Late last month Christopher Hume wrote in the Toronto Star about Rob Ford’s ‘legacy of fear’. The choirmaster may have been chased out in disgrace but the same hymns continue to be sung. It remains all about the hard working taxpayer (and a very specific, single family home owning taxpayer at that), drivers, finding efficiencies and looking out for any sort of downtown elitist assault on the little guy.
“Political paranoia has so unnerved current leaders that they are unable to make the choices they must,” Hume states.
I would venture to say that such skittishness extends to this city’s staff and public servants. Avoid spending money on anything other than what’s politically acceptable – witness the outrage with cost overruns on the Nathan Phillips Square revitalization versus the collective shrug about the nearly half a billion dollars to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway. There’s still plenty of bloat at City Hall, so keep your departments ‘lean’. Objective analysis replaced by ideological and politically opportunistic ‘deserves’.
Think about that as the Spacing series continues to unfold, Parks in Crisis (parts 1 and 2). Toronto has, in the neighbourhood of $250 million, in what is called the Parkland Acquisitions & Development Reserve Fund. This is money paid by developers, set aside to purchase new parks and green spaces or rejuvenate existing ones in order to keep up with the increased development happening in the city, higher density development dependant on public spaces as ‘backyards’ basically for the growing number of multi-residential inhabitants.
That’s kind of surprising, isn’t it? Weren’t you under the impression the city was tapped out, little room for the nice-to-haves like parklands the former mayor was always on about? Now we’re hearing there’s hundreds of millions of dollars just sitting there. What gives?
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than I’ll make it out to be here (that’s why John Lorinc is an actual journalist and I’m not) but I’m going to argue that this culture of fear that has descended on City Hall plays a big part in the inertia that’s allowing park space to fall further and further behind the pace of current development.
Who was the biggest loudmouth against the purchasing and refurbishing of green space over the last 5 years or so? Rob Ford. There were very few items along those lines he did not hold and did not rail against. Too much money, was his constant mantra, to be wasting on parks, playground and almost any public space that wasn’t a road.
In such an antagonistic environment, who in their right mind would step up with a park push? Keep your head low and money pile out of sight. Rob Ford may not even know the cash is there.
More structurally problematic, as Lorinc and Kimberley Noble point out, is the understaffing at City Hall due to the continual budget cuts and revenue decreases. The city can’t even keep up with maintaining existing parks and public spaces. What’s the rational for building new ones that won’t be looked after?
Moreover, there’s not the departmental staff to deal with the complex negotiations that go into securing these development funds, sometimes ranging into the tens of millions of dollars, or to implement some big, mega-park enterprise. “If somebody said, ‘here’s $100 million, let’s go,’ there isn’t the staff to execute those kind of projects,” Spacing is told. In the end, the city winds up taking the money and stashing it away, in the hopes of more favourable conditions, sometime in the future, I guess.
What about now, you might ask. Isn’t our long, municipal nightmare over? There’s a new sheriff in town, we’re told.
Bringing us back to Christopher Hume’s point. Rob Ford has effectively poisoned the civic well and his successor has done little so far to suggest he’s willing to stand up in a spirited defence of the commons. Mayor Tory has claimed repeatedly he was elected to keep taxes low. Check. He’s confident he can find savings through more efficiencies, ordering a 2% reduction in departmental budgets. Check. The point people he’s tapped to oversee many of these matters don’t instill much confidence in reversing the spending chill at City Hall.
Deputy Mayor and Waterfront TO board member Denzil Minnan-Wong doesn’t see a public expenditure not on roads he can’t rail against. Remember Sugar Beach and those outrageous pink umbrellas, rocks and fancy public bathrooms? Surely, cheaper. And who’s chairing the Planning and Growth Management Committee? Why that old Spadina expressway enthusiast himself and noted tightwad, Councillor David Shiner.
These are names not usually associated with policies of smart growth or generally friendly to the common good. If anything, they signal a retrenchment of the Fordian era of illogical fiscal skin-flintery. Remain invisible, city staff, and don’t get flashy with any of your valuables.
Nor should there be any expectations from Team Tory of addressing the green space inequities the Spacing series points out. 69% of the parkland reserves between 2011-2014 came from what is most of two former municipalities, Toronto and East York (47% of that from just three downtown wards). Yet that same part of the city has received just 15% of all total new parkland since amalgamation.
But wait. That can’t be. Conventional wisdom says that downtown gets everything. Conventional wisdom (even when coming from the disreputable mouths of Rob Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti or Glenn De Baeremaeker) cannot be wrong or, at least, cannot be contested. Certainly, Mayor Tory wasn’t elected to contest such politically sensitive conventional wisdom.
“…[Rob] Ford turned self-doubt into self-hatred,” Christopher Hume writes, referring to our reflexive anti-government opinion toward City Hall. Mayor Tory has embraced that sensibility, putting a smiley face on the empty boosterism that rarely includes any positive public sector contribution. In so doing, he threatens to milk the current building boom in Toronto dry, leaving the mess that will inevitably follow for others to clean up.
— fearfully submitted by Cityslikr