Skip to main content

Two kinds of rules govern city life: written and unwritten. The written kind lays out the rules in black and white. You can’t run a red light, throw your trash in the park or steal your neighbour’s lawn mower.

The second, unwritten kind is greyer – more shouldn’ts than can’ts. You shouldn’t take up two seats on a crowded bus or cut someone off in traffic. Put another way, you should treat those around you with at least a minimum of decency.

The unwritten rules are even more important than the written ones. Cities are busy, often stressful places. With throngs of people around, there is lots of potential for friction and conflict. Because you can’t have a cop on every corner to enforce the written rules, maintaining public order depends mostly on a common agreement to act in a civil, law-abiding fashion. The enforcement mechanism for this accord is purely social. Breaking it won’t land you in jail, but it will put you in bad odour with your fellow citizens. That’s a powerful incentive to behave.

If the accord starts to break down, it spells trouble. That’s why what is happening in Canadian cities recently is so upsetting.

Toronto and Vancouver have seen a series of random attacks that threaten residents’ sense of security. Edmonton is concerned about disorder in its inner city, Calgary about drug use on the transit system.

Marcus Gee: It’s not just the TTC. There’s a growing sense that things in Toronto are spinning out of control

Cars and motorcycles race and weave around the streets of many cities, filling the night with the scream of their engines. Clashes among people over parking or driving seem angrier and more common. You took my spot! You cut me off!

This sort of thing can easily escalate. If the city seems dangerous, people become more guarded and wary. If everyone around is rude and inconsiderate, polite and considerate people begin to wonder, why should I bother? Anger fuels anger. Fear takes hold. Cynicism and defeatism grow. The belief that our cities are going to hell can make them go to hell.

It’s vital to stop this cycle before it gets out of control. But how? One way is to put things in perspective. As frightening as things may seem at the moment, Canadian cities are still remarkably good places to live. Some appear on lists of the world’s most livable. Immigrants from around the globe come to our cities for the opportunities and the quality of life.

Another is to stay engaged. If we abandon our downtowns to work from home, if we stop getting on the bus or the subway, if we don’t walk to the corner store, if we flee altogether and go live somewhere else, then you can almost guarantee that our cities will become more dangerous. Jane Jacobs famously observed that they thrive when there are eyes on the street – lots of people around to look out for each other. There is safety in numbers.

It’s also important to attend to the little things. Those busted garbage bins and out-of-order park washrooms that everyone was complaining about in Toronto last year matter a lot. Broken windows lead to more broken windows. A city that stays in good repair stays in good health.

The disorder that is so visible on city streets is the product of a system that is failing to care for those suffering from addictions, mental illness and other disadvantages. The pandemic deepened their suffering. How can a society that prides itself on its tolerance and compassion allow people who are in mental distress to wander in a state of abject misery and claim it is doing so out of respect for their personal autonomy?

Perhaps, above all, we need to rekindle a sense of solidarity. Cities are humming hives of creativity, innovation and enterprise. People from a whole galaxy of different backgrounds come together to live and work side by side. That they have managed to do so with such success is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. But it only works because of the unwritten accord of urban life.

We are all in this together. We had better treat each other with care and respect. Forget that, and it all falls apart.