Fr. di Cicco's urban humanization

By 
  • June 19, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Fr. Pier Giorgio di Cicco wants everybody to get out of the house and play. He swears it will be good for us.

The “play” he’s talking about is the ordinary creativity of living with neighbours, friends, family — even strangers. It is a form of creativity which creates “civil encounter,” he said.
“Civil encounter equals incarnationalism. If you believe that God speaks to people, that God became man, that equals civil encounter,” explains Toronto’s poet laureate. “Without civil encounter you have no community, because you have no communion of bodies.”

Di Cicco doesn’t think the combination of creativity, civil encounter and incarnationalism is just a good sermon. He thinks this combination is essential to building a livable, workable, human city. To get that message out, di Cicco has launched a consulting business aimed at architects, planners, municipal politicians, developers, financiers, anyone engaged in city building.

The Municipal Mind consultancy (www.municipalmind.com) carries  on the work of di Cicco’s 2007 book of the same name. Working with Carolyn Taylor and BMI-Pace Architects, his aim is to humanize the urban by getting people to think beyond design. From condo buildings to parks, the design process must take into account how communities and individuals inhabit shared space.

Di Cicco is nervous about people misinterpreting what he’s doing as some sort of money-spinning enterprise or side job to his real duties as a priest of the archdiocese of Toronto.

“It’s a continuation of what I have been doing — spreading Gospel values by any means, intelligence, strategy or leverage that I have,” he said.

As someone who thinks and writes on the social infrastructure of cities, di Cicco has been consulted by the federal and Ontario governments, he was a lead author of the Creative Cities report, is curator of the Toronto Museum Project and Global Centre for Cities and has spoken to conferences on sustainability and to gatherings of civil servants and urban planners. He’s delivered his message about what makes a city to audiences from Guelph to Tehran. He doesn’t spout theology lessons from the lectern at symposia and conferences, but neither does he hide his priestly identity.

Religious thought and religious thinkers are needed in discussions about how we keep multicultural, urban, post-modern societies working, said Fr. Damian MacPherson, president of the Toronto Area Interfaith Council.

“Religion in general belongs in the very market place of life. The less religion is present the less ultimate meaning is had.”

The year-and-a-half old council backs di Cicco’s efforts to infiltrate the secular world with religious values. TAIC’s collection of religious leaders also seeks to bring the values of all of Toronto’s religious communities to the table in conversations about how the city can work better.

Following a breakfast with Toronto Mayor David Miller and city councillors in May to discuss gun violence, TAIC received a request for a meeting with Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair.

“There is an awareness that religion cannot simply be set aside, that it must in some way be integrated into the ethos of the secular,” said MacPherson.

Di Cicco tries to get urban planners and politicians thinking about cities and communities on a deeper level than efficient and esthetically pleasing streetscapes.

“The problem of paucity of civil encounter is the great precipice danger of architecture and design,” he said.

Getting designers to think about how and where people will meet, and what might happen when they do meet, is di Cicco’s calling as an “urban evangelist.”

“There are strategies we can come up with for civic communion,” he said. “Live in a condo? Organize an outing. Put up pictures in the common stairwell.”

As an outsider to the established world of urban planners and architects, di Cicco is trying to persuade members of the guild to unlearn some of their craft.

“Sometimes you have to design in a messy way. You have to leave things out. Sometimes you have to design so that in fact people will bump into each other.”

Di Cicco’s theories of civil encounter and urbanism may sound philosophical and abstract at first, but he’s most interested in practicalities — the concrete results of thinking about cities as the nexus of communion rather than the hub of wealth generation.

“There is an erosion of civil encounter everywhere,” he said. “It’s deteriorating. There’s not a lot we can do about a lot of those things, but in design, in community building and talking to business associations there are all kinds of strategies and levers to bring civil encounter, bring people together.”

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