Autumn 2010 / Feature
What Toronto Needs

A real transit strategy, a solution to its financial troubles, better urban design – and mayoral candidates willing to discuss these things


Illustration by Hennie Haworth

It started early, and it started angry. While the real campaigning is only just beginning, Toronto’s raucous mayoral election (which will be decided on October 25) has been rolling across the city like a twister for months. In the spring, six front-running candidates emerged in the race to succeed David Miller, a two-term mayor whose popularity collapsed due to voter frustration over a lengthy garbage strike, budget overruns, tax hikes and a contentious light-rail transit program. One of the front-runners dropped out of the race in July, and the field will continue to narrow.

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Whatever else one may think of the city, Toronto’s municipal races are showstoppers; not just because of their length, but because the mayor is directly elected by more voters than any other public official in Canada. Toronto’s mayor then presides over a $9.2-billion bureaucracy that is larger than that of several provincial governments.

As of August, the campaign had already featured a sex scandal, a drug scandal, not-so-subtle interference from the provincial Liberals and four pricey subway expansion schemes advanced by candidates who position themselves as cost-cutters.

But are these politicians (two longtime city councillors, a former provincial cabinet minister, a Liberal fundraiser and a businesswoman) debating the issues that will genuinely affect the city’s future prosperity and its quality of life? Last fall, U of T’s Cities Centre, a multidisciplinary urban research unit founded in 2007, put this very question to a group of prominent urban thinkers, with an eye to framing the issues and providing solid, non-partisan policy research to both the candidates and the voters. Among the priorities they identified: transit planning, infrastructure financing, governance, urban design, economic development and sustainability in urban settings. Here, six of U of T’s top urbanists talk about the challenges facing Canada’s largest municipality.

Get a Move On

For all the rhetoric about improving transit and countering gridlock, Toronto hasn’t had a properly thought-out transportation strategy since the mid-1970s, observes Eric Miller, Cities Centre director and a professor of civil engineering. The consequence, he says, is a legacy of ad hoc planning that stretches from a 1970s scheme to build magnetic trains to David Miller’s Transit City strategy, which proposes several new light rail transit (LRT) lines. Comprehensive research is needed to assess Toronto’s long-term transit requirements, he adds. “No one at City Hall knows how many buses, LRTs and subways we need.” Professor Miller points to transportation systems in cities such as Berlin and Stockholm as examples of how Toronto should be linking various types of transit services to smart fare cards and land-use planning decisions. “This isn’t rocket science,” he says.

The spectacle of several candidates touting their own subway- building schemes isn’t helping because these various plans are just lines on a map; they’re not based on proper research. Three candidates – Women’s Post publisher Sarah Thomson, fundraiser Rocco Rossi and former Ontario health minister George Smitherman – are all promising specific subway projects, and have advanced various approaches to funding them, from road tolls to asset sales and public-private partnerships. A fourth candidate, fiscal conservative Rob Ford, also talks about building subways but hasn’t offered details about how he would pay for them.

While Miller agrees that it’s important that Torontonians debate transit expansion, he argues that the next mayor should move swiftly to commission a comprehensive transportation study with an eye to developing a meaningful long-term transit plan that connects land use, transportation patterns and the appropriate level of infrastructure investment.

He also wants the next mayor to find a way of making peace with Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto regional transit agency established by Queen’s Park to operate the GTA’s commuter rail service and oversee system expansion. “I would stop fighting with Metrolinx…because that’s how the provincial funding will come into the city,” he says. Lastly, Miller, like many other transportation experts, believes decision-makers have no choice but to consider new approaches to funding transit, including tolls and other forms of “road pricing.” “That’s a discussion we have to have.” The key, he says, is to understand the cost of inaction. “We’re very good at opposing things. What we don’t see are the costs of doing nothing.”

Power to the People

Since the 1998 amalgamation of the six municipalities in the former Metro Toronto, many residents have viewed their 44-member city council as unwieldy and inefficient. One candidate, Councillor Rob Ford, is looking to capitalize on that frustration by pledging to halve the size of council. Another, Councillor Joe Pantalone, wants City Hall to allow citizens to vote online at election time and to encourage public participation in council business through the web.

Ford’s solution is unlikely to occur unless imposed by provincial authorities. Even if he did succeed, fewer politicians won’t address the real problems with how Toronto is governed – poor voter turnout, the lack of turnover on council (incumbents are almost guaranteed re-election, barring major scandals) and little citizen involvement in public consultations such as pre-budget hearings. As a Cities Centre discussion paper notes, “Some citizens take advantage of what democratic access there is…But many people, if not most, simply accept or endure the result of policies influenced by the few who have mastered the city’s intricacies and who know which ‘buttons’ to push. This highlights a core challenge: how can citizen involvement in governing Toronto be improved?” “

It’s an extremely large, complex system,” says U of T political scientist Richard Stren, pointing to the city’s extensive network of agencies, boards, commissions, and advisory panels. Stren, the co-author of the Cities Centre discussion paper, notes that councillors have become preoccupied with technical land-use issues while larger questions about how the city is governed are often overlooked. “It’s hard for people to understand how this whole thing comes together.”

While the amalgamated City of Toronto has been operating for a dozen years, no one has set out to study how council actually makes decisions, although Stren says a number of themes have emerged. Individual councillors tend to focus on issues in their own ward and ignore the broader urban picture. Social agencies and community organizations often have difficulty working with the city, and many citizens know little about the city council committees that deal with matters in their neighbourhoods.

In Stren’s view, the opaque quality of council’s decisionmaking process is a factor in Toronto’s low voter turnout – just 39 per cent of 1.5 million eligible voters bothered to mark a ballot in 2006. This level, while not outside the norm for large North American cities, reinforces the lack of public participation in a kind of vicious cycle.

In an attempt to engage more residents, and especially younger people, Mayor Miller and some councillors have become increasingly adroit at using online social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with constituents. These tools offer a glimpse of how council can generate interest among voters in city issues and encourage more direct interaction between citizens and elected officials. Pantalone, a key ally of Mayor Miller, has picked up the call to give landed immigrants – there are about 200,000 in Toronto – the right to vote in municipal elections. Stren also lauds the efforts of the Better Ballots coalition to encourage greater public participation in city politics and bring new voices to council. Still, incumbents “are constantly re-elected,” says Stren, noting the parallels to the U.S. Congress, where there are no term limits. “Whoever is in is in unless they do something very egregious. This is a problem.”

Money Problems

Besides transit, Toronto’s dicey financial condition has emerged as a dominant campaign theme this year, with many critics focusing on one particularly vexing figure: the $450 million the city spends each year to service its accumulated debt. Rossi, a right-of-centre candidate, has pledged to privatize Toronto Hydro, retire the debt with the proceeds and use any leftover funds to finance subway construction. Sarah Thomson has pledged road tolls to finance her subway scheme. George Smitherman, in turn, is vowing to use public-private partnerships for his plans.

Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography, has been exploring alternatives to the traditional municipal financing model of issuing long-term debt. He argues that Toronto’s leaders should be looking closely at cities such as Madrid (which has one of the world’s fastest growing subway networks) and Vancouver for contemporary lessons in paying for big-ticket construction projects, such as rapid transit.

The long-standing problem with the usual approach, he says, has to do with the accumulated burden of construction-cost overruns, especially on subways. Another approach would be to have the private sector raise the capital for construction, oversee building the project and then run the line at a specified rate for a specified time. This way, the risk of any cost overrun is transferred to the private partner, who has the incentive to make the numbers work. “If they go over budget, the city still pays the same amount,” says Siemiatycki. This, he adds, is the theory. “In practice, the experience is somewhat mixed.”

Vancouver’s Canada Line, between downtown and Richmond, is a public-private partnership that came in on time and on budget, while a US$650-million monorail in Las Vegas built on the same model is now in bankruptcy protection. (The Canada Line, Siemiatycki notes, generated a lot of political controversy, while cost-saving construction methods led to traffic tie-ups on the planned route.)

Siemiatycki says public-private partnerships have emerged as one of several increasingly accepted financing tools in the U.S. and Europe, along with road congestion charges (in London, England), region-wide taxes on parking spaces and other user fees, such as the vehicle registration levy that Toronto enacted two years ago. Pointing to the defeat a few years ago of a parking levy system adopted in Greater Vancouver, Siemiatycki acknowledges that all of these methods come with political baggage. And of course, the viability of such solutions depends heavily on whether the projects they support capture the imagination of the public and are seen as plausible solutions to tenacious problems. “You can’t look at them as purely technical endeavours.”

Better by Design

Over the past several years, Toronto’s city council has approved a range of largely technical planning policies, including a new official plan, design review guidelines, a tall buildings strategy, the “tower renewal” plan for aging apartment buildings and various public space measures. Despite all these changes, the candidates vying to succeed David Miller haven’t paid much attention to urban design issues. In the meantime, development continues to defy council’s direction, as has been the case for years.

The Ontario Municipal Board’s role in trumping municipal planning policies has long hobbled the city’s ability to plan its own future. “In this city, like many other North American cities, the planning department has been undermined in its ability to plan proactively and strategically,” says Richard Sommer, the dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. “There is no goal.”

A longtime faculty member at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Sommer argues that Toronto “needs to conceive of a post–Jane Jacobs approach to urban design.” In many downtown circles, where strong ratepayer groups succeeded in blocking large projects – from highways to unwanted industrial development – that sentiment may amount to heresy. But in the years since Jacobs’ death in 2006, some planners have begun to critically re-examine her legacy, and specifically the NIMBYism it sanctioned. Sommer points out that big-picture planning has become “ideologically suspect” and Toronto’s system of extensive public consultation inadvertently provokes a kind of political gridlock. Despite the fact that the region grows by about 100,000 people a year, many Toronto neighbourhoods have densities that are too low to sustain rapid transit. But residents actively resist the sort of intensification required to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions.

Cities such as Tokyo, Vancouver and Chicago, he notes, are taking a more holistic view of planning by integrating architecture, landscape, transportation planning and governance into the formulation of forward-looking urban design. Sommer also argues council needs to do much more to promote an environmentally sustainable vision of urban development on a city-wide level.

A large part of the task is finding ways to better engage Torontonians in the project of modern city-building, which, he says, won’t occur if the city continues to stress the vague goal of intensification. In Barcelona, Sommer notes, architects and planners enjoy positions of authority with the city government, and have directly influenced the transformation of an industrial waterfront. “We have the right to ask, ‘why can’t Toronto do better?’ This is the question for the next mayor.”

Green Fleets to Green Roofs

While one of the candidates (George Smitherman) was a provincial energy minister who favoured investment in wind and solar power, sustainability has received scant attention in the campaign. It’s a curious omission given that David Miller invested plenty of political capital in pushing his “Live Green” agenda, which encouraged residents and the municipality to adopt environmental measures ranging from green vehicle fleets to green roofs to grants to make homes and workplaces more energy efficient.

As Ingrid Stefanovic, a philosophy professor and the founding director of U of T’s Centre for Environment, points out in a new discussion paper, “Many of these initiatives have been developed relatively recently and, consequently, may be vulnerable in light of the city’s current and projected fiscal constraints.”

Stefanovic points to three basic principles that should be animating debate about the city’s approach to sustainability: ensuring that the environment is part and parcel of all decision- making about municipal operations; incorporating a culture of sustainability into all areas of policy development; and moving beyond the economy-vs.-environment debate about advancing a green agenda. “I don’t see that there’s been a serious initiative to have the corporate sector buy in to the city’s environmental message.”

In recent years, Stefanovic and her colleagues have been running increasingly popular workshops for executives on financing environmental programs and offsetting carbon emissions. She argues that the next mayor and council should push Toronto businesses to make their own operations more sustainable, for example with better recycling programs or renovations to improve energy efficiency. But Stefanovic also wants the city to encourage the evolution of a green business cluster as part of the city’s long-term economic development strategy.

Indeed, Stefanovic says the city and non-government partners should begin seriously investigating the establishment of an incubator for scientists, venture capitalist and eco-entrepreneurs, modelled on the MaRS Centre – an idea that has floated around the centre for a couple of years. “There is an opportunity there and it has to be taken up by the next mayor,” says Stefanovic.

Attracting Global Talent

Last spring, candidate Rocco Rossi pledged to establish a GTA-wide economic development agency – a long overdue but politically implausible move that underscores one of the lingering perversities of Toronto politics. While the City of Toronto sits at the heart of a highly integrated economic region and functions as its financial and cultural heart, Greater Toronto’s rival municipalities have never been able to mount a concerted effort to promote international investment in the region.

One of the major challenges for the new mayor, says Patricia McCarney, director of the Global Cities Program at the Munk School of Global Affairs, “is to really think about Toronto and the Greater Toronto region as a globalized urban region…. We are one of the most vital and active economies in the world, but we don’t think of ourselves that way.” She reckons that building a GTA-wide economic development strategy should be one of the next mayor’s top three priorities.

Armed with funding from the World Bank, McCarney and her team have spent the last few years building a robust database of city indicators that allow ambitious, growthminded urban leaders to see how their regions measure up. With more than 110 cities now participating, the centre has become the pre-eminent source of data on cities globally, says McCarney.

As she’s assembled the list, a process that requires extensive travel, McCarney has observed how other dynamic city-regions have tackled the problem of building effective, outward-looking economic development programs that don’t get bogged down in parochial bickering. She recounts a recent encounter with a senior executive of a global company looking to locate a new plant. When the executive sought information on Toronto, he was thwarted in his attempt to get authoritative information on the entire region. “It’s like an alphabet soup out there,” the person said, referring to the tangle of acronyms for the different agencies from the Greater Toronto Area.

With the global economy still fragile but poised to enter a new period of growth, McCarney says the region desperately needs to establish “a war cabinet,” with participation from all three levels of government, to develop the sort of one-voiceone- window programs that exist in other dynamic city-regions. “This is the moment,” she says. “Everyone is getting further ahead of us on this.”

Journalist and author John Lorinc (BSc 1987 UC) writes about urban affairs for the Globe and Mail and Spacing Magazine.


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