No one would ever mistake the CNE’s ramshackle design for a pristine architectural vision. But if you can look past the grimy midway rides, carb-loaded cuisine, and general cacophony, this old-school institution just might reveal an inspiring model for our city’s future.
When the 134th annual Canadian National Exhibition opens this week, Toronto will once again witness an astonishing transformation—and I’m not talking about the conversion of butter into a deep-fried treat. Though we’ve become blasé about it, the urban makeover that the Ex delivers is more thrilling than any of the midway rides. For 347 days a year, Exhibition Place is 192 acres of mostly empty parking lots dotted with giant (and usually locked) buildings. But for just over two weeks, it becomes a pedestrian village throbbing with the excitement of more than 1.3 million people playing games, taking in shows, eating unusual (if preposterously high-calorie) foods, enjoying rides, and seeking out deals on everything from cleaning products to hot tubs. And that annual metamorphosis from asphalt desert to vibrant amusement park and marketplace—temporary though it is—can teach us valuable lessons about how to build, develop, and redevelop areas of the city the rest of the year.
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Consider that the City of Toronto has been struggling for years to provide a greater variety of street-food options. Potential vendors pining to get their stalls, carts, and trucks onto the roadways and sidewalks have faced an apparently unscalable wall of red tape pertaining to health, liability, and regulatory concerns. But each year at the CNE, the city licenses and monitors more than a thousand food vendors. Yes, some of them offer pretty basic fare (corn dogs and cotton candy), but there are also ribs, fish and chips, meatball sandwiches, tacos, shawarmas, fresh doughnuts fried in front of your eyes, and, this year, raw vegan salads. That we can regulate this massive range of food from stalls that have to be set up, operated, and torn down in fewer than three weeks exposes the barriers to more permanent establishment of a street-food culture as illusions. You can eat your way through the Ex and realize what’s possible.
Food is just the beginning. Though many of us immediately think of rickety roller coasters when we picture the fair, The Ex used to be a place where visions of the future were unveiled. “We’ve lost a bit of it, but if you think of what these great annual fairs were originally, they were really an opportunity for people to see what was new and exciting,” says Ken Greenberg, former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto, and author of Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder. In the pre-internet age, the CNE was largely a technological and industrial innovation fair—the place where many people caught their first glimpses of televisions, washing machines, and automobiles. “It was a chance to taste, touch, and feel all these things,” Greenberg says.
The exhibits at the CNE are no longer especially forward-looking, but the layout of the fair still is. If tents and trailers lined up in close proximity can turn the vacant parking lots and roadways of Exhibition Place into a bustling streetscape, perhaps something similar is possible in the vast parking lots that flood the suburbs, or the forsaken courtyards of highrise-tower housing projects. We tend to think of neighbourhood revitalization as a decades-long infrastructure project, but the CNE is revitalized and de-vitalized again each year in a matter of days.
Greenberg believes the transitory nature of the Ex may be a big part of the lesson it teaches. “We’re so bound by rules and regulations around making changes in cities,” he says. “Zoning, official plans, environmental impact studies, environmental assessments— every time you want to change something, it takes years of study. We’re incredibly risk-averse; we’ve basically created these barriers that make it very hard to experiment. But cities are really about experimentation.”
Indeed, though the CNE itself is a centrally controlled and planned environment—the Exhibition Place board approves vendors and manages the layout of the grounds—it has evolved through more than a century of experience and experimentation. It’s a 134-year-old testing process; any element added or subtracted will be there only for a matter of weeks, and can easily be ditched the following year.
Greenberg points out that many of the celebrated changes to New York City over the past decade—the large-scale deployment of bike lanes, the pedestrianization of Times Square—have been implemented quickly, in a provisional manner. Erect some temporary barriers, paint the pavement, drag out some patio furniture, and see how it works.
It’s an approach Greenberg has seen first-hand, working on a project that’s turned many downtown-Mississauga parking lots into temporary farmers’ markets. “When people are looking at long-range transformations that can sometimes take decades, you want to show progress and give people a quick taste of what might come,” he says. “This is a very valuable concept that has much broader applicability than just a fair.”
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We don’t want to turn our neighbourhoods into carnival midways, but the CNE model of temporary, stall-based transformation indicates there’s potential to liven up Toronto’s inner-suburban neighbourhoods (such as Lawrence East in Scarborough or Rexdale in Etobicoke).
Local independent musician David Buchbinder of the Juno-award-winning Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band has been working on a similar premise with his Diasporic Genius project. He and his colleagues envision the creation of permanent “21st Century Village Squares” across Toronto, built and used by local residents for food, craft, and other marketplaces, as well as arts and cultural performances. The group has been establishing a pilot project centred around arts events and community storytelling in Thorncliffe Park, a neighbourhood made up of concrete towers surrounded by parking lots and open courtyards. It kicked off with the “Festival of Story” during a “Neighbours Night Out” street festival earlier this summer. The idea behind Diasporic Genius is to create a village bazaar–style template that can be adjusted according to the desires, needs, and cultural interests of different communities. The photos of the pilot project events and the examples of its vision on the Diasporic Genius website look, interestingly, a lot like the CNE, filled with tents, stalls, and marching bands amid the crowds.
“The thing about the Ex is that it [shows how quickly change can occur], but does so in a narrow, first-level kind of way,” says Buchbinder. “It’s not embedded in the community. There are a number of ways you can make an incredible transformation in a space overnight. What we’re trying to do is make sure they’re part of some ongoing development in the community, that they have roots and resonance.”
Next Page: Imagining a Toronto that dares to experiment. Plus: CNE stats