It takes all sorts to make a good city. In the case of Toronto and a great many other cities, some of the contributors are obvious: architects, builders, planners, officials, and committed citizens. That is not an exhaustive list, but discussion tends to focus on the readily identifiable contributors to the urban milieu—people who have their names on things.

City Hall, image by UrbanToronto Flickr contributor ashtontekno

There is more to a good city, however, than, that which can easily be quantified. At its Urban Leadership Awards ceremony held last week at Toronto’s Great Hall, the Canadian Urban Institute sought to highlight some of the less discussed contributors to the urban milieu in Canada.

Agazi Afewerki, the co-founder of Youth Empowering Parents and recipient of the evening’s Next Generation Award, spoke about the challenges and linguistic barriers facing adult immigrants.

“Communities did not have enough money to provide fifteen ESL programs for all the different languages,” he said. “It wasn’t the mother helping the daughter with the homework; it was the other way around.”

Youth Empowering Parents systematized this ritual, which has long existed in immigrant households by using the children—who have an easier time adapting to a new language—as instructors. These linguistic skills help with access to community services that cannot otherwise be provided in every language conceivable.

Martha J. Shuttleworth, the founder of The Neptis Foundation and recipient of the evening’s David Crombie Award, took a similarly expansive attitude to the challenges facing the urban environment.

“It’s not only about the environment; how we socialize; our health; our spending; everything,” Shuttleworth, whose foundation is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, said. “I concluded it wasn’t the city that required our attention but the larger urban region”.

Neptis provides research and tools for organizations seeking to understand the role of regional planning in urban outcomes.

“Everyone had lots of opinions on what should be done,” she said, “but we were short on facts, research, data.”

Aga Khan Museum, image by Jack Landau

The Aga Khan Museum, which won the Urban Vitality Award, offers a more concrete contribution to the city—at least in a literal sense. Yet Henry Kim, the museum’s director, also stressed that it was as much of an ideas as a building.

“When people come into a museum they want to be uplifted; they want to get a sense of space, a sense that their whole spirit will be uplifted,” he said. “We’re not simply a museum that’s a showcase of wonderful objects; we’re a place where we want people to understand that for 1400 years Muslim society has been intertwined with world culture.”

In that respect, the theme of the Canadian Urban Institute’s gala was that community is about more than space; walls and infrastructure help in that regard, but the underlying human support structures also make an important contribution.

Ratna Omidvar, who won the evening’s Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award—brought to you, in one of life’s great brand synergy head-scratchers, by Airbnb—embodied the combination of these physical and intellectual contributions.

“When people migrate,” she said, “their first experience of exclusion or inclusion is at the local level.”

Omidvar made the case for more welcoming cities, but also for a greater awareness of the challenges residents currently face.

“Unless we back it up with sustained policies that move people out of poverty,” she said, “we run some risk of buying into our own mythology.”

Sakters at Nathan Phillips Square

Omdivar called for both individual and collective solutions to the problems cities face. In that way, she touched upon the evening’s key divide between change as a function of policy and change as a result of philanthropy.

“Hopefully we’re providing a bit of a model but the city also sees this as an important aspect in helping them with all their needs,” said the philanthropist Judy Matthews, who shared the City Builder Award with her husband, Wilmot. The city, she said, is “working on that infrastructure so they can receive philanthropy and they’ve already made a great first step by holding a philanthropic round table.”

None of these approaches will produce the perfect city on their own. Taken in conjunction, however, they offer a greater number of options for ameliorating the urban environment.