Anyone who reads my blogs could come to the conclusion that I have a hate-on for this city. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t love this place for my first 20 years here — London was not an easy city to love. The great news is that it was very easy, at least for me, to fall in love with the people here and that is where my passion for this place grows.
Why is London so hard to love?
I think part of it is a lack of identity. Sure, some neighbourhoods have developed fantastic identities for themselves: OEV, Old South, Woodfield and SoHo, to name but a few. We lack an identity as a city, though — I don’t really see anything that binds us together or that would be notable or remarkable to anyone from outside our city. What is London? I’ve been here for 31 years, and thought about it for 10, and I have no idea. There is one thing that I can point to, though — we have a crippling, possibly terminal, inferiority complex.
“The big city that thinks it’s a small town” is a label that I heard bestowed on this city only a few weeks after I arrived here in 1985, and it’s the closest thing that I can find to an identity. And it is it killing us.
London literally doesn’t think it deserves nice things. And don’t even discuss investing in anything good or different because that’s a non-starter.
Politicians know that they’re going to get clobbered by citizens if anything exceptional makes it anywhere near Council Chambers. So how does Council placate the enthusiasts and the naysayers all at once? They do their damndest to wear both the naysayers and enthusiasts down. Debates, reports, referrals. No matter what flavour went in, what comes out of the process is almost always vanilla.
Inoffensive, palatable, vanilla. Safe vanilla.
And that might be okay. Vanilla isn’t so bad, right?
We don’t live in a world where vanilla is going to cut it. We live in a world where cities must rise to face the challenges of the future and cannot be solely mired in the mundane practicalities of the present. The manufacturing economy that London held so dear has faded and there’s no reason to expect it to come back. Our economic drivers have changed, and we, and our city, have to change too. We’re positioning ourselves for a new kind of economy pitted against cities with a decade-long head start on us.
That’s the world that we’re competing in. Yes, it’s a competition and a brutal one. It’s a contest for hearts and minds and it’s been waged across the planet over decades. We need to position ourselves to retain our best and brightest; we need to attract an influx of new talent and new Canadians to offset a declining birth rate and the impending loss of the Boomers. The decisions we make today will echo for years, and we’re making safe, inoffensive, palatable choices while the world races ahead. We need to be looking up and ahead, and we need to stop navel gazing.
So when we face big decisions and ideas, like The London Plan and Shift London, and we know we’re going to need help bringing them to reality, we need to think bigger than “safe.” We need to stop being meek and we need to demand the same kinds of things that our competition already has. We need to start thinking 30, 50, even 100 years in the future and not 30 years in the past.
In the late 1990s we made big, risky and ultimately successful investments in our city through the Millennium Plan. We need to keep making serious investments in our city’s future. We need to get in the game with the big folks. And we need to get over this notion that we don’t deserve the fundamental things that make a city attractive, desirable and competitive. It’s a fight and it’s one that we can’t shrink away from anymore.
Maybe if we start demanding to be treated better we’ll actually start believing that we deserve it and maybe then we’ll find out who we really are.
Special thanks to Laurie Bursch for her invaluable assistance editing this blog.