Is Toronto Lost?

Has Toronto lost its way?  That's been the word on the street, and pretty much everywhere else, since Mayor Ford took office a little less than a year ago.

But as colourful as his first 11 months have been, it's a bit disingenuous to lay all the city's woes at his feet. In this month's issue of The Walrus, John Lorinc has written a detailed piece on the roots of T-dot's troubles. Beginning in the early 1970s, Lorinc tells a story of dysfunctional municipal/provincial relationships and “race-to-the-bottom” competitions between municipalities in the GTA. Above all, he argues, Toronto suffers from a culture of cheapness that has prevailed over municipal decisions for decades holding back necessary investments in transit, parks, urban design, and the public realm more generally. 

Cities are more than a patchwork of private property held together by some roads and sewer pipes. Neglect the common infrastructure of public services and spaces, and they begin to come apart at the seams. That, Lorinc argues, is the case for Toronto. It is an interesting article, and has some powerful lessons for anyone interested how we can build and sustain greener and more equitable cities. After reading it, I pulled together a few of my own thoughts about the city's trajectory.

Doing Things Differently
“Innovation” is one of those words that gets sprinkled like salt over just about any article on green cities these days. But over the past two decades, Toronto truly has come up with green projects that pushed well beyond what other cities were doing at the time.

I'm thinking of the Tower Renewal program, for example, that is tackling the decay of the city's many monolithic apartment complexes with a suite of retrofits to both the buildings themselves and the grounds around them. The Toronto Atmospheric Fund has helped deal with the financial disincentives to increasing the energy performance of rental properties – something that has long been a tough nut to crack (why invest money, if it's your tenants that are going to benefit?).  And the cooling system that uses water pumped from deep in Lake Ontario to reduce replace AC systems in downtown buildings.

Transit Trouble
But the interesting things going on in Toronto are more than offset by some significant roadblocks, notably in public transportation. Expanding public transit infrastructure and coordinating transportation and land use planning are two of the most powerful tools that cities have to bring down their carbon footprint. (On average about a third of urban emissions come from moving ourselves and our stuff around.) A good transit system also makes a city a safer, healthier, and more comfortable place to live. 

But they aren't easy things to pull off. In Toronto, Lorinc charts a discouraging history of four decades of plans made, then stalled, abandoned, and forgotten. Again and again promising strategies were scuttled by the inability to get provincial, municipal, and communities to work together on a coherent transit strategy.

Twice key provincial funds are pulled just as lengthy transit planning process are set to start laying tracks. Conflicting visions between different levels of government see available funds going into misguided experiments with new technologies. Metrolinx, the only agency in a position to coordinate transportation and land use planning in the GTA, is hamstrung by a lack of stable funding.  And, most recently, Transit City – an ambitious city-wide light-rail network that had both municipal and provincial support – was canned by Mayor Ford shortly after he took office.

Ford may be the period at the end of that sentence – but he's hardly the sole reason for Toronto's transit woes, or the overall decay of its public realm that Lorinc chronicles in some detail. At its core are two problems that extend well beyond Toronto – and beyond the inane pan-Canadian pastime of rooting against our biggest city.

The first is the temptation to forget that city-building is a collective project – and that to be successful we need to invest in the public good. That means transit, as much as it means affordable housing, parks, or social services.

The second is that the challenge of building thriving green cities is not a challenge of funding or of technology. It is a challenge of coordination. From that perspective, the most valuable types of infrastructure are the social and institutional ties that make is possible for different agencies and groups to work together towards common goals. Formal agencies that coordinate transportation and land use planning, like Vancouver's Translink or Metronlinx in Toronto, are one example of what that can look like. But so are less formal partnerships between siloized public agencies, or between municipalities and community groups.

Everyone who lives in a city is, in some sense, a city-builder. Even in an economic downturn, we can build exceptional cities. But for that we need to be motivated by bigger visions that just “stopping the gravy train.”

[this post is also running over at Sustainable Cities Canada]


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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