Friday, October 23, 2009

Does Toronto Have to be a Mean City?

The best case you can make for a bourgeoisie is that from time to time its members take the lead in launching major developments that benefit a society over the long term. They do it for profits, of course, but on those occasions when people with imagination understand the shape the future could take, their innovations can bestow rewards on themselves and everyone else.

When Torontonians contemplate the course their city could take in the 21st century, they quickly come up against the hard fact that the city’s business class is tight-fisted, unimaginative, and much more concerned with today’s pennies than tomorrow’s dollars. And for the most part, the Toronto bourgeoisie is backed up politically by the city’s home-owners.

During the civic workers strike in the summer, this bone headedness was plainly apparent. Egged on by Toronto’s anti-worker daily newspapers and broadcasters, property owners, the people most likely to vote in municipal elections, were talked into the idea that driving a draconian bargain with municipal workers was what they wanted. Keeping salary increases to a minimum, and most of all, dispensing with the banking of the benefits from unused sick days, was all the rate payers could get their heads around. So what if that benefit had existed for half a century and was used as a way to discourage workers from booking off sick? I encountered the meanness among my neighbours who took little interest in whether the people who picked up their trash in fair weather and foul could earn a living wage.

The political consequence of all this was David Miller’s announcement that he will not seek a third term as mayor. He might still have made the same decision under more positive circumstances. Who knows? Being mayor of Toronto is no easy job.

David Miller has what it takes to be the great mayor of a great city. What he must have found endlessly frustrating----he never shows it----is trying to lead a city whose business class and opinion shapers are consistently dull-witted, too selfish even to look out for their own long-term interests.

Consider for a moment the great challenges and potential opportunities Toronto is bound to face in coming decades. Here are six of them---more could be added to the list. How Torontonians negotiate them will have much to do with shaping the city’s success or failure in the time of our descendants.

· The decline of the suburbs. The decades following the Second World War were the golden age of the motorcar, the suburb, and the flight from urban density. We have now entered the era of Peak Oil, the struggle to contain climate change and the decline of the motorcar. Cities of the future will be more densely populated, more like those of the 19th century than those of the second half of the 20th century, in that respect. Managing the shift to greater density---the shift is not a matter of choice, it will come----while paying heed to social justice, urban planning and the minimizing of dislocation, will figure largely in determining the success or failure of Toronto.

· The rise of rail. Subways and trams will be key transportation arteries in the cities of the 21st century. Visit Bordeaux in France’s south west and you will see a city luminous with new vitality following the construction of tram lines through the city’s heart and the refurbishing of its great architectural heritage of the 17th and 18th centuries. The combination of trams, venerable buildings and electric lighting has made a city, once dowdy, shine again. Business and capital investments have been drawn to the new Bordeaux. Toronto’s streetcars, dedicated streetcar lines and subway lines provide a strong base for the immense developments that will be needed in the future. Toronto city councils and Ontario governments are famous for announcing subway extension, tram lines, and a rail link to the airport, but much slower in delivering on these announcements. As a professor at York University, I’ve gone from youth to advanced middle age (some may chortle at this understatement) waiting for the promised subway to reach the campus. Enormous investments are required to push ahead the agenda of revolutionizing the city’s transit systems.

· Inter-city high speed rail. Often talked about, but always put on the back burner, the Quebec City to Windsor corridor needs a high speed passenger rail system, whose link between Toronto and Montreal is crucial to the future of the country’s two most populous cities. In an age when short-haul flights and inter-city highway travel will be in decline as a consequence of Peak Oil and the struggle to contain climate change, the prosperity of urban Central Canada requires the building of a system of the kind the French and the Japanese have been establishing for decades. We are laggards on this issue in comparison to other advanced countries.

· Post-secondary education. Toronto has already become a major centre for the education of post-secondary students from around the world. The opportunity exists to expand this enormously in coming decades. In part, this is because the ultra-security consciousness that now prevails in the United States has convinced tens of thousands of students from abroad to study elsewhere. Many have chosen Canada as a more welcoming country in which to study. Toronto, drawing on its unique heritage, as a city whose population hails from the whole world, can become the destination of choice in North America for international students. This won’t just happen in a fit of absence of mind, however. Making this materialize requires a far-sighted approach on the part of Toronto’s post-secondary educational institutions and the leadership of the city, political and otherwise. The multiplier effects that would flow from the development of this sector would enliven the whole of the city’s economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs throughout the service sector. In addition, a firm foundation would be laid for the promotion of the large scale research and development that is so sorely lacking in Canada. Post-secondary education is a pillar, as well, for the development of the city’s cultural institutions. The great cities of the 21st century will be centres of learning and culture. (Highly profitable by the way for the private sector.)

· The re-occupation of the waterfront. It is rather amazing, in a wholly negative way, to live in a city located on one of the world’s greatest lakes and to have that go unnoticed by most Torontonians most of the time. I remember the building in the 1950s of the expressway that cuts the city off from the lake. What was later called the Gardiner Expressway was welcomed by the people of that time as an indicator that their city was modernizing, keeping us in sync with the construction of great highways on the other side of the border. We’ve moved well beyond that age when the sight and smell of automobile exhaust were hailed as signs of progress. City leaders, planners and dwellers have long pressed for the simultaneous development of the waterfront and the construction of a tunnel through which the expressway could pass. (Such a tunnel beneath the city of Lyons prevents an expressway from tearing up the heart of that city.) Instead of seizing this great question and planning boldly, city governments and Toronto’s small-minded developers have left the expressway where it is and have gone ahead with piece-meal, thoughtless construction of condos and other high-rises along the lake that only make the problem worse. Chicago revels in its magnificent waterfront. Toronto shrugs. Ironically, the re-occupation of the waterfront on the grand scale to make it accessible to the whole city would promote the development of all parts of Toronto. It would even, dare I say, drive up the value of the property of the city’s home-owners. But many of them are pre-occupied with making life miserable for civic employees and would fear any political leadership that proposed planning for the city’s future.

· A new constitutional deal for cities. Despite the revision of the constitution in 1982, Canadians have a horse and buggy regime where cities are concerned. The idea that a city like Toronto needs to rely on an unholy combination of property taxes, and handouts from Queen’s Park and occasionally from Ottawa is a recipe for urban failure in the 21st century. The members of both “senior” levels of government enjoy looking down their noses at Toronto with its impossible fiscal problems. Year by year, the city’s infrastructure falls into ever greater disrepair. City council members spend their time trying to keep their heads above water, with the exception, of course, of those members who are building careers on phony attacks on David Miller as the source of all evil. Even as imaginative a leader as the present mayor, who clearly understands the constitutional bind, has had little time to address the issue. Toronto and the other great Canadian cities need to liberate themselves from a constitutional order that makes them the creatures of their provincial governments. To allow them to raise money through income and corporate, as well as property, taxes, city dwellers will have to wage a fight not dissimilar to the great 18th century struggles to create democratic regimes. Where their basic needs are concerned, Canadian cities do not enjoy democracy. They live in a paternalistic order that is as remote from their priorities as royal governments were from the citizenry before the American and French Revolutions. Unless the cities, Toronto in particular, gain control of much more of the tax revenues they generate, all of the ideas suggested above will be unrealizable.

In the early 20th century, Toronto, indeed all of southern Ontario, received inspired political leadership on which the urban development of the region was based. It came, not from City Hall, but from Queen’s Park, in the person of a cabinet minister in a Conservative government by the name of Adam Beck. Beck led the fight for “public power” in Ontario, the creation of the publicly owned Ontario Hydro to replace the private power companies and to ensure cheap energy for manufacturers and homes in the province. The industrial take off of Ontario, the nation’s manufacturing heartland, rested on the power provided at cost by Hydro.

Will there be inspired leadership in the 21st century to make of Toronto what it can become? It’s possible. But in the aftermath of the demagogic hounding of a talented mayor who can see beyond this afternoon, there are few encouraging signs. The next mayor of Toronto could be a man named Tory who runs for all available offices, or a provincial Liberal cabinet minister, more renowned for bluster than brains.

In the early 20th century, Adam Beck had a politically mobilized citizenry, including many enlightened business leaders, who supported his grand cause. Today, that is what is missing. Its absence does not mean that a movement of the kind that took shape a century ago, cannot arise today.