Photo by Flickr user lakerlkr8, used under a creative commons license

How the citizens of Toronto successfully stopped an unpopular redevelopment plan

I've long been an advocate of cities and urbanism, but I've never been an urban activist. A couple of weeks ago some colleagues at the University of Toronto asked me to help out with an effort to save Toronto's waterfront. Mayor Rob Ford and his administration had foisted a plan on the city to take over the waterfront from Waterfront Toronto, the long-established body that has been overseeing its revitalization, and turn the area into a mega-mall, complete with ferris wheel and boat-in hotel. We drafted a letter that was co-signed by 147 urbanists from the academic and professional communities and held a press conference last week. Yesterday I traveled to Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings for The Atlantic Cities. When I checked my e-mail upon arriving at my hotel, this report from Royson James, the crack urban columnist for the Toronto Star, was waiting for me:

"In an unprecedented, mind-bending political reversal, Toronto City Council dismissed the Rob Ford administration’s planned takeover of the waterfront, leaving Waterfront Toronto in charge of the multi-billion-dollar revitalization.

So complete was the rebuff of the first-year administration that councillors and citizens stood and applauded one another in the council chamber following the unanimous vote Wednesday.

Just two weeks earlier, the mayor’s powerful executive committee unanimously backed the very opposite direction. They made it clear then they intended to grab waterfront land, sell it off, take the cash for the city’s coffers and replace the council-sanctioned planning regime with a new vision hatched in the mayor’s office.

And it all blew up in their faces with a ferocity that left its architect, Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, ashen-faced.

At the press conference last week, I said I had a heavy heart contemplating such a disastrous plan. But what makes me optimistic, indeed jubilant, is how passionately my colleagues and cosignatories and the people of Toronto feel about their city. The mark of a great city is an engaged citizenry, and Toronto’s citizens have done themselves proud. They stood up, spoke out and would not let this misbegotten atrocity be forced down their throats. It is a tremendous victory for urbanism—and for a greener, more prosperous, and more sustainable tomorrow.

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