City politicians focus on utopian visions while citizens just want simple things, like passable roads

Worth A Look, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

It’s the new urban blight. Across the country, city governments are in varying states of disarray, if not chaos. The range is wide, from the badly governed fiasco in Toronto to outright corruption in Montreal and boondoggle-prone governments in Vancouver, Calgary and other Western cities. Taxes are rising, spending is soaring, but roads are crumbling and the basics often ignored.

How this came to be is not chance. One central reason is the rise of a new urban ideology, one that sees city politics not as a provider of services to voters, but as a new paradigm in which mayors and local politicians become the stewards of some new utopian vision. If Mayors Ruled the World is the title of a new book being endorsed by Toronto-based Richard Florida, a New City guru. The book argues that we award city governments more power and create “muscular mayors.”

In the New City, nothing is too big or too small for municipal councillors to focus on, from half-billion-dollar sports arenas to plastic-bag bans and schemes aimed at preparing for extreme climate change. As Mr. Florida put it recently, cities are “arenas filled with possibility” where “muscular mayors” devise and implement “a host of bold initiatives on everything from crime and education to sustainability and carbon reduction.”

To say that Canadian cities are mostly political disasters adds nothing to history. The first mayor of Toronto, the “Reform” rabble-rouser William Lyon Mackenzie, was elected in 1834 and lasted only a few short months before he was turfed out. The story of the Mackenzie mayoralty “is a dismal account of Reform failure, a failure which to a very large extent can be laid at Mackenzie’s door,” says historian Frederick Armstrong in a book on early Toronto

Mayor Mackenzie’s problem was the same one that increasingly afflicts city governments and politicians across Canada. For reasons of politics but also of ideology, the business of running cities — road building, sewage collection, snow removal, water systems — is a boring nuts-and-bolts affair lacking in grand vision.

Even in 1834, Mr. Mackenzie had other interests, as a newspaper publisher and provincial figure. Like many mayors and politicians since, he cared little for sidewalk maintenance and garbage disposal, even though that’s what people want most from their cities. Snow removal and road building are among the main reasons people formed cities two centuries ago. Today, city roads are crumbling and in many places residents are stuck shovelling snow that was once the city’s responsibility, or getting their cars stuck on perennially unplowed roads. The city is too busy with other things, both big and small.


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Meanwhile, city spending keeps rising, tax rates are soaring and fiscal problems mount. Since 2002, Canadian local government spending increased 64% to $140-billion, according to Statistics Canada data compiled by Philip Cross at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Where does the money go?

Nothing symbolizes the national urban problem — and what may count as a crisis in some cities — more than news that Toronto’s elevated Gardiner Expressway, the sole freeway access to the country’s largest downtown, a vital structure that feeds the heart of the city — has been neglected to the point where parts of it are falling down and will soon be unsafe.

Crumbling expressways and bridges are familiar events in Montreal — where the federal government and the province hold responsibilities along with the city.

Other cities have newer infrastructure and so voters face other developments. Calgary has a new $1.5-billion LRT line that came in at double the original cost estimates. Edmonton is reviewing a half-billion-dollar subsidy for a new hockey arena that would largely benefit a billionaire NHL owner.

All these cities face tax burdens that can only continue to rise. In Montreal, the new mayor, Michael Applebaum, this week amended the city’s budget to lower the annual tax increase to 2.2% from the 3.3% originally proposed in October by former mayor Gérald Tremblay, who recently quit in the wake of corruption allegations.

Aaron Lynett/National Post

Aaron Lynett/National PostCity workers sweep loose chunks of concrete from the Gardiner Expressway after pieces fell from the expressway, June 25, 2012.

Another common element of today’s city-government crises has been the degree to which big unions have carved off major chunks of the spending. In Toronto, salaries and wages of unionized staff have jumped 52% since 2003 to $5.1-billion in 2011. Wages account for half of spending, in part a function of generous contracts awarded during the tenure of the grand visionaries of the (Richard Florida-influenced) regime of former Mayor David Miller.

The deteriorating state of the Gardiner Expressway is in some degree — although, exactly what happened is hard to tell at the moment — a product of the obsession with turning Toronto into model of sustainable development, even a car-free zone.

Back in the summer of 2008, Toronto council voted to “conduct minimal but necessary maintenance” on the elevated Gardiner while it awaited an $11-million environmental assessment of a plan to tear down part of the expressway. The objective was right out of the New City playbook.

The plan was to create “a new boulevard-style roadway” that would feature “high quality urban design,” improve access to the city’s waterfront “for cyclists and pedestrians” and promote the use of “adjacent employment lands for knowledge-based industries.”

"For reasons of politics but also of ideology, the business of running cities — road building, sewage collection, snow removal, water systems — is a boring nuts-and-bolts affair"

What routes would have to be followed by displaced expressway traffic was not addressed in the city note on the plan. But it fit the new urbanism promoted that same year in a city document called “Creative City Planning Framework.” It was described as Mayor Miller’s “vision of creativity as an economic engine” and was to have coincided with Richard Florida’s arrival in the city as a university professor.

Prof. Florida is now director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, where he appears to be jubilant at the prospect that current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford may soon be out of office. He sees Mr. Ford as the “most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a large global city.”

Mr. Florida likes Gregor Robertson of Vancouver, a vanguard lefty who this week put through a tax increase and threw his support around a move to stop tankers and pipelines from moving oil and gas across British Columbia.

Looking at Toronto today, with its crumbling infrastructure, antiquated transit system, over-priced union deals and dysfunctional council sessions, nobody can honestly lay the blame on Rob Ford. The problem in Toronto, as in other Canadian cities, is the ideological fixation on cities as centres of political power that can impose utopian visions on voters who mostly want the simple things they have wanted for centuries from their cities — roads that are passable, snow that’s removed, garbage that’s collected, transit that’s functional and water that’s drinkable.