By Anne Golden & Ken Greenberg
The Ontario election campaign was at times nasty, divisive and dispiriting. The sweeping change delivered by the voters on June 7 painted an electoral map that on first glance would appear to reinforce the stark divides. The centre of Toronto is dominated by New Democrats, (with a few scattered Liberals), as is the case with Ottawa, Hamilton and London and a number of other cities. The patches of orange with occasional tinges of red in the city centres are surrounded by broad swaths of PC blue—the new MPPs who now form a comfortable majority for Premier-designate Doug Ford.
If we look only at the colours, we might conclude that Ontario is hopelessly divided and that we are fated to endure four years of urban-suburban sniping, an endless and profitless struggle within the GTHA.
We would like to suggest the opposite. The 2018 election result should be seen as an opportunity to work together.
Canada’s success as a nation has been built upon our ability to turn diversity into strength. Indigenous, French and English peoples, more recently supplemented by immigrants from every corner of the world have come together in a way that, despite our many imperfections, remains a beacon for other countries.
That same concept of strength through diversity should apply to city building.
The 1996 Task Force on the Future of the Greater Toronto Area (led by Anne) found that our city region is highly economically interdependent. The fates of the cities and suburbs are intertwined. Our hopes for a prosperous and sustainable future depend on our mutual understanding that while we have our own local identities and concerns, we are all in it together.
The concept of “us versus them” is false and misleading.
Rather than view the suburbs and downtowns as competitors in a zero-sum game, we must look upon them as partners with common interests, even if their local needs and priorities might vary.
Think of our watersheds, from the Oak Ridges Moraine down to Lake Ontario. They do not respect municipal boundaries, let alone political affiliations, but they are an essential natural feature that must be respected and preserved for the benefit of all.
Similarly, when we talk of pressing issues such as transit and housing, we must think regionally and rely on astute, evidence-based decision-making in order to improve the quality for all. Given that the GTA is projected to grow from 6.7 million people in 2016 to 9.6 million in 2041, it is crucial that we make the right choices.
Those choices will be different depending on local circumstances—we cannot apply suburban solutions to the inner city, or vice versa, but the right decisions will resonate regionally.
Consider the enlightened planning underway in Mississauga. They have a great resource that is unavailable in downtown Toronto: space, in the form of mall parking lots. The Downtown 21 plan is turning those fields of asphalt into diversified development, building more complete, diverse communities where people can walk to work, school or arts institutions. It is an echo of Toronto’s Central Area plan from the 1970s and 80s, which transformed the downtown into a place where people now live, work and play rather than a sterile neighbourhood that emptied of workers after 6pm but in a form which reflects local circumstances.
The lesson in Mississauga (soon to be reinforced by an upcoming study from the Ryerson City Building Institute) is that the GTA has plenty of available land upon which we can build housing.
We must be wary of simplistic solutions that look at only one problem at a time, without considering the consequences. Paving over the greenbelt and building tracts of low density single-family homes is a recipe for more sprawl, congestion and pollution. It was heartening to see Mr. Ford back away from a suggestion to open up the greenbelt. Eviscerating planning regulations may encourage more development, but not necessarily the right kind of development. Far better to surgically amend regulations to encourage the forms of housing that we need.
None of this is easy. It is much simpler to promote wedge politics that drive people apart– simpler, but more destructive and self-defeating for us all. We hope the new government of Ontario takes a lesson from the model of Canada and aspires to embrace urban/suburban diversities as a strength to be leveraged.
Anne Golden is past Chair of the GTA Task Force. Ken Greenberg is an Urban Designer and Principal, Greenberg Consultants