a five-storey, 36,000-square-foot former school that will have to be renovated – walls ripped down, floors sanded and, hopefully, geothermal heating pipes drilled into the ground. Once finished, the building will have room for another 300 tenants, each meeting the centre’s litmus test of supreme idealism and a chipper attitude.

“We’re not about what’s wrong with the world, but doing things to make it right,” Surman says.

Within 24 hours of hitting send on an email to her 7,000-member list of “innovators,” she had 60 applications from prospective tenants and a cheque for $200,000 from one investor. Since then, she’s raised another $800,000 from people drawn by the centre’s mission and a prospective profit.

Her long-term plan is more ambitious. She wants to wean off large investors and finance the $1.7 million down payment from community members with $5,000 RRSP-eligible bonds.

“It would be community-owned,” says Surman, finishing her salad. “It’s the pinnacle of the movement we’re building.”

It’s a brilliant idea that still needs a bank to process the small RRSP investments. But, it’s one Surman thinks can be expanded to other public places across the city – performing arts spaces, community centres, food co-ops.

“It’s an idea about the community reclaiming its space and its relationship with the city,” she says.

What an idea.

Catherine Porter’s column usually appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. cporter@thestar.ca

A big piece of inspiration to start your weekend

2 thoughts on “A big piece of inspiration to start your weekend

  1. wourliem says:

    One of the most enduring passages from Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is her take on the importance of old buildings as places for marginal uses. Old warehouses transform into any number of uses, (just look at the warehouse district) for a variety of users, sometimes in the same building.

    Peter Hall, who’s “Cities in Civilization” I’ve only read some of, talks about how the golden ages of great productive centres like Manchester (Industrial Revolution) or Vienna ( Cafe Culture) became so important because different people came together with different skill sets and put together.

    Richard Florida talks about the creative class and providing them with the spaces they need to thrive.

    I think this story weaves these stands together showing how spaces can bring people together and allow those people to communicate.

    I hope that, in some way, a revitalized CP Yards could allow for more access to the Regina warehouse district. There are many fine buildings north of Dewdney and east of Broad that could be candidates for good third places. Making paths or connections to these places is vital so people may come upon them during the course of a journey. Many already are and the worry would be some type of gentrification that pushes away the low capital users entirely.

    1. I too think that the Warehouse district has a lot of promise with respect to these types of ventures… especially, like you say, east of Broad Street. Potential Central.

      It will be interesting to see as the cultural hub (upstairs at Loggie’s Shoes) downtown develops how these types of ideas develop. That is a similar idea but mostly focuses on spaces for artists and cultural industries. Perhaps to get a project like this rolling will require getting some groups together to be co-tenants. In the same sense, I feel like these projects work well if there is one larger group/concept that drives everyone to come together (i.e. it isn’t 4 groups joining forces, it is a new organization, here the Centre for Social Innovation, that inspires several groups to come together).

      Note to everyone: please feel free to use the blog as a space to express your interest in these types of things… I hope it can be a space to network and potentially get these types of ideas off the ground.

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