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The poor suburbs!

For generations, Hollywood and the "snobocracy" have portrayed North American suburbia as so much mass-produced alienation and white-bread conformism. A newer fable, reinforced by lurid news reports in the media, has it that whole swatches of suburbia are infested by violent gangs. Though these visions are obviously at odds with one another, they have nevertheless combined to give rise to a popular notion of suburbia as toxic and inhuman.

Seen against this background of long-standing prejudice, the exhibition entitled "Fringe Benefits: Cosmopolitan Dynamics of a Multicultural City," opening at the Design Exchange next Wednesday, promises to be a myth-buster.

This show will use photography, video, maps and art to argue that the burgeoning towns and neighbourhoods around downtown Toronto are bustling with cultural and social vitality. Millions of new immigrants are reshaping suburbia to suit themselves, with results that are surprising and often inspiring.

Fringe Benefits is the handiwork of Toronto architect and urban designer Ian Chodikoff, who is also editor of Canadian Architect magazine. (Full disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to Mr. Chodikoff's publication.) Last week, I spoke with the curator about his project, how it began and what he discovered.

"It started in 2001, when I decided to go back to school to study urban design at Harvard," Mr. Chodikoff said. "A couple of teachers there really sparked my interest in how all the social activities in our urban environment link up into making progressive cities. Back home, I started to see peculiar things and mutations happening in our own cities. The suburbs in the Greater Toronto Area allow ethnic and cultural groups with links all over the world to manifest their ways of doing business, of living, or recreating, of socializing - things that I had not been aware of."

Following his curiosity into Toronto's suburban settlements, Mr. Chodikoff found new immigrants using the previously orphaned lawns around apartment blocks for picnicking, families gathering by day and by night in ravines long derelict, people creating an active street life in high-rise neighbourhoods widely believed to be dangerous and forbidding.

"I went wow! Something is going on here. Then you start digging deeper, and you discover this Sri Lankan draftsman in Scarborough, designing the first Tamil mall in North America. Ostensibly, it's a strip mall. It's not going to win a Governor-General's award for architecture. But his dream is to create a night market in Scarborough, where families can gather, bringing their parents and grandparents to eat food and have a nice time. All of a sudden, you're introducing something very meaningful into the great indigestible landscape of the suburbs."

But the novel uses of public space by immigrants, Mr. Chodikoff found, are still little understood by official planners.

"No municipality is really addressing the issue of inclusionary planning. Urban planning does not explicitly identify issues of diversity, and how families and groups socialize and do business in a contemporary city. That needs to be addressed, so you can leverage the social capital that exists in the Toronto area, and have new, recombinant urban forms."

We Torontonians like to think of ourselves as liberal and easygoing when it comes to our complicated ethnic makeup. But complacent tolerance is not good enough.

"Whereas we're used to celebrating our diversity with banners and food festivals at Harbourfront, we need to be more aggressive about using the skills and ideas of people moving to our region, in order to develop new forms of growth," Mr. Chodikoff said.

"When you're designing a community centre in Markham [a town with a large, vivid Chinese population] you're designing with feng shui principles, and including multilingual computer terminals. The architecture should be safe, well-lit, modern, but it should also function in a very contemporary way that incorporates the social dimensions of multicultural society."

While Fringe Benefits will highlight new forms of life emerging in suburbia, it also aims to transfigure the way design and planning professionals look at the future of suburban development. Toronto's Little India and Chinatown, wonderful as they surely are, represent models of immigrant settlement from the past, Mr. Chodikoff believes. Nor is assimilation of immigrants to conventional paradigms of Canadian society a goal worth pursuing. What's needed now, this show asserts, are a quickened appreciation of the new social fabric of the suburbs and an overturning of outworn architectural and planning pieties.

The exhibition should not be an occasion for congratulating ourselves on our prolific multiculturalism. It's about looking behind appearances into the heart of the new city being born all around us.

"The point of Fringe Benefits is not to say, 'Wow! Isn't this cool!' " Mr. Chodikoff said. "When we see 50 signs in Farsi on a Yonge Street strip mall, there are 50 businesses in what we view, 50 groups of people, a community existing around the mall that is globally connected and strong enough to feel both Canadian and Iranian. It's a wake-up call."

Fringe Benefits: Cosmopolitan Dynamics of a Multicultural City will run from July 9 to Sept. 23 at the Design Exchange, 234 Bay St. Admission is free.

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