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At the heart of great cities are ideas that matter

Toronto and other big cities must develop ways to exchange solutions to common urban problems, says Mary Rowe of the Municipal Art Society in New York.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Toronto and New York have similar problems and if Canadian Mary Rowe has her way, one day they will be sharing solutions.

In her new role as vice-president of strategy and partnerships for the Municipal Art Society in New York, when Ms. Rowe is in meetings discussing the city's challenges she often feels she easily could be in a Toronto boardroom.

MAS is a prestigious 100-year-old non-profit group started by artists and architects who wanted a say in the planning of New York. Instrumental in preserving historical landmarks, murals and sculptures, it wants to make the city viable and livable for all and not become only a playground for the super rich.

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Ms. Rowe says the comparable urban issues dog both New York and Toronto.

"How [do]people get access to the city? How diverse is the economy? How are newcomers being integrated and what are the opportunities for them to be full participants and engage in the mechanics of civic life? What is the relationship between downtown and the suburbs?"

These are issues most North American cities face, but the pressure on the larger ones with older high-rise buildings is intense.

"What do you do with all these high-rise buildings built in the '70s which don't work from an energy point of view but also don't work from a social point of view either. What do you do with all that green space around those towers? New York has the most high-rise towers [public housing or rentals] of any city in North America. Toronto has the second highest number. There are tons of commonalities."

Like writer and urban renewal activist Jane Jacobs, whom she knew well, Mary Rowe is not a town planner. She's a consultant, a writer, and a social entrepreneur who has worked in environmental, economic development and health issues.

"Even Jane's work isn't limited to the physical design of cities," she points out. "It's about economics, decision-making, culture, values."

Ms. Jacobs, who died in 2006 in Toronto where she had moved in 1968, was what Ms. Rowe calls an "early self-organizer." She understood that better answers rise from the bottom, not the other way around.

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In 2005, after hurricanes hit New Orleans, Ms. Rowe experienced a crash course in self-organizing. Sent there by an American foundation called Blue Moon Fund, Ms. Rowe worked with diverse groups, but she was almost overwhelmed by the problems facing New Orleans.

She turned to Ms. Jacobs for help. Ms. Rowe asked, "Jane, what are we going to do?" The rebuke was fierce.

"She really chastised me and said, 'You're not going to do anything about New Orleans. New Orleans is going to something about New Orleans.'"

She told Ms. Rowe to "stop thinking like a bureaucrat" and "just be available to what New Orleanians want to do."

As a result, she pushed her philanthropist employer to support the nascent self-organizing growing in the city. When she left five years later they'd supported an array of initiatives including a rethinking of the city's sharing of data and information, local job creation, and social media efforts so that neighbourhoods could share solutions.

Ms. Rowe wants to build on that experience. As people and governments in New York and Toronto and Vancouver and Baltimore struggle with waterfront plans, immigrant integration, or how to improve access to fresh food in some neighbourhoods, they can feel they're working in isolation and that their solutions are too specific to be adapted elsewhere.

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Ms. Rowe disagrees. Although, she says, cities have long histories of – and the vehicles for – economic trade between them, they have not developed many ways for trading solutions. And that's the change she wants.

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