Dave Meslin built a movement out of the Toronto Public Space Committee — now he’s ready for the group to outgrow him.

The November meeting of the Toronto Public Space Committee (TPSC) at Metro Hall looks a bit like a group therapy session: coordinator Dave Meslin invites the 40 or so attendees to sit in a broad circle and introduce themselves by first name (there are two Alisons and two Erins) and describe what they dressed up as for Halloween. The icebreaker is a homey touch, like the break for juice and peanut-free cookies at the meeting’s halfway point, highlighting the fun, casual approach to politics that is the TPSC’s hallmark.

Alison Gorbould continues to work on her knitting as she addresses the group. She gets a round of applause when she reports that the group has defeated proposals for several new billboards (“one of them was the size of 88 bus shelter ads”), and again when she shows off the Clean and Beautiful City Award the TPSC recently received. Their approach may be laid-back, but clearly the TPSC is doing more here than just chatting.

Since its inception in 2000, the Toronto Public Space Committee has transformed public debate in this city, galvanizing those who are uncomfortable with the rising presence of commercial advertising in the streets and those who feel that the city should pay more attention to making our urban common areas beautiful. It’s done so through consistently creative campaigns, such as Guerrilla Gardening, in which members go out and plant flowers in neglected public spaces, and the Downtown De-fence Project, which removes chain-link fences from residential properties at the residents’ request, free of charge. In the process, the TPSC has managed to make politics seem fun.

This meeting, its most well-attended yet, finds the TPSC at a crossroads. They wield ever-more sway at City Hall, recognized as leaders of the urban-renaissance movement that’s being celebrated with the launch of the book uTOpia this weekend. (Meslin has a contribution in the book. See the story at right for more on uTOpia.) They have an email list of 1,100 people ready for mobilization (a list that’s growing by about 100 names per month). They have a raft of new faces taking leading roles within the organization.

And perhaps most notably, Meslin, 31, is telling people that he wants to quit the group he founded. He’s ready to retire from activism, he says — or at least take an extended break — and much of his work in the TPSC over the past six months has been preparation for his eventual torch-passing. This is no small thing. For much of its history, Dave Meslin has been the Toronto Public Space Committee.

As he eats a brownie in the café at City Hall, Meslin recounts the history of the TPSC. Graduating high school, Meslin was running a successful t-shirt business from a factory in East York.

As he got involved in the then-prevalent culture-jamming scene, however, “I realized that … building a t-shirt empire wasn’t the best use of my skills.”

In 1998, as he wound down his business, Meslin organized the first Toronto Reclaim the Streets event. He wanted to find a way to make the spirit of the event more than just a day-long celebration.

He started sending out the Toronto Public Space Committee newsletter in 2000. For a full year, the newsletter was the entirety of the group’s activity, and membership was limited. “It was just me,” Meslin says. “I was the committee.” Still, he soon became the media spokesperson on a whole range of subjects.

“Every public institution has a natural advocate that can speak on behalf of it, except public space. If there’s any threat to education, then teachers, students and parents are the natural advocates. If they try to privatize the hospital, then you’ve got nurses, doctors and patients. But if they try to privatize the streets, there’s no union, there’s no organized group of stakeholders.”

Meslin’s first battle — and first victory — was to defeat a proposal that would have seen a video billboard mounted on the Bloor Viaduct over the Don Valley Parkway.

As the success of that campaign sunk in, the city proposed a bylaw banning posters from hydro poles. He launched http://www.publicspace.ca in response.

It was in the fight against the postering bylaw that the TPSC really gained its legs. Meslin started holding public meetings and mobilized dozens of volunteers to poster the city with ads denouncing the bylaw. Over 1,000 people signed a petition. The bylaw was shelved.

The TPSC had become an actual, functioning committee, with 11 board members who steered policy and a roster of about 30 active volunteers. Then they decided to publish a magazine.

Nearly all the active members of the TPSC worked on and contributed to Spacing magazine when it launched in December 2003, an instant success that gained attention inside City Hall and outside of it. But after the second issue, the magazine split off to become a separate entity, less activist-oriented than the TPSC and able to function with a measure of objectivity. Meslin was proud to see it go. “The best thing any group can achieve is a spinoff project that takes on a life of its own,” he says.

However, Spacing took almost the entire core of organizers and volunteers with it. Once again, Meslin was essentially a one-man committee.

He organized a fundraiser in early 2005 to regroup. Headlined by Sarah Harmer, the benefit sold out the Bloor Cinema and raised enough money that Meslin has been able to pay himself minimum wage to
coordinate the TPSC’s efforts in the months since.

He started the email list over from scratch, once again began holding public meetings and, most of all, worked to attract a core of volunteers who would take on responsibility for running the group’s activities, clearing the way for his eventual retirement.

Erin Wood showed up to a meeting about Guerrilla Gardening in February with no background as an activist and no particular interest in becoming one. Now she’s coordinating the TPSC’s gardening activities and is also helping run the Human River project, a series of walks along Toronto’s buried rivers.

Lindsay Kelly, who baked the cookies for the meeting, got involved after attending the benefit concert, and has since taken on coordinating roles in the gardening campaign and the Streets Are Alive film series that the TPSC has been running at the Bloor Cinema. Joseph Clement took on the job of coordinating the De-fence project after attending only one meeting.

Gorbould has taken on the campaign that fights billboards by opposing variances and also spearheads the fight against the new, giant garbage cans adorned with advertisements that have appeared on Toronto streets in the past few months. She also fielded media calls when Meslin was on vacation. Having been a member of the group for only 10 months, she says she’s wary of being viewed as Meslin’s heir apparent (or “sub-Mez,” as she puts it).

“When Mez announced that he was hoping to disengage himself somewhat, people came to me and said, ‘So what are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘That’s not how it’s going to work,'” Gorbould says. “We’ve got so many really amazing people who have all this energy and who want to apply it and I think it’s just a matter of taking the time to find out what people want to be doing and saying, ‘Well, go do it.'”

This neatly echoes Meslin’s thoughts about why the TPSC has been so successful at mobilizing people: they can see the real results of their action almost immediately — a defeated bylaw, a fence removed, a variance declined, a garden planted.

“The trick to any successful social movement is to create a place where people can invest time and energy and feel like what they’re doing matters,” Meslin says. “And I think that’s what we’ve done.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly November 17, 2005.