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Opening Remarks by Eric Sehr at the June 7 Community Engagement Session

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

Update #56

Eric Sehr, Estonian House Board Member and International Estonian Centre Volunteer

It is my pleasure to welcome you to our quarterly Community Engagement Session. We should all be very excited to hear from our guest tonight, Alissa North, landscape architect from North Design Office.

Alissa and her partner Peter North are designing the outdoor spaces at the International Estonian Centre (IEC) including the public square and the rooftop garden.

One of the reasons we should be excited is that the square we are developing goes to the very heart of building a community. It is one of the most important features of this project.

Who here tonight has travelled to a major city like Chicago or Paris and decided to go out of their way to visit a local Ikea or Walmart?

I know I haven’t. A single building sitting in the middle of parking lot doesn’t invite you in, create a sense of place, or inspire a sense of delight.

That’s what public squares do. They give space meaning. They are the places we turn to when we don’t know where else to go. They complement buildings, invite you to stop, and provide a place to preserve shared memories and recognize history.

Memory and history are important. They shape our communities. They sustain our communities.

For the past several years I’ve volunteered with the Annex Residents Association and provided walking tours of the neighbourhood, including Madison Avenue, where the IEC will be located.

One of the themes we talk about on these walks is how the city around us reflects the values of our society and how we can peek back in time by looking around the neighbourhood. These values are preserved like fossils in concrete, brick and wood.

The historic houses that line Madison Avenue express the values of Toronto’s growing Victorian middle class in the 1880s. The Victorians valued the ideal of the garden city and had a wistful desire to return to a rural lifestyle in a rapidly growing and changing city.

The late architectural historian William Dendy said that “Madison Avenue is a monument to the Victorians’ intelligent use of architecture and planning to achieve pleasant residential surroundings.”

19th century Advertisement for Madison Avenue, from the collection of the Toronto Public Library

By the 1950s, the Victorian values of the English garden city of the early Annex gave way to modernist values of clean and efficient concrete towers and smooth expressways championed by architects like Le Corbusier in the 1920s and 1930s.

These values were given form by Estonia’s own Uno Prii, who built apartment towers here in the Annex to help address the city’s housing challenge and replace houses that had come into disrepair during the 1930s and 1940s.

They also almost resulted in the construction of the Spadina Expressway which, if Premier Bill Davis had not put a stop to it in 1971, would have run in a trench about 200 metres from where we are right now.

A plan from circa 1970 showing the proposed and alternate routes of the Spadina Expressway with the site of the International Estonian Centre highlighted, from the collection of the City of Toronto Archive

Values have power. They shape communities. They shape space. Now that we are designing and moving toward building the IEC, it’s important that we reflect on the values that we will impress onto one small part of Toronto and the Annex’s diverse landscape.

What values are shaping this project? We are working very much in a world that puts people and communities first. We want to build cities that are lively, safe, sustainable and healthy. Cities where, as Dutch architect and urban designer Jan Gehl writes: “strengthen the social function of city space as a meeting place that contributes toward the aims of social sustainability and an open and democratic society.”

It is these values that we are also building into the very heart of the IEC with the introduction of the square.

The square is a meeting place that will give our community new life. As an example, let’s consider the power of “Jurassic Park.” The world is focused on Toronto because of our great Raptors basketball team, and what they are also blown away by is this park, where fans gathered at game times to cheer on our team.

So I for one cannot wait to see the Raptors win. But I also I look forward to having a meeting place for our community to gather to celebrate our victories. A place to turn to when we want to connect with our community and each other but are not sure where else to go.

Since the playoffs started, 36 cities have adopted their own Jurassic Parks. But why Toronto and why now?

I see only one reason. The Scotiabank Plaza in downtown Toronto was built in the heart of the city with a meeting space in front. This space complements the neighbouring arena where games are held and provides a space to come together to create memories.

There is a reason this phenomenon didn’t emerge outside Oracle Arena in Oakland, where the Warriors now play – it’s surrounded by 10,000 parking spots.

The square we are building is one of the most important elements of this project. It will shape our community, the Annex neighborhood and help showcase our community and accomplishments for years to come.

Note: These remarks have been briefly edited from the version that was presented on June 7 at Community Engagement Session held at Tartu College in Toronto.


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