From being Chair of Jane’s Walk to acting as principal of Toronto-based think tank Architext (which she also founded), Zahra Ebrahim is a passionate urbanist. Her creative approach to city building, coupled with her energy and charisma, make her one of the most interesting design thinkers in the city. Most recently, Zahra has played a large role in the development and implementation of the We Are Cities campaign, one which aims to create an action plan for Canadian cities, as well as giving a platform for people to discuss the merits, flaws, and needs of the country’s diverse urban centres (big and small).
However, this is only a part of the project. Zahra stresses there are many other goals to the campaign, ones that may not have been discovered yet, emphasizing on the fact that facilitating a platform for discussion can yield to many substantial changes, and, moreover, lead to tackling the issue of spaces that have too long been sidestepped in our cities.
According to Zahra, conversations about the current state and potential of networks such Toronto’s lattice of lanes play a critical role in shaping the future of our city’s built form, as they are, in her words “uniquely positioned for the notion of tactical urbanism.”
Zahra sees great potential in the mesh of narrow thoroughfares that lie beyond the boldness of the street. She says they offer ample amounts of linear public space, as well as a great opportunity to rethink density. On that note, Zahra sees the potential of these neglected spaces as a microcosm for the larger conversation about our cities:
“Changing the mindset about our cities and the spaces that we’ve traditionally neglected is a very big part of the conversation, because cities are under enormous stress. And the laneway conversation is not just a delight; we need to see laneways as an opportunity that has been leveraged in other cities. Like Vancouver, using laneways as an opportunity for density. It’s such a critical piece in the conversation.”
Zahra concedes, however, that part of the challenge with density, is to make it appealing: “It’s as much as it’s about changing the laneway itself, as it is about shifting towards a culture where it’s not weird to live in an alley.”
Having had lived at a laneway address herself, on St Matthias Lane in Trinity-Bellwoods, Zahra talks about the different examples of the notion of tactical urbanism, and the potential of cultivating them in ways that are quicker, faster, and cheaper. As Zahra notes,
“The laneway is very Jane Jacobs. People notice the smallest little things when walking through these spaces. The kind of traffic you get on a laneway is very familiar. The traffic was people.”
Allowing ourselves to speak with each other about the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful in our laneways, will help sharpen our eyes to the charming couloirs of our city, and help us conceptualize our future navigation through them.
Written by: Francis Norman May