Toronto, a city that’s built its brand on the principles of peace, order, and good government, has been the recent subject of some very bad press. The still-evolving scandal involving Mayor Rob Ford and a video that allegedly shows him smoking crack cocaine has transformed his tenure from mild embarrassment to epic drama. In recent weeks, hundreds of protestors have taken to gathering in front of city hall to demand Ford’s resignation.
This display of dysfunctional city politics is illustrative of the strange new reality that faces Toronto. Once known to the rest of the world as a safe, quiet, prosaic city with a strong middle-class, in recent years, Toronto has catapulted into global city status. Its enormous growth, and its ability to attract an extraordinary pool of international talent over the past four decades, has been a great success story. But it has also revealed the failures of a municipal government that is struggling to cope with the consequences.
In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit voted Toronto the fourth most livable city in the world. That same year, a report by Price Waterhouse Coopers and the Partnership for New York City put Toronto in third place among 2012’s "Cities of Opportunity," a quantitative and qualitative ranking of city life in 27 world capitals based on categories of finance, commerce and culture. The city’s crime rate has fallen steadily since the 1990s. It’s widely known for its good schools and for having the largest neighborhood-based public library system in the world.
"Don’t mistake the farce of city politics for the reality of how the city is governed," says Joe Berridge, founding partner at Urban Strategies Inc, a leading Toronto-based urban planning consultancy.
"In London or New York, you have these incredibly strong mayors, who run out, set an agenda, get the money for it, get it done. It’s fascinating, because Toronto is the only city I know that operates with its municipal government not actually being the government."
Toronto was incorporated as a city in 1834 through the City of Toronto Act as a child of Ontario, and just like any parent, the province decides how much power to give the city. And Ontario treats Toronto more like an adolescent, with very limited authority.
Dating back to the 1980s, Ontario’s focus on austerity measures meant that Toronto was a growing city starved for resources. The province passed the responsibility of population growth-related costs over to the municipal government, only without handing over the power to charge the sales, corporate, or personal income taxes that could pay for major capital investments. Toronto’s only major source of revenue has come through the property tax, which has proven inadequate in keeping up with the demands of maintaining and funding transit, providing social housing, and repairing aging infrastructure.
The city’s lack of power was made all the more clear in 1997, when the province amalgamated the pre-war city of Toronto with its five surrounding post-war suburbs to form a single bureaucracy, against the will of all the municipalities involved. Critics of the amalgamation (of which there are many) have called it an awkward shotgun marriage that has resulted in an unwieldy entity managed by 44 frustrated city councillors struggling trying to come up with solutions for a city with multiple needs and identities.
"City hall is kind of a hung jury, constantly at war with itself," says Ken Greenberg, former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto. "It is the initiatives of people, not necessarily in government; various institutions, neighborhoods, civil society groups, where phenomenal things are happening."
Toronto has a history of grassroots activism, neighborhood groups who are well-organized and resilient and who have proven over the years to be quite powerful. That power was famously exercised in 1971, when plans for the Spadina Expressway, a highway proposed to cut through the center of the city, was brought down by a coalition of residents, urban planners, architects and economists. It was during this era that Toronto’s streetcar was also saved, along with its old, pre-war shopping streets.
The spirit of neighborhood activism in Toronto has continued in more recent decades, strengthened even further by the power of social media. A recent campaign against a proposal to build a Walmart, for example, near Toronto’s well-established bohemian area, Kensington Market, has been met with huge public outcry. An online petition against the project received over 70,000 signatures in under a week.
"The big character of this city is the city’s neighborhoods, and it’s a huge advantage to have that," says Berridge. "But it’s also a huge disadvantage because Toronto has accidentally become one of the top cities in the entire world, so when you have to do some things like build transit, you find you’re completely unequipped to do it."
Indeed, up until May, mass transit initiatives had been the source of some of Rob Ford’s trickiest moments as mayor. Although Toronto’s public transit system has long-since outgrown its capacity, in 2010, Ford tried to halt plans for Transit City, a major proposal for new light-rail lines along a number of the city’s major corridors. Most recently, he denounced proposals for new taxes to fund the region’s desperately needed transit expansion.
Absent a strong city government, independent groups like the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance have taken it upon themselves to find solutions to the city’s problems. Made up of business leaders and city builders, the organization recently launched a huge public awareness campaign to build support for improvements to the metro area’s regional transit system, in the hopes of forcing elected officials to act.
"We don’t lack transit plans, what we lack is a clear and sustained way to pay for it. And to get that we need the political will, so the public needs to be on side in a demonstrated way," says CivicAction CEO Mitzie Hunter.
So far, 113 elected officials on all levels of government have signed on to the CivicAction website to pledge their commitment to support the funding of new transit through a combination of new taxes, despite Mayor Ford’s opposition.
The need for investment is particularly acute in Toronto’s poorest areas, which are largely disconnected from transit. These neighborhoods, known as the inner suburbs, are where many new immigrants land upon arrival, and as a result, their work finding jobs and accessing basic services is made all the more difficult.
More than half of Torontonians were born outside of the country, but a recent poll conducted by Ryerson University in Toronto showed that only 13 percent of the city’s leadership positions were filled by visible minorities. In response, CivicAction has partnered with Maytree, a private foundation that works to battle poverty through leadership building.
Together, they’ve launched a program called DiverseCity: a Greater Toronto Leadership Project, which through a number of initiatives works to increase the opportunities available for visible minorities, Aboriginals and under-represented immigrant groups to enter into civic leadership positions. The organizations have taken the position that diverse leadership will help to ensure the region’s social and economic well-being, by giving minority groups a greater influence and more sustainable means to help drive the the future of their city. The DiverseCity “onboard” program has placed over 700 individuals in governance positions within public agencies, boards, commissions and nonprofits throughout Toronto.
While these initiatives have not managed to capture international headlines, they are defining a new generation of Toronto leadership. This is the story of Toronto that manages to flourish despite the circus at city hall, with Mayor Rob Ford in the center ring.
"The world will go on, after Rob Ford," says Berridge.
Top image: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (L) arrives for a city council executive committee meeting as he greets deputy mayor Doug Holyday (R) at City Hall in Toronto. (Mark BlinchReuters)