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City of Ideas

Imagining Toronto's future

Like so many residents in this city of immigrants, I consider myself an accidental Torontonian. In 1956, my parents fled Budapest after the Hungarian Revolution, arriving as refugees in Vienna with only the coats on their backs. It was bitterly cold that November, and there were huge lineups outside the American Embassy. Word went around that the Canadian Embassy was less crowded and even had a foyer inside, where refugee claimants could wait. My parents knew almost nothing of Canada, but they had heard of Montreal, and the map in the embassy showed a river running through the city. They loved kayaking on the Danube and, knowing nothing about the force and breadth of the St. Lawrence, figured they could continue the pastime if they settled in Montreal.

In December, my parents boarded a twin-prop plane and flew out of Vienna. As they approached Montreal, the pilot announced the fog was too thick for the plane to land. The flight continued on to Toronto. Having serendipitously landed in this aloof provincial town, my parents simply stayed.

I sometimes try to reconcile the arbitrariness of my parents’ exodus with my deep affection for this city, which has been my home for all but one year of my life. My parents certainly did not like Toronto initially: in contrast with cosmopolitan Budapest, this city was a joyless place of rules, churches and railways. Xenophobia was never far from the surface. Yet, over time, Toronto’s tight-lipped puritanism gave way to a lively urbanity, fuelled by international commerce, culture and immigrants demanding espresso.

Growing up in North Toronto in the 1970s, I came to associate city living with the mystical enveloping world of the ravines, the early freedom afforded by subways and the electric hum of life along Yonge Street. Sometimes, on her shopping days, my mother dragged my sister and me down to the pungent stalls in Kensington Market to buy yellow peppers from a loquacious Hungarian named Zimmerman, who also sold luggage. My father sometimes took me to Hart House gym (then still all-male), where he ran laps while I bounced on the huge trampoline in the middle of the track. On Saturdays, as a family, we often strolled all the way downtown, the journey ending at one of the schnitzel-and-pastry joints in Yorkville or the Annex.

Though Toronto is not a beautiful city, nor an especially friendly one, I came to think of it as a metropolis that invited exploration. While attending the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, I had a summer job driving a beaten-up delivery truck, which gave me the opportunity to wander farther afield, past suburban strip malls with exotic immigrant shops and through gritty industrial precincts. Twenty years later, I still stumble across places I never knew about. Recently, I found myself on an unfamiliar stretch of Kingston Road, staring up in awe at something I had never seen before: a forbidding, high-domed seminary situated dramatically near the lakeshore. It is as if Toronto is continually revealing itself – the dance of the seven veils, as performed by a Scot.

It’s fair to say that Toronto is an acquired taste, yet many residents express deep fidelity to its neighbourhoods, its amenities, its safety and its tolerance. Lately, however, the city has grown dirtier and, in some ways, less welcoming. Homelessness is endemic, and the grounds of City Hall have become a kind of shelter of last resort. Traffic congestion is turning Toronto into a Los Angeles of the north, and the resulting smog has caused a spike in childhood asthma. Residents in affluent parts of the city complain about overdevelopment, while those in some poorer areas have grown fearful of drug crime.

In 2001, Meric Gertler, Goldring Chair in Canadian Studies and a professor of geography and planning at U of T, laid out a compelling case for a total reconsideration of the role cities play in public policy. In a report to the federal government, he argued that Canada’s national prosperity, and its transition to a knowledge-intensive high-wage economy, depended heavily on the quality of life of urban centres. “In this light,” he wrote, “all of the great social policy questions of the day – education, health, poverty, housing and immigration – become urban policy questions.”

The university has long been an integral part of Toronto, but it is taking on an increasingly crucial city-building role. Bruce Kidd, the dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, is working to forge connections between civic policy-makers and university researchers in fields such as recreational programming, health promotion and community safety. Others in the university are pursuing similar connections in housing, the environment and transportation. As Kidd puts it, “The strength of the university and the strength of the city are one and the same.”

In other words, they each need the other to succeed.

Community Safety
Tension between law enforcement officials and teens or recent immigrants isn’t a new feature of Toronto’s social landscape. In the 1950s, when my parents came to Canada, the police often singled out Italian kids for harsh treatment. Even the thousands of Hungarians who fled in 1956 attracted the suspicion of the RCMP, then searching for Communist spies. (My father was interviewed shortly after arriving in Canada.)

In many respects, those dynamics haven’t changed all that much. What is sharply different today is the addition of illegal firearms and gangs to the mix. During and after last year’s municipal election, Torontonians found themselves bombarded by media reports of a sharp escalation in illegal guns and gang activities, especially in suburban areas that lack community centres, jobs and social service agencies. In March, Mayor David Miller (LLB 1984) set up the Community Safety Panel to develop policies intended to prevent youth crime. The panel is chaired by Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry (BA 1954 Trinity College), a longtime advocate for sports and race relations programs.

Soon after Justice McMurtry began his deliberations, the university hosted a conference to draw out the latest research on issues such as the extent and seriousness of gang activity, the benefits of organized recreational activities, and the case for prevention programs. It also appointed Rona Abramovitch, a developmental psychologist and the director of the Transitional Year Programme, to oversee a wholesale reorganization of the university’s extensive community outreach programs, which engage thousands of U of T students in volunteer work at social agencies across the city.

The research presented at the conference, held last June at the Scarborough campus, points the way toward a focused strategy. But, as U of T criminologist Anthony Doob observed, “The most difficult challenge for a community that is interested in reducing crime is to determine what not to do.”

Keeping kids in school is going to be a cornerstone of Miller’s strategy. Dropouts and detained youth are four to five times as likely to carry weapons as kids who stay in school and are also more likely to deal drugs and be victimized, according to surveys conducted by Patricia Erickson, a U of T sociology professor, and Jennifer Butters, a researcher with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Rather than expelling troubled kids, policy-makers need to find ways to keep them in school, where they stand a chance of gaining the kinds of educational and occupational skills that will point them away from addiction, gangs, chronic unemployment and run-ins with the justice system.

Other experts presented data suggesting that law enforcement officials and educators need to avoid jumping to conclusions when they become aware of cliques of teens. An extensive 1998-2000 survey of Toronto teens conducted by criminology professor Scot Wortley and sociology professor Julian Tanner shows that about 10 per cent of kids in high school will align themselves with a gang-like social group. But the results suggest that a great deal of “gang” activity involves social rather than criminal behaviour. “Clearly, many youth who identify themselves as ‘gang members’ are not overly involved in deviant or criminal activities,” the study says. What’s more, contrary to media stereotypes, Wortley and Tanner found that white teens are “still the most prevalent racial group within Toronto’s gang community.” Indeed, recent immigrant children are considerably less likely to be involved in gang activity than other teens. This study refutes media messages that strongly insinuate the city’s gang problem primarily concerns black youth.

Miller and his supporters have been very clear about focusing solutions for youth crime on improving job opportunities in the suburbs, enhancing literacy (an overwhelming number of inmates in youth detention centres have severe reading difficulties) and rebuilding Toronto’s recreational programming in order to provide kids with constructive alternatives to gang activity. But Professor Peter Donnelly, of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health and the director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies, offered a warning for the Community Safety Panel as it develops its game plan. While few question the benefit of structured recreation, research from the U.S. shows that the provision of short-term recreation, job and community programs will do little to alleviate youth crime in a sustainable way. Indeed, such programs succeed only when the kids participating in them also have a sense of personal safety, empowerment, social connection and hope for the future. If those needs are not met by structured programs, Donnelly observes, “they may be met by participation as a member of a clique, crew or gang.”

“We learned from this research that some of the well-known North American inventions, such as zero tolerance and midnight basketball, are highly problematic,” observes Kidd, one of the conference organizers. He notes that “short-term, politically motivated interventions with a lot of publicity provide an appearance of assistance but actually denigrate the very youth they claim to serve.”

The message: if Mayor Miller and Justice McMurtry are really committed to improving the lot of at-risk kids, they’ll need to rebuild literacy and job-training initiatives, as well as local sports programs. But they must also persuade the upper levels of government to come up with targeted and large-scale investments that reduce urban economic disparity (a key determinant of community safety) and provide decent, safe and affordable housing to the half of the city’s residents who currently live in rental accommodations.

My parents were part of an influx of immigrants and refugees who began to pour into Toronto in the 1950s. Within several years, the vast majority of these new Canadians were able to find affordable accommodation in apartments and subdivisions going up all around the city. My parents moved, relatively effortlessly, from a refugee hostel to shared student-type housing to a newly built highrise in the Annex and, finally, to a single-family home in North Toronto – all in the span of just nine years.

But the immigrant housing story doesn’t work that smoothly anymore. It’s often said that Toronto has extraordinarily well-educated cab drivers – immigrants with professional credentials who cannot find work in their own fields. With real-estate prices high and still rising, many have no choice but to move into overcrowded low-rent developments and stay there.

The economic odds are stacked against big-city renters. Professor David Hulchanski, director of U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies, points out that about 40 per cent of all Canada’s renters live in the high-cost housing markets of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Soaring house prices may be good for homeowners, Hulchanski observes, but they make it difficult, if not impossible, for renters to accumulate the money they need for a down payment. The result for many, he says, is “lifelong impoverishment.”

Hulchanski has long been at the forefront of the campaign to put affordable housing back on Canada’s political agenda. Earlier this year, he co-chaired a four-day international conference, Adequate and Affordable Housing for All, which attracted 350 delegates from around the world. Among those attending were 25 Toronto-area housing experts, as well as the head of Toronto’s public housing corporation and Mayor Miller, who has vowed to kick-start investment in affordable housing for low-income Torontonians.

But Miller won’t be able to do it alone. In Housing Policy for Tomorrow’s Cities, a major study released in 2002 by the Canadian Policy Research Network, Hulchanski recommended five distinct types of programs to meet the needs of the urban poor, the homeless and people in need of supportive housing, particularly in a city like Toronto. He called for $1 billion in annual capital funding to build about 20,000 to 25,000 new social housing units each year. Hulchanski also proposed $500 million a year in rent supplements to help low-income tenants pay their rent; $125 million a year for 10,000 new supportive housing units for those with special needs; another $125 million a year to boost an existing federal program to rehabilitate apartment buildings; and, lastly, $250 million a year for emergency relief for chronically homeless individuals and families. Such policies, Hulchanski stated, “are aimed at ensuring that progress is made toward everyone having access to a good-quality affordable place to live – the creation of a housing system that includes all Canadians.”

Environment and Urban Sprawl
One of the Old World habits my parents imported to Canada was a love of hiking, which they indulged in the hills around the Danube outside Budapest. My sister and I grew up being taken for hikes along the (then) newly established Bruce Trail. Today, my wife and I take our two sons on the Bruce Trail, but it is a different experience than it was in the 1970s. Much of the southern portion of the trail functions as a fragile bulwark against the rapidly encroaching urbanization of the Greater Toronto Area. In some places, the route skirts monster-home subdivisions and gravel quarries, and traverses four-lane highways that were side roads not long ago.

The Bruce Trail tells a sobering story about the perilous state of the environment in and around the GTA. As the fifth-largest urban region in North America, Greater Toronto’s supercharged economic engine has begun to create world-class environmental problems. With the continued boom in sales of minivans and SUVs, coupled with declining transit use and urban sprawl, the air is growing increasingly noxious, resulting in as many as 1,700 premature deaths and 6,000 hospitalizations annually, according to recent epidemiological estimates by Toronto Public Health.

Environmental and urban affairs experts at U of T have become increasingly engaged in the task of understanding the extent of the problem and advising governments on how to tackle these highly complex issues, from termite infestation to waste management to air quality. Greg Evans, a professor in chemical engineering, is currently setting up the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research at U of T. Evans’ project will take a multidisciplinary approach to studying the health and environmental consequences of the deteriorating air quality in the Greater Toronto region.

Beth Savan, a professor in Innis College’s environmental studies program, has long been at the forefront of this effort. She was a member of the City of Toronto’s environmental task force, which produced the municipality’s long-range environmental plan in 2000. The plan had 66 recommendations, ranging from tree planting to pesticide use to waste diversion.

However, Savan may be best known for her involvement with an innovative $750,000 project designed to link the city and Toronto Public Health with U of T, York University and influential environmental organizations such as the Toronto Environmental Alliance. To date, the Sustainable Toronto project has provided funding for 10 local initiatives, including one to foster urban agriculture co-ops and another to develop right-to-know legislation regarding the disclosure of contaminants. Savan and University Professor Emeritus Ursula Franklin were also part of a group that launched Citizens’ Environment Watch, which monitors air and water quality in Toronto and other parts of the province.

Such efforts are ultimately focused on reducing the amount of pollutants released into the city’s environment. But Professor Ingrid Stefanovic, the director of U of T’s Division of the Environment and the chair of this past summer’s The Natural City conference, offers another perspective on these issues. She’s interested in recasting the planning process to focus less on bureaucratic control and more on human experience, all with an eye to creating healthier urban spaces.

In 2002, working on a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Stefanovic observed the reactions of people who travelled by foot and bicycle along Lake Ontario’s Waterfront Trail, which extends from Brockville to Niagara-on-the-Lake. As an environmental philosopher who specializes in phenomenology, she was curious about exploring the “sense of place,” and proposed recommendations on improving the trail based on her findings. One result – not surprising to devotees of Toronto’s ravines – was that trail users demonstrated “a real love of untamed spaces. The City of Toronto planners found that really interesting.”

Stefanovic’s observation raises interesting questions about the future development of Toronto’s Portlands, which has many untamed waterfront spaces that could be wiped out with the stroke of a planner’s pen. “Knowing when to stand back, when it’s appropriate to leave room for the unmanaged, the uncontrolled – that’s an art.” Urban planners and decision-makers, in her view, need to absorb the feel of “moving through an environment,” capturing the smells and sounds of the lake and its shoreline. Such knowledge cannot be gained simply from maps, planning diagrams, development proposals, or even public meetings held in rooms in the name of consultation. “What I’m arguing for is trying to understand the nature of the human experience so you can have a better sense that what you’re putting in place encourages the kind of behaviour we’re going to value.”

As it happened, during last year’s election, Stefanovic had an opportunity to propose these ideas to then-candidate David Miller. He agreed with the importance of allowing “wild unmanicured spaces” along the waterfront, as she recalls. “He was really in support of this idea. It’s not such a hard sell. And I found that really encouraging.”

When my parents arrived in Toronto late in 1956, the Yonge Street subway line was not yet three years old, a streetcar trundled along the Danforth, and Highway 401, regarded then as a northern bypass, had just opened. Over the next 20 years, the province and the Metro government invested heavily in transportation infrastructure.

A generation later, however, gridlock in Greater Toronto has become a 24-7 problem. Car-dependent suburbs have proliferated, the government has invested inadequately in new transit, and planners have failed to encourage higher density developments along existing subway and commuter rail routes.

Richard Soberman, a transportation consultant and professor emeritus of civil engineering at U of T, has advised both the city and GO on transit planning for several years. He keeps a photo in his office showing a GO train speeding along an overpass over six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Don Valley Parkway below. As Soberman has repeatedly told city planners, the solution to easing gridlock isn’t building more highways, but reducing car dependence.

Soberman, currently on the board of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, has long advocated a multi-pronged approach to urban transit: targeting investment in new subway and rail service, yes, but also making existing roads and transit operations more effective. To keep traffic flowing downtown, for example, he has urged tougher policing of illegal rush-hour parking on major arterial routes and extending no-parking times on streetcar routes so these vehicles, carrying up to 90 commuters, don’t get stuck in bottlenecks. Soberman also suggests shoring up bus service throughout the GTA. Ottawa-Carleton’s dedicated bus lanes, he points out, can accommodate 200 buses per hour and pump thousands of commuters into the capital’s downtown quickly and efficiently. He thinks Toronto buses could also operate along innovative routes, such as the Finch Avenue hydro corridor that runs along the northern boundary of the city.

Such ideas require investment married to political will. Miller, a vigorous advocate of public transit, is an outspoken proponent of the TTC’s 2003 Ridership Growth Strategy, which adopts one of Soberman’s key principles: make the maximum use of the existing service before undertaking large-scale expansion. Both the provincial Liberals and the federal government are now committed to providing increased, stable funding for urban transit through a transfer of part of the gas excise tax, and the money will begin to flow this year. But the question looming over this new revenue is how the money will be spent, and by whom.

Soberman and some Toronto transit advocates have long argued that the capital should be invested in areas where transit is well used in order to maintain the infrastructure and make existing service more efficient. The province has followed Soberman’s advice by making large-scale investments in improving GO Transit. But suburban politicians, concerned about the alarming rise in traffic congestion in their low-density ridings, are eager to build transit mega-projects, such as dedicated bus lanes, light-rail rapid transit service and an extension of the Spadina subway through York University and up into Vaughan. The stage is now set for a political battle over how this new generation of transit funding should be deployed.

Last summer, my sons – Jacob, who’s eight, and Sammy, who’s five – attended U of T’s summer camp. Each afternoon, I picked them up and we took the subway home. They’re both veteran transit riders, but they still get a toddler’s thrill from the underground trains.

I suppose one could say they are “intentional” Torontonians. They were born here, and, in all likelihood, they will grow up here. They attend a rambling 90-year-old public school on a hill overlooking the downtown, take trips to see the dusty dinosaurs at the Royal Ontario Museum, and play house-league hockey at the Bill Bolton, a cozy arena in the Annex not far from where my parents used to rent an apartment. Sammy and Jacob may even go to U of T someday. My wife and I wonder whether they’ll live here when they reach adulthood.

A few years ago, respected Toronto planner Joe Berridge predicted that without renewed investment and innovative, forward-looking urban policies, many of the next generation would abandon the city in search of a better quality of life. At the time he wrote those words, governments at all levels had turned their backs on Toronto. Now, if politicians deliver their promised “new deal” for Canadian cities, my sons, like thousands of other young Torontonians, may choose to stay. Their future decisions will be determined by the choices our leaders make today.

John Lorinc (BSc 1987) is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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