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Summerlicious and the Resilience of Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Cafe PleiadeAnyone who’s ever been knocked down knows that getting back up can be hard. The 10th Anniversary of Toronto’s ‘Summerlicious’ festival last weekend is a great example of how a city picked itself up after a solid blow.  

During Summerlicious (and its seasonal twin, ‘Winterlicious’), restaurants offer two weeks of enticing prix fixe lunches and dinners.  The festival, which originally started with 35 high-end restaurants, had more than 180 restaurants participating this year. The restaurant special helped the city recover from the precipitous drop in tourism when Toronto was hit by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in April 2003.

In response to the uncertainty associated with the pandemic on April 23, 2003 the World Health Organization (WHO) advised against all but essential travel to Toronto.  In addition to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and cities in Mainland China, Toronto (with its extensive international connectivity) was particularly hard-hit by SARS.  Most of Canada’s 251 known cases of SARS and 41 associated deaths were in Toronto.  The WHO warning was lifted just a week later but by then people were staying away from Toronto in droves.  Hotel occupancies were more than halved.  In addition to the fear and loss of lives, Toronto’s economy took a major hit.

SARS was eventually traced to Guangdong, China where it was believed to have jumped the xenographic (species-to-species) barrier; as a result 10,000 palm civets (small cat-like mammals) were destroyed.  Globally SARS led to 775 deaths, which was much less severe than the original worse-case scenarios predicted.  But SARS was a good test for our capacity to predict and react to pandemics in today’s highly connected world.  And it tested our capacity to pick ourselves up when tragedy strikes.

With a little help from its friends the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, Toronto also had one of North America’s largest-ever concerts announcing Toronto ‘open for business’ post SARS. 450,000 people came out on July 30 for ‘SARStock’.

Our interconnected cities are fragile and, every now and then, they will take a hit.  Pandemics, random shootings, earthquakes, and general strife and mayhem, are unpredictable, which is all the more reason they require robust emergency preparedness.  Because emotions run high shortly after these events, their causes, prevention and response need to be discussed before and after the fact.

Summer- and Winterlicious are now fixtures of Toronto’s entertainment scene; it’s still extremely difficult to get into the most popular restaurants.  The event is a good reminder of the fragility of our cities, and the impact a smart response can provide. 

The measure of a city’s resilience is mostly a function of the strength and civility of its citizens.  And having a great three-course meal for $25 and ‘a little help from our friends’ during those unplanned yet certain urban events certainly won’t hurt.