Skip to main content
opinion

Mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa at High Park in Toronto on Sept 26.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Gil Penalosa showed up at Nathan Phillips Square last month, somebody called security. The urban planner had arrived to announce his housing platform in his campaign for mayor of Toronto.

A security officer “told us we had to move to the sidewalk,” Mr. Penalosa recounted in an interview, retracing his steps at the square near City Hall. “But where does the square end and the sidewalk begin?”

He gestured from the edges of the square – a relic of social-democratic Scandinavian modernism – and to the sidewalk, which was pockmarked with patches and punctuated by randomly scattered planters. In the middle stood a dented hot-dog cart whose sign read, “OPEN,” but was, in fact, shuttered tight.

“A place like this: What does it say about the city?” Mr. Penalosa asked. This is the central question of his long-shot campaign. An experienced urbanist and newbie politician, he is running on the idea that public space and public amenities need to be hospitable, beautiful and friendly to all sorts of conversations.

“Public space is the great equalizer,” he said. “In any great city, you want to sleep at home but live your life outdoors. And you can.”

But not in Toronto. Mr. Penalosa believes the city under Mayor John Tory, who is running for a third term, is failing badly at this goal of equitable urbanism. Or, to be more precise, it isn’t really trying.

“I love Toronto; that’s why I am running for mayor. But this city could be so much better in so many ways.”

It’s hard to argue with that. The city should be glimmering. Toronto is bigger and wealthier than ever, and the pandemic brought about many conversations about the importance of public space. Yet there is a pervasive sense, as Mr. Penalosa phrased it, that the city “is falling apart.”

Before arriving at City Hall we walked a few kilometres through downtown. (He is planning to walk every ward of the city before election day on Oct. 24.) He delivered rat-a-tat observations about the physical state of Toronto. Wrap advertising on the streetcar – “this makes people feel unsafe,” he said. Beat-up street signs. Dead street trees. Overly wide vehicle lanes. Overflowing public waste bins.

“You see this disorder in the poorest cities in the world,” he said, gesturing at a hanging fast-food wrapper.

The problems Mr. Penalosa identified come from a variety of sources: A historic focus on the automobile. Poor construction and design of the public realm. Above all, inadequate staffing and – he says – poor management in the city’s parks and transportation departments.

But for him, there is a thread here: that public space matters deeply. “It’s about equity, equity, equity,” he said. “The place where you go out and develop a sense of belonging is on the sidewalks.”

So what would he change? His ideas blend the very practical, such as improving snow clearing on sidewalks, with the less so, such as creating walking-based social clubs for seniors.

On transit, he would create a network of electric buses across Finch and Sheppard Avenues and down Jane, Dufferin and Bathurst streets. Bus rapid transit, is, as he correctly points out, a cost-effective and quick option that’s too often overlooked by politicians who want to cut ribbons.

He would appoint a “city architect” who advises on the design of all public projects (an excellent idea) and also weighs in on private development (a more complex idea).

On road safety, he would immediately lower speed limits on all side streets to 30 kilometres per hour and redesign the city’s 100 most dangerous intersections. He would also introduce raised pedestrian crossings and other changes to street design. This would help achieve the city’s professed goal of Vision Zero, and also make life more pleasant for the million-plus Torontonians whose households don’t own a car.

“Right now, we’re inviting people to drive; we’re not inviting people to walk,” he said. “Infrastructure creates culture.”

As for the housing crisis, he would make it legal for homeowners to convert their houses into apartment buildings of up to six units anywhere in the city, creating a “renovation revolution.” (This is not a realistic route to building a lot of housing, but it is worth pursuing.) He would also expand the zones in which mid-rise buildings are legal and legalize retail everywhere across the city. This adds up to a bolder version of what Mr. Tory is now, very belatedly, promising.

In making these arguments, Mr. Penalosa has a great deal of credibility. Since moving to Canada 20 years ago, he has consulted in more than 350 cities around the world; he is an authority on public parks, park programming and designing for walking and cycling.

He is “one of the most influential and inspiring advisers on better cities in the world,” said his friend Brent Toderian, former chief planner of Vancouver. “His biggest passions reflect some of the most important elements of livable, lovable cities — urban equity, better transportation, smarter housing, safer streets, more and better parks, and more welcoming civic life.”

Born in Colombia, Mr. Penalosa grew up in Bogota and in the U.S. His father, a prominent liberal politician, became Colombia’s ambassador to the UN and then the organization’s undersecretary general. His older brother, Enrique, is a well-known former mayor of Bogota.

After earning an MBA at UCLA, he returned to Colombia and a career as a broadcasting executive. Then in the 1990s, he worked with mayor Antanas Mockus on Bogota’s widely covered transformation of transportation and public parks. Mr. Penalosa opened or rebuilt more than 100 parks.

He also developed the program known as Ciclovia. It grew to include more than 120 kilometres of streets each Sunday and holiday, open only to cyclists and pedestrians. It now has imitators around the world, including a sadly underfed “Open Streets” in Toronto.

This access to outdoor recreation and access to the streets is inherently political. He proudly recalls learning to play tennis in a public park. His family prized public goods, while many wealthy Colombians favoured private clubs.

In Toronto, his sensibility has no clear home. He is aligned with progressive politicians, and a handful have risked the ire of Mr. Tory to endorse him. Yet the incumbent mayor could plausibly adopt some of his less controversial planks: a city architect, a strong defence of Ontario Place as a public park, lower speed limits.

But to execute on these ideas would require commitment to a different version of Toronto – one that is (as Mr. Penalosa’s slogan puts it) for everyone, where the public realm makes people proud. It would require a willingness to empower city staff and insist on high-quality public amenities – then raise taxes to pay for them.

Instead, after the election, Mr. Penalosa will very likely go back to helping other cities pursue beauty and prosperity, while Toronto settles back down to wait in traffic.

So what keeps his campaign going?

“I want to give Toronto hope,” he said. “I keep meeting younger people who have no hope. They see the city falling apart, and they say, this is how it is, and how it’s going to be.

“I hope I can get people to wish for better.”