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Opinion Toronto used to be a metropolis model. So what happened?

The Toronto skyline in January, 1976.

John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

Jack Diamond was one of the five commissioners who produced the Golden Report, which addressed the land use, governance, taxation and movement systems of Toronto. He is the founding principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects.

There was a time when Toronto worked as an exemplar of city building and municipal governance.

Through much of the 20th century, the municipality adroitly made the necessary governance and infrastructure changes to manage growth and facilitate its operation. There was a city council, with a single tier of councillors. The wards consisted of reasonably homogeneous socioeconomic demographics, and the ward boundaries were well understood. This led to political accountability, as the mores of the constituents were clear.

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Subsequently, to accommodate a complex metropolis, rather than a provincial city, a two-tier council was instituted. This still allowed the local councillor to represent his or her ward with fidelity to the values of its constituents. A second, metro councillor, however, had a metropolitan scale of responsibility – those factors that were of wider concern than those of a single ward, transportation being an obvious example. With that form of municipal government, the city, with foresight, began mid-century to construct a subway system to augment streetcars, buses and private automobiles.

But now a shortsighted, buck-a-beer outlook has replaced its breadth of vision.

Perhaps those who have lived through this change may not see it, but 21st-century Toronto is no longer the mid-sized provincial, let alone metropolitan, city it once was.

In the 18th century, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe laid out a farming grid in the area, based upon concessions bounded by roads at about two-kilometre intervals. As the town grew, the concession roads became the arterial streets, while the farms became low-scale residential hinterlands with correspondingly narrower streets than those of the arterial boundaries. These divisions created the building blocks, or superblocks, that formed the urban structure of the city.

An aerial view of downtown Toronto, including the construction of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, Aug. 2, 1968.

Fred Ross/The Globe and Mail

Conveniently, the arterial streets of the superblock became the carriers of the city’s surface transit system: buses, streetcars and automobiles. Such a transit system is one suited to frequent stops, with several along the length of each superblock. To accommodate higher carrying capacity, the subway system was added, with stops essentially only at the intersection of the arterial streets – i.e. at the four corners of adjoining superblocks.

The land use and density symbiosis followed in lockstep – mostly low-rise residential uses within the superblock; mid-density, with mixed uses along the arterial boundaries, accommodating local services and convenience retail; and high-density developed appropriately at the junction of four superblocks, intersections with high transit accessibility.

This arrangement had several advantages. By distributing regional or specialized functions to the many centres, traffic congestion at one major city centre was avoided. It also permitted the natural clustering of specialized functions, whether mass retail, high-end fashion, financial services or company headquarters. These higher-density centres were perfectly served by the higher carrying capacity of the subway.

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The city was not as wealthy then as it is now. Nevertheless, city council was not afraid to borrow, as it understood that such debt was an investment in building capacity, just as good health and education systems build capacity.

Toronto was looked to as a model of metropolitan government and urban planning.

The city now has to be seen in national and international contexts, as it is in global competition for human and financial capital investment. Given the stability of Canadian society, its accommodation of multiculturalism and its highly attractive public-education and health systems, Canada has been a choice of immigrants. Here they find formal and informal support systems and job opportunities. The Greater Toronto Area, for example, gets about 80,000 immigrants a year. Clearly, this is one of the reasons for the current prosperity of the city. Indeed, the growth has been explosive. Toronto now ranks fourth in population in North America, after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles.

At the beginning of this new growth spurt, a little more than two decades ago, the political boundary of the city clearly did not coincide with its economic contour. Equally apparent was that the governance of the city, together with its taxing powers, land use and transportation, required comprehensive overhaul.

Bob Rae, the premier of the province at that time, set up a commission (the Golden Commission) to undertake such a review. Previous provincial governments, sensitive to the needs of Toronto, had modified the original metropolitan governance structure as the city grew. However, those modifications were only ones of degree, not kind. The Golden Report recognized that Toronto had grown from a city to a metropolis and in 1996 was on the cusp of becoming a city region, encompassing adjacent cities from Hamilton to Oshawa.

Unfortunately, there was a change of government just as the Golden Commission published its report. Its recommendations would have set Toronto on the correct course to once again be a model for a city region, as it had been for a metropolitan one. The new provincial government, the base of which was suburban and rural, instituted changes in contradiction to those recommended in the report.

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It downloaded social services to the city without commensurate funding and ignored the dynamics and potentials of a city region. With the city’s very limited taxing powers, restricted to real estate taxes (inelastic in terms of the business cycle) plus some licensing authority, as well as a small share of the gas tax, the city is simply unable to cover the maintenance costs of its infrastructure, let alone plan long-term investment in new hard and soft services. What’s more, the planned Eglinton subway was cancelled. The notion that so-called efficiencies at city hall could be achieved commensurate with the necessary funding is patently absurd. Essentially, you get what you pay for. I believe Canadians want tax value, not tax cuts.

While the private sector has prospered since then, despite fluctuations of the business cycle, the public sector has declined precipitously. It is simply not congruent with private growth and is significantly behind in the maintenance of existing public housing and investment in transit. High-density development is being approved without a foundation of appropriately sized utilities and transit, nor are there adequate parks and other amenities that contribute to the quality of life that is Toronto’s competitive edge in its global contest with other cities. The close relationship that once existed between land use, density and transportation is now largely absent. The strategic location of public housing is no longer a consideration. The installation of the subway was once done in a manner that reinforced planned urban development and the opportunity to guide development via a well-calibrated transit system, but this is no longer the case.

The observation gallery on the 57th floor of Commerce Court West, Sept. 10, 1973.

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

A measure of this can be seen in a comparison with other cities. In the first decade of the 21st century, London invested $1,112, Berlin $831, New York $703 and Toronto $337 per capita per annum on public transit.

Unlike the courage of earlier city councils, which borrowed money to build the subway and expand other forms of transit, city council and the province over the past decade failed to make the decisions on which Toronto’s future depends. Debt timidity in this instance has a colossal opportunity cost. Ironically, it was also a time when the cost of borrowing was at its lowest.

Part of the impediment to effective decision-making is the assumed artificial split between the central city (416 area code) and the suburbs (the 905). The lack of leadership that would show that the one benefits from the other is profoundly disappointing.

There is another dynamic at work. David Hulchanski, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies, has mapped the socioeconomic geography of the city, comparing the 1970s with the current demographic distribution of Toronto. He has found a disturbing shift: Where once a modicum of integration, or at least proximity, between low-, middle- and high-income groups existed across the city, sharper segregation has since occurred. The lowest-income cohort has expanded and has been displaced by economics to the urban periphery, where social services and transportation are least available; the highest-income cohort has increased and is consolidated primarily in the city centre; and the middle-income group has shrunk and now lies between the highest- and lowest-income groups.

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In effect, three fairly distinct, segregated cities. This does not help alleviate the sense of alienation, nor does it make entry-level employment or low-skilled jobs accessible or improve mobility for access to social, health or employment services. This general tendency is also exacerbated by the growing income gap in Canada.

What is perhaps not understood is that this is damaging in unexpected ways. As noted, Toronto’s economic competitive edge is its quality of life. Paradoxically, it is business-minded provincial governments that blunt that economic edge.

Despite the negative impact of current provincial government policies, which rank mythical or counterproductive cost reductions over real effectiveness, the potential for substantial social and economic benefits still exists. Such an endowment indeed has the capacity to create one of the best cities in the world in a co-ordinated Greater Toronto Region. Irrelevant provincial proposals won’t return the city to greatness – Ferris wheels on the waterfront just won’t cut it.

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