Viewpoint (January 01, 2009)

Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns, the latest best-practice model for enabling creativity at the community level, opened its doors to nearly universal acclaim in late November. The brainchild of Tim Jones, Artscape president and CEO, the new $21- million restoration project represents a “creative convergence” approach to development involving the visionary efforts of social entrepreneurs, artists, developers and architects to improve the vibrancy and creative output of the city. Built on the site of a former Toronto Transit Commission repair facility, the 60,000-square-foot community centre contains 26 live/work studios, 15 artist studios, and environmentalists who work in the fields of education, urban agriculture and food security. The Wychwood Barns has joined the roster of other recent additions to Toronto qualifying as nodes of creativity, including the Distillery District, Liberty Village, Canada’s National Ballet School, and MaRS (a centre of innovation that connects science and technology with social entrepreneurs). With a variety of mandates, these projects are seen as both economically sustainable and culturally vibrant. It is hoped that they may also inspire other organizations to initiate and build similar types of facilities in smaller communities and in more suburban contexts.

Surrounded by a new city park, the Artscape Wychwood Barns will house over a dozen nonprofit organizations, along with indoor community facilities. The 4.3-acre site consists of five attached brick buildings built between 1913 and 1921. Having been abandoned for almost 30 years, the project became the first LEED-certified heritage project in Ontario to use stormwater recycling and both geothermal heating and cooling. The lead design consultant and architect for the project was Joe Lobko from du Toit Architects Ltd. By achieving three major community development goals for the project– education, partnerships and culture-led regeneration– Jones is widely regarded as the prince of both cultural stewardship and development in Toronto, largely due to his success in orchestrating a successful model of collaboration between the City of Toronto, local residents, non-profit community organizations, and Artscape itself.

While Artscape is deemed as being successful, it is not alone in its efforts. Over the past few years, “creative convergence” as applied to community development has been a popular subject of discussion in other cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Pittsburgh, and Quebec City. The common jargon spoken amongst leaders in these communities tends to include these four words: collaboration, convergence, clustering and creativity. As anyone who has undertaken the process of fundraising and securing political support for community development will tell you, these four words are easier said than done.

At a regional forum held at the Artscape Wychwood Barns the day before its official opening, Tonya Surman, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Innovation talked about entrepreneurship, collaboration and systems change: if you start with a physical space and bring people together, innovation happens. When you then attract “a solid dose of entrepreneurship and the power to leverage small, the power of creative aggregation occurs,” she noted.

When developing new facilities like the Artscape Wychwood Barns, part of the challenge is finding the right kind of investment and public funding to build better living environments. Aligning these development opportunities within a broader public policy and effective leadership creates a successful model for “creative convergence.” Let’s hope that such models of development will continue to be applied elsewhere as a viable tool for community development.

Ian Chodikoff