Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Thoughts On John Lorinc's Walrus Cover Story

This month’s Walrus cover story by John Lorinc, “How Toronto Lost Its Groove”, is one of the best distillations you’ll read of the governance, policy and cultural problems that Toronto faces. The city has important long-term problems, chief among them an annual structural deficit, a culture gap between the inner suburbs and old city and limited powers for self-governance and taxation.

What makes Lorinc’s piece so good is how ably he integrates these problems in a historical context. Seeking the origins of Toronto’s problems, he goes back decades, detailing the original post-war governance structure of Old Toronto with the inner suburbs and how extending this logic to the surrounding region worked against the city:

The problems began in the early 1970s, when Bill Davis’s Progressive Conservatives decided to impose the two-tier approach [like Metro and individual councils for Toronto] on the rural townships, a ring of suburbs now known as the 905, outside Metro’s borders. Andrew Sancton, an expert on municipal government at the University of Western Ontario, describes that decision as “the original mistake.” The result, unique in North America, is that Toronto is surrounded by a ring of large, powerful municipalities — Mississauga, Brampton, Oakville, Richmond Hill, Markham, Vaughan, and Ajax-Pickering — that compete with the city for private and public investment……. ……Conservative premier Mike Harris, elected in 1995 to reduce government via his Common Sense Revolution, ignored the Golden task force [which recommended to implement Metro on a broader, more regional scale], choosing instead to amalgamate Metro and its local municipalities while leaving intact the 905 two-tier governments established in 1973. Although Harris claimed his reforms would facilitate more streamlined decision-making, the result has been anything but. Thirteen years after amalgamation, many Torontonians feel increasingly alienated from a giant municipal bureaucracy that favours one-size-fits-all solutions.

This alienation is most acutely felt by the very real and different needs for the urban core and inner suburbs. Lorinc points to this as the source of discontent at internecine council meetings. He adds that the GTA represents 20% of the country’s GDP (New York City represents 3.3%) but as a creature of the province has little power. After all, why would the province want to cede its own control?

This explanation helps explain Rob Ford’s appeal. In the absence of real authority and agency, Ford is an attractive alternative to voters. His promises were the small and controllable things, like cleaning up the city’s graffiti. He spoke with the confidence and promised to plow through bureaucracy and governance barriers like he did when he was a councillor.

In a way Ford accurately tapped into the emotional resonance of Toronto’s economic, governance and cultural structure. They’re problems that David Miller identified intellectually and crafted policies and strategies to fix during his mayoralty.

Ultimately Miller failed by only achieving half-measures. Transit City was partially funded, some services uploaded and some more powers granted, but the totality doesn’t fully recognize the importance and needs of Toronto. While Ford fails to figure out why Toronto feels the way it does, he manages to communicate its underlying emotion. While Miller’s arguments brought the historical and structural perspective of Lorinc, he struggled to communicate that nuanced message with a mass audience.

Lorinc ends his article with the parable of the Fort York Bridge. He stresses the need to build bridges: between the suburbs and core, province and city and ideas and reality. It’s the last one that can be most substantively bridged by citizens, a way from them to regain the control the governance structure limits.

In the absence of civic leadership, it's up to citizens to create this bridge, to synthesize what Toronto means. Like Lorinc's wholesale look at the city, this is best done in a way that understands our past, engages with ideas and communicates messages in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally persuasive.  With a coarse and stultifying discourse it’s tough, but these things start somewhere, and understanding is a good place. 

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