Time to Rethink the Toronto Megacity

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Two cultures warring in the bosom of a single city – that’s the best way to understand the current mess in Toronto. The two cultures that were unwillingly yoked together in a megacity by Ontario premier Mike Harris in 1998 have given us the Rob Ford saga.

Everyone recognizes that human behaviour is very much influenced by built form, and that’s where the two cultures come in. The part of the city built before 1950 is compact, a mixed and concentrated land use with a medium (and occasionally high) density of people. It has active sidewalks, a financially functional transit system that paid for itself out of the fare box until it was expanded to the suburbs in the early 1970s, and a plethora of public and private community services. This city form promotes a sense of community, a tolerance for differences and a high degree of civility.

The part of the city built after 1950, led by the Don Mills development, is spread out, with low densities and land uses carefully separated from each other. Travel is mostly by car, since densities are not high enough to make transit financially viable and, where they exist, sidewalks are generally bereft of people since things are so far apart that it’s a really long walk to anywhere. There are relatively few community services. This city form promotes a sense of the individual, competition and a distancing of people from each other.

In short, there are two different cultures at work, each with its own values. Here’s one example. The pre-1950 municipality held to a policy that recreation for children and youth was a public good and would be offered by the city at no charge. The policy was in place for almost a century. The post-1950 municipalities always charged for children to participate in recreation programs. When the two cultures were pushed together in 1998, the post-1950 areas had a majority of votes and imposed charges across the board. The impact on low-income children from the older city was catastrophic, and has only been slightly alleviated by the megacity’s decision to establish a means test to allow some in free.

Another example is affordable housing. The pre-1950 municipality established a vibrant program to build affordable housing in the early 1970s and continued it for 25 years, but not one of the post-1950 municipalities followed this lead. They didn’t share the culture of what was expected of a municipal government.

Before the megacity was imposed, there were six local governments in Toronto, giving the two different cultures their own representation. The pre-1950 municipalities (Toronto, East York and York) had their own mayors and councils, as did the post 1950 municipalities (Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke). All six worked together in the Metropolitan Toronto federation where some of the larger servicing issues were worked out. The cultures sometimes collided at Metro, as they did around whether the Spadina Expressway should be built into the heart of the older city, or whether group homes should be allowed in neighbourhoods as of right.

With the Metro structure, it was often the mayor of Toronto who provided the leadership on municipal issues, leavening what the Metro chairman and the other mayors thought and said. Further, there was a useful competition among the municipalities (including Metro) about good governance and public-service management. The Metro structure was recognized around the world as a significant innovation to be replicated.

People knew they would lose these benefits with the megacity. Plebescites held in all six municipalities in 1997 showed opposition by 76.8 per cent of voters. Mr. Harris went ahead anyway.

Sure enough, the cataclysm has come to pass. Mr. Ford’s majority as mayor came from the post-1950s areas. The other culture does not have its own voice.

Giving more powers to the mayor of this disastrous structure, as Richard Florida has proposed, would simply make the post-1950 culture more dominant. That’s exactly what is not needed.

The right response is to rethink the megacity and give each culture its own governing structures, its own voices. There’s no sense in continuing to force the two cultures to war within a single bosom.