Selling Us Short

March 17, 2015

Frankly, I’m beginning to suspect Mayor John Tory’s business smarts as much as I’ve become dubious of his approach to 21st-century urban issues.suspect

According to the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat, on some morning talk show today, the mayor expressed the notion that, what Toronto needs are ‘big events’ to get people to come to the city. You see, he’s heading down to Austin in a couple days to attend the South By Southwest Festival and wants to sell Toronto as a place that could do that kind of business. Forget for the moment that Toronto regularly does do that kind of business. Why, in fact, the city’s home to more than just one music (or “pop culture”, as the mayor refers to it) event a year. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve how you do it, learn from other places.

It’s just… these “big event” mayors and their circuses.

What does it say about their view of the city they represent? In order to draw people here, we need to lure them with big ticket events. Musical and film festivals. Sporting events. Casino and ferris wheels.circus

How many destinations, cities especially, do you visit for one thing? I mean, you go to Atlanta because it’s hosting the Olympics. Is that what really draws you to London? Yeah, yeah. I hear you. Toronto’s no London. Fair enough but, how about Chicago as a comparison. If you go to Chicago, do you go for just one reason?

Cities attract tourists for a combination of reasons. Places to see. Things to do. Ease of getting there and getting around. And an unquantifiable quality of delivering something, a vibe let’s call it, visitors don’t get at home.

Does Toronto possess that vibe? I don’t know. It’s tough to judge from the inside but I’d say in fits and starts. But I’m pretty sure some ‘big event’ isn’t going to be the tipping point that secures us that ever so elusive label of ‘world class’.liveablecity

I’d be much more enthusiastic about the mayor’s push for attracting more tourists if, instead, he was out advocating for the city’s ability to implement a hotel tax. Use that money directly to help pay for our desperate infrastructure needs that would go a long way to improving the city’s ability to attract visitors. Maybe while Mayor Tory is down in Austin, he can ask the mayor there about that city’s Hotel Occupany Tax.

And maybe on his way back home from Austin, our mayor should do a quick layover in Minneapolis. Set up some meetings there with company mucky mucks, ask them if they keep their businesses in the Twin Cities because it’s – How did he say it on the radio today? ‘Technology jobs come because it is a cool, hip place to be’?

Really? Is that businessman John Tory’s read on things? austinCompanies with their 21st-century technology jobs set up shop where it’s groovy to do so? Somebody needs to take that Richard Florida book from the mayor or, at least, try explaining it a little deeper for him. (That isn’t what Florida meant by the ‘creative class’, is it? I haven’t read it.)

“No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well,” the Atlantic says of Minneapolis-St. Paul in its article, The Miracle of Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area is richer by median household income than Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City (or New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles). Among residents under 35, the Twin Cities place in the top 10 for highest college-graduation rate, highest median earnings, and lowest poverty rate, according to the most recent census figures. And yet, according to the Center for Housing Policy, low-income families can rent a home and commute to work more affordably in Minneapolis–St. Paul than in all but one other major metro area (Washington, D.C.). Perhaps most impressive, the Twin Cities have the highest employment rate for 18-to-34-year-olds in the country.

The top 10 ‘for highest college-graduation rate, highest median earnings, and lowest poverty’ among under 35 residents. ‘The highest employment rate for 18-to-34-year-olds in the country’.minneapolis

That hip and cool enough for you, Mr. Mayor?

It seems no one festival or big event has done the trick for Minneapolis. Apparently it has more to do with a history of equitable sharing of resources and tax dollars that has built affordability into the equation. People stay, and work and live and raise families, because they can afford to. Rather than depending on attracting business to it, the Twin Cities have a history of developing their own businesses, maintaining a critical mass of management level workers who deliver a smooth continuity.

Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Minneapolis didn’t create such a scenario itself. The state bought into the concept as well. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of huffing and puffing about Toronto not being Minneapolis, bigger and more diverse, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.barker

My point being, it’ll take far more than some one-off shazzam big event to deliver the economic impact the mayor is hoping to score in his search for Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Being hip, I don’t think, is really much of a substantive business plan. Mayor Tory seems to be mixing up cause and effect.

Transforming an economy takes a lot more than simply ‘selling the city’. It requires some boldness in thinking based on frank discussions about the realities you face. So far, our businessman mayor has opted merely to be a showman, relying on cheap optics and empty rhetoric to give the impression of doing something.

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr


A Mess Of Our Own Making

November 18, 2014

It’s hardly novel on my part to return from nearly 3 weeks in the developing world, let’s call it, to announce that we here in these parts of the developed world might have gone a little soft. alfredenewmanThat’s not to suggest it’s all good here, everything’s fine and dandy, What Me Worry? Eat your peas, young man. Don’t you know there are children starving in India? (Yes, I was in India.)

There’s probably very little distinction between poverty and grinding poverty to those contending with the former.

When I suggest we might be a little soft, it’s more to do with our approach to problem solving. Yes, we have problems. Some serious problems. But by comparison, in a relative sense, the solutions to our problems, even the seemingly intractable ones like inequality, affordability, are simple or, at least, simpler. They are, in fact, not intractable.

While away, I was amazed at how quickly you adapt or adjust to the wildly unfamiliar. The traffic chaos, the incredible shrinking sense of personal space, the urban livestock. indiagarbageBut the one thing I could not get my head around was the garbage. Now, I’m not talking litter, empty take away coffee cups strewn here and there. I’m talking piles of garbage on street corners in almost every village we passed, in major urban centres even.

India has less than one-third of the landmass of Canada but over 30 times the population. Factor in the jarring transition from a rural based, farming society to a high tech urban go-getterism and waste disposal is a significant, monumental social and infrastructure issue. Ditto the delivery of clean, potable water.

And that’s just for starters, off the top of my head, after a 10 day drive by visit.entitled

So when some here in Toronto talk about ‘deserving’ a subway instead of some rinky dink LRT, it takes on something of a grotesque stature if measured by global standards. You deserve a subway. Really?

I think it was Bill Maher who said, in the wake of September 11th 2001 when everyone was trying to figure out why the west had come under attack, that people hated us because we don’t know why they hate us. We argue bitterly over higher order of public transit while much of the world struggles with even the most basic of waste management.

So, yeah. It’s fair to say we’ve gone a little soft. obliviousOur problems, hundreds and hundreds of millions of people around the world would love to have. Yet, we seem deliberately frozen and resolute in erecting reasons why we shouldn’t/can’t robustly address matters that need addressing.

We live in a wealthy city in a wealthy country, full of educated and intelligent people with innovative and thought provoking ideas to make Toronto an even better place (although few have come up with ways to improve the weather here). We draw people from around the world because of the quality of life we have on offer. Improving that quality of life, and extending it to more of the population, isn’t, in fact, rocket science. Toronto isn’t starting from square one in terms of delivering the simple basics like water and waste disposal.

What problems we do have as a city stem from an unwillingness to deal with our problems. noworlaterOur infrastructure deficit exists because we’ve simply neglected to maintain and upgrade our infrastructure needs as the city grew and objects aged not because we don’t have the money to do so. Poverty exists because we’ve failed to address the root causes of poverty not because it’s somehow endemic and unavoidable. It’s not a question of possessing the capacity to deal with the problems but simply an indisposition to do so. No can’t. Just won’t.

Yeah. It feels like a lazy trope to go visit places like Sri Lanka and India only to return with the sentiment, So you think we’ve got problems… ? But coming as my trip did right on the heels of an election campaign that was defined as it was by limitations and very few demands made of voters, the two realities felt particularly jarring. flabbyNever has so little been asked of so many for so few… or something to that affect.

Our To Do list is extensive in its breadth. A little daunting at times owing almost exclusively to having been put off for so long. It’s hardly insurmountable, however, since we’re not exactly starting from scratch. We simply have to stiffen our resolve a little bit, accept some responsibility for building on what was already here when we came along, and get rid of the flabbiness that’s come from the inattention and disregard we’ve displayed over the last three decades or so.

sightseeingly submitted by Cityslikr


We Got A Lot Of Problems But Detroit’s Are None Of Them

September 1, 2014

So we took in a game at Comerica Park last week, and I can safely say this without fear of any serious rebuttal. Detroit has a far better baseball stadium than Toronto does. Comerica 1It’s the kind of park where you don’t even need a good team playing at it to want to go see every game. Just sit there, admiring your surroundings, soaking up baseball.

As for the rest of Detroit?

Well, we’ve all heard the stories. A city in decline. A city in distress. A city in a death spiral. “Detroit bankruptcy judge angrily tosses hold-out creditor’s charges,” screams one latest headline.

One thing did surprise me during our brief stay. The amount of work and restoration being done, at least in the downtown core. Sure, there were a number of eerily abandoned buildings, some old beauties from a more prosperous time. But it didn’t feel like any sort of impending collapse, certainly not in the small areas we made it to.

They were even digging up Woodward Avenue, the All-American Road, Automotive Heritage Trail, detroitpicrunning through the middle of downtown, to lay down the track for an LRT. How’s that for some symbolism, eh? In the Motor City, cars give way to trains.

Hopefully, it’s a sign that Detroit isn’t dying, it’s just changing, adapting. The city that was built by cars, built for cars, was nearly killed by cars. Wounded, but not mortally so.

Of course, cars are hardly the sole factor in the city’s woes, just like cars weren’t the only factor in the city’s rise. Detroit was an established transportation and manufacturing hub before Henry Ford set up shop there. But arguably, Detroit’s golden age mirrored the rise of the automobile.detroitpic1

I am hardly equipped to talk about the factors which coalesced to reverse the city’s fortunes over the past half-century or so, only it was a combination ultimately unique to Detroit. There were certainly overlaps with other rust belt cities situated in and around the Great Lakes but few places have suffered exactly the way Detroit has. No one set rules for revitalization or rejuvenation can apply to two separate places.

So I view dimly any politician evoking the civic dissolution spectre of Detroit when they invariably are trying to roll back public sector spending or the wages and benefits of city workers. We have to reduce our reliance on debt or else, Detroit. We must contract out public services or else, Detroit. Stand up to lazy union fat cats or else, Detroit.

Toronto can learn valuable lessons from Detroit but probably not the ones Detroit fear-mongerers try to push on us.detroitpopulation

Race and class.

While we here in Canada proudly imagine ourselves, I don’t know, post-racial or, at least, not paralyzed by racial tensions and class war, we really need to check the reality of that stance. No, we have not experienced the kind of open fissure the United States has, manifest in what we’re witnessing in Ferguson, Missouri at the moment. A major cause of Detroit’s current troubles is the white flight that picked up steam during the 1960s riots, drawing stark lines, racially and economically.

Toronto is far from immune from those dynamics. It’s true, the city was never hollowed out like we see in many major American cities. detroitriotsHowever, almost the reverse has occurred here. Our core is vibrant, gentrified, well-serviced and expensive. Our older suburbs, however, in the former municipalities like Scarborough, York, Etobicoke, have not kept pace. Here is where you’ll find the not so hidden face of Toronto’s racial and economic divide. New Canadians, many visible minorities, put down roots in these places where it’s less expensive and, unsurprisingly, less served with things like reliable public transit and public amenities such as libraries and community centres.

Our inequality starts here. If there’s one lesson we should learn from Detroit, it’s that no city can truly prosper or achieve its full potential when it’s hobbled by inequality. detroitarmCities with no-go zones bred from discrimination and poverty aren’t really cities. They’re fiefdoms. Little parochial outposts of self-interest.

Auto dependence is not sustainable.

While the city of Detroit’s population has shrunk dramatically, down over 50% since 1970, the region itself has remained relatively stable at around the 5 million mark. It is, essentially, a small downtown core surrounded by sprawl. Such reliance on private vehicle use has scarred significant portions of the core streetscapes with freeways, both elevated and at grade, carving up the urban space. Surface parking lots, many of them sitting largely empty even mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, take up big tracts of the downtown area, oftentimes, located right beside elegantly designed parking garages.detroitparkinglot

You don’t get a sense of much street life besides on game nights. Detroit has been dubbed Hockeytown (among other things) and its hockey arena is mostly car accessible. The stunted People Mover monorail that stops across the street isn’t much of a feeder system. It’s hard to imagine many people lingering around the area either before or after games.

Detroit cannot rebuild being what it once was, the Motor City.

Detroit also cannot rebuild if it’s sacrificed in the endgame of neoliberal politics intent on diminishing what remains of the public good. detroitinstituteofartsFor every corrupt politician making out like a bandit at the trough (and Detroit has had its share of those), there’s their counterpart determined to make the city a private playground for those who can afford it. Sell off public utilities. Pick off public sector pensions. De-unionize and privatize it all. Public transit? We don’t need no stinkin’ public transit.

Marvelling at the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, I was informed by a staff member that it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, referencing the estimated $1 billion value of the art works now being circled by vultures looking to pick the bones clean.

Beware the politicians who fail to see the good in the public good. They will starve it and then auction off what’s left to the highest bidder.Comerica 2

They will, these types of politicians, use Detroit as an example of why residents should lower their expectations of what a city can offer them, the opportunities available. We can’t afford that. Look at Detroit. We can’t raise taxes. People will leave. Look at Detroit. Take on debt to invest in the city? Look at Detroit.

Toronto has its problems, there’s no denying that. Few of them, however, bear much similarity to those facing Detroit. Learn from the ones that do and ignore anyone touting the ones that don’t.

non-nugently submitted by Cityslikr


Capital Report III

May 29, 2014

washingtondc

Clearly Pierre L’Enfant set about designing the layout of this nation’s capital in the late 18th-century with cyclists in mind. Take it from someone who has made his way around Washington by all sorts of modes, biking in D.C. is the way to go.

When the city introduced its bike share program back in the fall of 2010, it did so with a certain degree of gusto. It now has more than 300 stations and 2500+ bikes in use. Compare that with Toronto’s BIXI or whatever it’s called now and its 80 stations and a 1000 bikes. While a far cry for the Velib in Paris (1230 stations, 14,000+ bikes), finding a place to grab and drop off a ride is relatively easy. Even during a busy Memorial Day long weekend, we found ourselves bikeless only on a couple of occasions and not for very long.

capitalbikeshare

And, oh the places I have seen by bike this week! Neighbourhoods and off the beaten track sites that might have otherwise remained unseen. Would I have hopped onto the Metro to go see the grave of John Philip Sousa buried in the Congressional Cemetery? No. But by bike? Why not. Who knows the places we might discover along the way? The ‘Historic Capital Hill’ neighbourhood, in fact.

The city is still catching up in terms of bike lanes. There are a fair amount but you get no sense of a network yet. Yet. The big difference between riding here and in Toronto is the politeness of the drivers. Maybe it’s all that southern hospitality but drivers don’t really seem to mind sharing the road with cyclists.

Washington on foot is an undertaking. Pleasant to walk but there are significant distances between monuments and museums. Travelling by Metro is fast but you can miss some of the more quiet asides.

jpsousa

Biking in D.C. is the way to go. You might almost call it, capital! (But you wouldn’t because that’s British and people are still touchy about having their White House burned down.)

pip-piply submitted Cityslikr


Capital Report II

May 27, 2014

washingtondc

Aspirational.

It’s difficult comparing the actual centre of the universe to the in its mind only version (although I have yet to meet that mythical being who really locates Toronto at that point in their cosmology). Washington embraces its capital-ness with gusto. This is what we’re about, folks. This is US.

Yes. The hypocrisy at its core is not lost on me. Thomas “All Men Are Created Equal” Jefferson was a slave owner. The grinding poverty existing mere blocks from the White House. Miles and miles of museums dedicated to science and knowledge in a country filled by climate change skeptics and creationists.

Still.

Aspiration.

Washington flaunts its ideals even if it doesn’t always live by them.

mlkmonument

While I’ll leave it to Americans to wrassle with the implications of that, I still love visiting the city those ideals built. There’s always the possibility some of them may rub off.

hopefully submitted  by Cityslikr


Capital Report I

May 25, 2014

washingtondc

Ha Ha.

I bet no one’s ever called anything they’ve written about Washington ‘Capital Report ‘ before. There’s just something about this place that fills the head with creative thoughts.

Anyhoo…

Connect the airport to the city with easy, accessible public transit.

Getting into DC from National by subway is a breeze. It basically took us as long to walk from the gate to the metro as it did to take the six stops across the Potomac. Driving couldn’t have been faster.

I know National is closer to the heart of things here in Washington than Pearson is to downtown Toronto. Certainly Dulles Airport isn’t as transit friendly. But no major city should be without a rail link to its airport.

YellowLineDC

Toronto is finally getting there with the Union to Pearson line next year. (Fingers crossed!) I’ll leave the matter of electrification for another discussion. But if we were really being bold in Toronto, we’d be working on connecting to Pearson with the Eglinton crosstown and the Finch LRT. So everyone could make their way directly to the airport by public transit along north, south and central corridors.

beltwayly submitted by Cityslikr

 


Be D.Ceeing You Later

May 24, 2014

Off to the U.S. capital for a week.

washingtondc

Ahhhh, Washington.

Along with Chicago, it is my favourite American city. That’s no slight against New York or San Francisco or New Orleans. Fine destinations, all of them. But I rarely turn down an opportunity to travel to Washington.

Why is that, I’ve been asked. What’s so great about Washington? Well, because it’s only an hour or so from Camden Yards, my favourite baseball park.

Actually, it’s a fair question and one I’m going to try track down the answers for while I’m down there. Ideally, I’ll be delivering up short bursts of D.C. enthusiasm throughout the week. Fingers crossed. There’s always the possibility I could find myself otherwise engaged passing the time at the FDR Memorial, having a drink on the roof of the Kennedy Centre, hanging out with the orangutans at the Zoo, eating crab cakes somewhere in Georgetown…

camdenyards

stars and stripely submitted by Cityslikr


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