Why any attempt to improve the city first requires a reality check.
It’s a whole new year. Time for fresh starts, resolutions, babies in top hats—all that stuff. So, naturally, I spent my first full work week of January in an appeals court sorting out the lingering question of whether Rob Ford will continue to serve as mayor, and then reading up on when and how the Environmental Assessment of the Gardiner Expressway was stopped. It seems, as we begin 2013, there’s still some unfinished business from 2012.
And yet, even given the urgent leftovers on the agenda—the city budget, the Gardiner, casinos—Toronto has kicked off the year with an unfamiliar sense of renewal, courtesy of the court case that occupied my time on Monday. By the end of this month, we’ll have an answer to the big question that’s loomed over our local politics for so long. If Mayor Ford is successful in appealing the order to remove him from office, we’ll be able to turn the page on the whole question of who will replace him and focus again on city business. If, as I think is more likely, his appeal is quashed and he is removed for his conflict-of-interest violation, we’ll be looking for a new mayor—a hunt that brings all the questions of ambition and possibly even optimism that come with a clean slate. There are worse ways to begin a year—especially here in Toronto, where the realities that the city faces have been overshadowed by the mayor’s personal controversies and more than two years spent revisiting and re-debating the decisions of the past.
During all of that time—and for some time before—Toronto politics has suffered a peculiar disease that has jaundiced our ability to see our situation clearly as we approach the decisions we need to make. Sometime around the 2009 public-sector workers’ strike, the idea took hold that Toronto was a struggling city in dire financial straits, mired in disorder at City Hall and stagnation in our streets. That impression was the theme of the 2010 election, and it has been the focus of political discourse ever since. Debates over transit and budgets and programs have always been peppered with concerns for what’s prudent in “these tough times” or “given the city’s desperate situation”—the cautionary examples of Detroit and Greece are frequently invoked.
But here’s the truth: The city is in good shape. And it has been in increasingly good shape for over a decade. The population and economy are growing, oodles of housing and office space is being built, progress is being made. Even when City Hall has spent its time scaling back its ambitions and cancelling or delaying projects that would make the city stronger (as it’s done recently), the business and cultural sectors of the city have flexed their muscles.
That’s not to say that things are perfect. Even though times are good, generally, plenty of people are struggling. Even though our streets are safe by world standards, our schools are excellent compared to other large North American cities, and our standard of living is among the best in the world, there are still a lot of ways we could do better, and a whole lot of things we absolutely need to do better.
It’s just that the problems we have are problems caused by growth and affluence, not by decline. Housing prices are unaffordably sky-high because lots of people want to live here. Our public infrastructure needs significant investment, but that’s because it’s failed to keep pace with the massive investments that have been made in private infrastructure. Services like libraries and community centres cost a lot to maintain because people are actually using them.
We’re encountering the problems, the growing pains, of a thriving metropolis. And as difficult as that may seem, it is good news. These are challenges we have the resources—financial, human, civic—to meet. Doing so starts with the realization that the solutions involve exuberant city building, not retrenchment and sacrifice.
As we begin the new year by resolving the mayoral-removal question one way or another, my biggest hope is that the closure that comes with that decision will provide a fresh civic perspective that will allow us to realize that Toronto is a city on the rise, and to govern ourselves accordingly, before the assumption of decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.