Views

How amalgamation eliminated Toronto's ambition: Hume

Toronto has grown so suspicious of its own urbanity that it can’t build a six-storey condo or install a bike lane without the sky falling in.

Toronto's first post-almagamation mayor was Mel Lastman, who oversaw the city's previous exercise in transit futility: the Sheppard subway.

COLIN MCCONNELL / TORONTO STAR FILE

Toronto's first post-almagamation mayor was Mel Lastman, who oversaw the city's previous exercise in transit futility: the Sheppard subway.

Twenty years is not long in the life of a city, but two decades after amalgamation, Toronto isn’t the place it used to be. Even if then premier Mike Harris’s intentions were good — highly doubtful — the results are anything but.

Its post-amalgamation politics dominated by suburban careerists, its bureaucracy demoralized, its residents cynical and hunkered down, Toronto has chosen to fight against the global shift to more progressive and humanistic forms of urbanism. The city, historically an agent of change — cultural, social, intellectual, economic — now tries to avoid it.

Though our mayor depends on the “old city” to get elected, amalgamation allows him to ignore downtown and the urbanism it embodies and instead wrap himself in the mantle of Fordism and its right-wing agenda of car dependency and suburban resentment. His main focus is congestion. His greatest hope is to eliminate double parking during rush hour.

So who better to manage Toronto’s long decline into civic obsolescence than the current mayor? With the last remaining jot of ambition now carefully squeezed from city hall, Toronto has reached a point where few seem bothered about the city’s march toward self-induced irrelevance.

The metaphor for our time is a discredited subway to Scarborough. For those who keep track, it’s actually the city’s second exercise in transit futility on such a grand scale. The first, the Sheppard line, which loses money with every passenger, opened in 2002 under Toronto’s first post-amalgamation mayor, Mel Lastman.

The obvious transit priority, of course, is the downtown relief line. It was first proposed more than a century ago but won’t get built because it doesn’t run through Etobicoke, Scarborough or North York. Though it would enhance transit across the whole city, it is seen as favouring downtown Toronto, which gets all the goodies while our postwar bedroom communities languish in low-density isolation.

When elected mayor of Toronto, Lastman’s only promise was not to increase property taxes. After serving 10 terms as mayor of North York, he knew that would be enough to get elected. With the exception of David Miller, mayor from 2003 to ’10, that strategy has served our chief magistrates well. But you get what you pay for; in Toronto, that’s not much.

It doesn’t help that the city is controlled by a provincial government unable to distinguish its crass political interests from those of the larger community. There’s no better example than the careful excision of reality from transit planning in Toronto. Municipal and provincial politicians see transit as a vote-getting scheme.

Cash cow one day, sacrificial lamb the next, the city lurches from crisis to crisis. Though the mayor has spoken bitterly of having to go to Queen’s Park like a boy in short pants asking for more, he has been conspicuously unwilling to look to Torontonians for those funds.

Mostly, though, politicians’ response to a proposal depends on where they come from. Last year, when the possibility of building a park over the railway tracks south of Front St. W. was raised, downtowners loved it, suburbanites didn’t. Local Councillor Joe Cressy said it was, “well worth the investment.” Scarborough Councillor Jim Karygiannis wondered, “what is it going to do for my constituents and the people in Scarborough?” North York’s Giorgio Mammoliti dismissed it as “a glorified dog poop park . . . (where) the rich can walk their dogs.”

Recent suggestions that the city find a way to display an important archeological find almost two centuries old prompted municipal bean counters to sputter and grow red in face.

No surprise, then, that Toronto’s relationship with mediocrity has been internalized by the public, politicians and pundits alike. The city that prides itself on civic parsimony has forgotten the difference between expenditure and investment, cost and value. Besides, Toronto is too poor to pay the price of excellence.

Amalgamation has achieved its unspoken purpose; the elimination of civic ambition. Dominated by city-deniers like the late Rob Ford and his dubious older brother, Doug, Toronto has grown so suspicious of its own urbanity that it can’t build a six-storey condo, or install a bike lane or a traffic light without the sky falling in. Little wonder Toronto remains dependent on infrastructural investments made between the 1950s and ’80s.

Ironically, while Toronto is busy suburbanizing, suburban communities from Markham and Mississauga to Burlington and Brampton are trying desperately to transform themselves into cities. They can see the future, even if Toronto can’t.

Christopher Hume’s column appears weekly. He can be reached at jcwhume4@gmail.com

More on Metronews.ca