Behind the screens: How a School of Cities program pivoted to support virtual outreach

June 11, 2020 by By Emily Mathieu

The Next Step: Toronto’s City Building Summit was meant to give like-minded city builders a chance to convene and discuss the key role that equity should play in conversations around urban planning.

“We hoped it would be an engaging day of both workshop events, panel discussions, keynote speakers, and food,” said Nikki Pagaling, 21, event co-organizer and recent U of T graduate, who now holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Urban Studies and Human Geography. “We had everything in place.”

They had booked the Centre for Social Innovation for late April, lined up funding and speakers, planned art workshops and menus, and started selling tickets. Then COVID-19 hit.

But when doors across the city had to close, the conference — thanks to a grant from U of T’s School of Cities, private funding, and the shared dedication of event lead and fellow co-organizer Cheryll Case, founding principal of CP Planning — moved over to Zoom. And it was, the organizers said, a success, and timely as COVID-19 has made existing inequities more apparent.

“We decided it was still important to have this conversation, while still recognizing the limitations that an online event would impose,” said Pagaling, past co-president of event partner group the Urban Studies Student Union (URSSU).

Mayor John Tory offered opening remarks to the more than 170 attendees, who tuned in for conversations on developing urban agriculture, future proofing a city building team, and engaging communities to help shape urban environments.

The School of Cities approved funding for The Next Step conference, before COVID-19, through a small outreach and education grants program open to the university community and typically used for speaking events.

“The idea is to bring together people from across the university, all three campuses, who are working on initiatives that have some kind of urban component,” said Shauna Brail, associate director, partnerships and outreach, at the School of Cities. Rather than letting funds go unspent or ideas wither, the School of Cities decided to support online initiatives. “As we move through this process, we are going to start to pivot again to think about what works, and what’s next, and how do we get there,” said Brail.

Multiple pitches came through the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. One pitch proposed an e-learning experience based on a recent student trip to Dakar, Senegal, and focused on modern heritage preservation. Another one suggested an interactive and “utopian inspired” writing experience called Under the Dog Star. A third described free online programs for families with kids shut out of summer camps and daycare because of COVID-19.

The Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, with the Kiwanis Boys & Girls Clubs, will be asking youth residents of Regent Park to photograph their daily lives with the goal of creating an online archive, and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health/Centre for Global Health plans to launch a podcast about community health and well-being.

The Next Step team used the funds to pay for their Zoom account and created www.thenextstepconference.ca, where a post-conference summary is published. Thanks to lower overhead costs, the team also donated some general funding to FoodShare, which provides produce to people facing food insecurity.

Pagaling and Case believe equity, diversity and inclusion are central to urban planning, and both were unsure whether the nuanced day they’d planned would work online. Case said post event that the rewards of carving out that virtual space were very clear, and as distant events become the new reality, organizers must commit to making knowledge available to everybody, not just those with access to WiFi.

In the final minutes, Case asked for a group photo, and the cameras of the 120 or so attendees suddenly switched on.

“I just saw all these beautiful people, happy, smiling, excited,” Case said. “To me, it shows that even though we weren't able to have the conversation in person, I think that the fact we had the conversation at all was so monumental.”