The Mayor’s Bid For Greatness

May 10, 2011

There is another possible explanation, of course.

While everyone (especially around these parts) simply assumes our mayor is, at heart, an monstrous anti-(sub)urbanite, intent on nothing more than making the city the best place in the world to drive in, perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps Mayor Ford has a far broader reaching and comprehensive agenda in mind. Perhaps in a sheer act of mad genius, he is playing long ball on us, poised to elevate Toronto to New York and London status. Perhaps, we’ve got him all wrong in terms of city building.

This thought struck me as I read through the Financial Times article, ‘Livable v. Lovable’ (h/t @dylan_reid). “We need to ask, what makes a city great?” urban development professor Joel Kotkin tells the FT. “If your idea of a great city is restful, orderly, clean, then that’s fine. You can go live in a gated community…”

Any city with a mountain backdrop or the ocean lapping up at its toes or laid out in a well designed grid pattern that enables an efficient transit system can claim to be more livable. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a city great. Great cities breathe paradox. Obscene wealth brushes shoulders with abject poverty. Traffic snarls, giving the inhabitants the edge they need to survive in the concrete jungle. Neighbourhoods rise and fall and rise again to accommodate the forever changing face of a city.

Great cities aren’t just lived in. They’re loved. They can’t be planned. They just happen. Like a civic flash mob.

Maybe the mayor’s up to creating a little less livability in exchange for an added dose of lovability. He’s looking to take the Swiss out of Peter Ustinov’s descriptor of Toronto and make it more New York. Not current day New York, mind you. New York City circa mid-1970s, near bankruptcy. Zurich is cute and well run and all that. It can have its way on the livability index but where’s its NFL franchise?

So the mess Mayor Ford seems determined to create is deliberate, only not in the bad way most of us have been ascribing to it. It’s to put us on the road towards greatness. If it’s ‘friction’ that gives great cities their spark, the mayor’s prepared to start a bonfire of impressiveness here in Toronto.

Neglect leads to deterioration which leads, inexorably, to renewal. That’s what urban planners say. Maybe the problem in Toronto is that we’ve tried too hard to maintain things and it’s all ended up half-assed.  Maybe it’s time to really let things go to seed. Infrastructure, transit, heritage, parks. Build us some really dodgy neighbourhoods, one or two of our very own favelas even. I’m thinking somewhere in Scarborough. It’ll become really cheap to live there. When that happens, artists and bohemian types move in. That’s the trendy stage and gentrification is sure to follow.

In the article, Mr. Heathcote opines that great cities mix beauty with ugliness. “… beauty to lift the soul, ugliness to ensure there are parts of the fabric of the city that can accommodate change.” Arguably, Toronto has contributed more than amply over the years to the ugly front. But that’s not to say we can’t do better. Take for example the proposed Fort York pedestrian bridge. Too arty for the likes of Councillor Shiner, it seems. Take it back to the drawing board and gussy it down. Uglify it so to attract the less desirable elements of society. Have them establish a troll like community under the ugly bridge. Hipsters will inevitably displace them with their edgy bars and galleries. Next stop, a great city.

Now, my theory on the possibly positive approach Mayor Ford is taking to re-imagine Toronto falls down somewhat in his war on graffiti. What says ‘gentrify me, please’ more than graffiti? To be fair, though, the Financial Times does worry about the affect of violence on a city’s capacity to be great. The mayor may just be adhering to the Rudy Giuliani view of stopping small crimes stops big crimes. So I think you could stuff his anti-graffiti crusade into the thought of helping make Toronto great.

Of course, some might consider this putting all your eggs in one basket based on one article from a writer clutching at straws to explain how his hometown always seems to be left off other Best Of lists. Or, more generously, one particular school of thought of what makes a city great. There are other metrics to make such judgments. Like, say, this one for instance. The World’s 26 Best Cities for Business, Life, and Innovation.

“We’re measuring what makes a city successful,” Merrill Pond, vice president at the Partnership for New York City told The Atlantic. “Success as we define it cuts across business opportunity, cultural opportunity, and education opportunity. We use ten indicators [including Transportation and Infrastructure, Intellectual Capital and Innovation, and Lifestyle Assets], each made up of smaller variables [within Lifestyle Assets: share of green space, skyline impact, hotel rooms].”And how did Toronto do? #2. Just behind New York City. “Toronto is a ‘beta’ city…because it’s not considered a part of the conversation with London, Paris, and New York for greatest city in the world. But it has all the building blocks of a superlative international city, beginning with smart ideas about sustainability and innovation.” [bolding ours]

Yeah but, innovation’s hard. It takes lots of… innovative ideas. As for sustainability? Well, that costs money upfront, and just in case this Merrill Pond hasn’t been following along here, Toronto’s got a spending problem. Rather than building on those so-called ‘building blocks’, it’d be so much easier just to knock them down and start over again. With no more thought put into it then off-the-cuff remarks based on rumours and gut instincts.

An organic mess, let’s call it. That’s the mayor’s plan for this city. It’s quicker, cheaper and requires only part time participation. Football teams aren’t going to coach themselves, you know.

Sometimes you just have to think small to build big things. If there’s one thing Mayor Ford is good at, it’s thinking small. We need to stop criticizing him for that and start realizing that maybe, just maybe, great things can grow on such shallow, fallow land.

hopefully submitted by Urban Sophisticat