So, what have you been learning on your summer vacation?
While most of us consider the holidays a time for rest and relaxation, this doesn’t preclude making new discoveries, which sometimes contain lessons useful to the work back home.
As an example, take Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler. She spent two weeks in Turkey earlier this month as part of a group that included Marilyn Mason, registrar at Kings University College, and John Kobarda, the city’s fire chief.
The trip was organized by the Civic Duty Movement, an offshoot of the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, Turkey’s famous democrat and educator. Suheyl Canli of the London branch of Intercultural Dialogue Institute, another offshoot, was the tour leader. It was a mixture of both business and pleasure — and most of the time, Ms. Baechler says, it was pretty hard to distinguish the difference.
“It was a transformative experience,” says Ms. Baechler, who was, like other members of the group, making her first trip to Turkey, a NATO partner which straddles both Europe and Asia. With a population of 77 million, the majority of whom today are Muslim, Turkey has a long and colourful history as an important crossroads of religious, academic and business achievement.
Ms. Baechler’s strongest impression of the country, though, is the “intimacy of neighbourhoods, something we’ve lost in London.”
Whether by good planning or happenstance, Turkey’s densely populated urban areas are more open and connected than the Canadian norm, with small public parks, rather than backyards, as gathering places.
“The homes are very modest, comfortable, friendly and warm,” Ms. Baechler says. “The emphasis is on family. It’s very communal — people are outside, even at night.”
What’s missing are large shopping centres packed with national or international retailers. “Everything is very local, especially the food,” she says. “People really know and support their neighbourhood merchants. It’s not the model we have. There are no big box outlets. I’m not against shopping centres — competition is all fine and well — but we do have to realize what we are losing.”
During her 11 years on city council, Ms. Baechler has earned a reputation for her strong views about people-oriented urban planning that often clash with what developers want. While head of city council’s planning committee during a lengthy revision of London’s Official Plan, she and several committee colleagues were labelled the Killer B’s — a slam she decries as unfair, although she still finds the label amusing. More recently she has locked horns with the mayor over his views of growth at any cost.
In Turkey she found encouraging support for her views in the Civic Duty Movement and the teachings of Mr. Gülen, described as one of the most serious and important Muslim thinkers of the 20th century.
“To start with, civic development needs to proceed from a clear set of values and a strong sense of community,” Ms. Baechler says. “We don’t seem to have that in London. The result would be we would plan differently. We would provide stronger support for local business, we would protect our history and heritage, (and) we would have more emphasis on public transit.”
And almost wistfully she adds: “We don’t have that model here. It’s different over there.”
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com.