City Building

The Unwritten Chapter: Toronto, Interrupted

Crystal ball in hand with upside-down image of Toronto waterfront

I wrote Toronto Reborn optimistically, telling the tale of Toronto’s transformation into a vibrant and inclusive metropolis in the period from 1970 to the present. In it, I look at the work and decisions of citizens, NGOs, businesses and governments — to renovate buildings and neighbourhoods, build inspiring new structures and urban spaces, revitalize old cultural institutions and create new ones, sponsor new festivals and events — and how together they changed our old postwar city into an exciting modern one.

However as everyone knows, on June 7, 2018, Ontario elected a Progressive Conservative government led by Doug Ford, giving it a resounding majority. Subsequently, I felt the need to add a cautionary chapter to the book, as dramatic policy shifts and budget cuts made by the new Ontario government have interrupted the trajectory of our city. Following the election, the provincial government seems to have come away with a belief that it has a mandate to put the City of Toronto in its place, both with direct actions and by pulling Toronto back from many of the progressive initiatives it has been pursuing, potentially setting back the gains of recent decades.

  • See Ken Greenberg live with a panel of experts on June 5 in Toronto, Interrupted, presented by Ryerson CBI: REGISTER

The Ford government’s decision to without warning slash Toronto City Council in half—rejecting years of study and the City’s own decision to add councillors to balance voter representation—undermined the city’s presumption of a right to self-determination (enshrined in custom, if not in law). A generally understood respect for local government and civic democracy was assaulted. It was the brutality of the process that most shocked Torontonians.

Since then we have witnessed a rapid-fire volley of moves, based on the questionable rationale of taming an artificially inflated provincial deficit (while introducing tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations). Some measures have affected all of Ontario, but many have targeted Toronto, and in all cases, the changes have an outsized impact on Toronto. We’ve seen radical cuts to education, legal aid, libraries, child care, Indigenous affairs, public health and social services, and elimination of funding for climate readiness and sustainable energy plans. Plus, we’re now contending with the subway upload and upheaval in transit plans, and threats to Ontario Place and the waterfront. Virtually nothing remains untouched. The city’s ability to control its destiny, develop policy make plans and execute them in all areas has been severely compromised.

As we scramble to cope with these big changes one by one, it has also become evident that a profound collision of worldviews is being expressed: the city as a collectivity versus a collection of atomized, self-reliant individuals. This goes to the heart of what a city is, how it works, who it is for, what it provides and the meaning of citizenship.

To those who believe in the former model, the city is a place of mutual dependence, in which we solve problems by depending on each other. As we live more closely together we share space, time, and resources. We make decisions together about priorities, even if it’s sometimes messy and time consuming, frustrating those with an authoritarian mindset.

We trust an underlying social compact that depends on a high level of consensus. We celebrate the benefits that come from a diversity of views, of talents, of ideas. We seek a balance of public and private roles and their interdependence. We place a high value on inclusion in all respects. In short we aspire to be a “city for all” and judge ourselves among other things by how well the city looks after its most vulnerable.

Our provincial government is exhibiting profound discomfort with this vision of a great city. Through eroding our public spaces (ex. Ontario Place), health care and education systems, public transportation (with enormous symbolic weight given to the car, the ultimate personal solution), the Province loosens or breaks bonds among residents celebrates raw self-interest. It believes in minimal “government” (the word now a slur), and giving individuals and households cash, rather than “us” programs and services. All of this could shift us away from exactly what has made Toronto a success and Canada a distinctive heterogeneous society, putting our greatest competitive advantage at risk.

Clearly it is risky to release an optimistic book in a moment of great turbulence. There may well be a “dark age ahead” as suggested by the title of Jane Jacobs’ last book. Her point, in fact, was lest we do certain things, it could happen. My book remains aspirational, and as much about advocacy, a call for action in the face of these and heightened challenges, as an accounting of successes. It is about a great promise that I believe is still in the cards for a reborn Toronto. But the fulfillment of that promise depends on the choices we make. What comes next is up to us.

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See Ken Greenberg live with a panel of experts on June 5 in Toronto, Interrupted, presented by Ryerson CBI: REGISTER