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

Life On The Streets

September 27, 2010

Off the top of my head, this weekend saw the following list of events in, on and around the streets of Toronto: the Waterfront Marathon, Word on the Street, PS Kensington, a grand opening at the Evergreen Brickworks, Harvest Day at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, the last weekend home stand for the 2010 Blue Jays. And that’s just off the top of my head. Next weekend comes Nuit Blanche and Picnic at the Brickworks. That’s before I put any thought into it whatsoever.

City’s that are in the kind of dire, downward spiral shape as Toronto’s being depicted by four of its mayoral candidates seldom display the vibrancy on show this past weekend. They’re usually too busy dealing with matters of urban decay to put on a host of festivities. Or maybe Toronto’s simply whistling past the graveyard; playing and cavorting while the city burns. Rather than expend its energy and precious resources making whoopee, it should be concentrating on fixing the basics like streetlights and potholes. That whole Rudy Giuliani Broken Windows approach to city building.

False dichotomy aside, the question begs to be asked. When was the last time you came home from a place you’d never been before and that really caught your fancy, and the impression it made most on you was, the street surfaces were impeccable? That’s not to say infrastructure maintenance is unimportant. It’s just not the difference between merely a livable city and one that is exceptional.

In an interview last week, architect and author (Cities For People), Jan Gehl said, “The number one attraction in any city isn’t the buildings, the parks, the sculptures or the statues. It’s people.” What we witnessed and took part in here over the past weekend was gatherings of people. Thousands and thousands of people running, mingling with authors, drinking overpriced beer and eating overpriced pulled pork sandwiches. Together. We congregated at various locations throughout the city not only to enjoy the events but to be a part of them with others. That’s what happens in dynamic, lively cities.

So when Rob Ford pronounces that events like the Waterfront marathon should be moved from the streets and into parks for the sake of relieving traffic congestion, he displays a staggering, life-killing amount of ignorance about what makes cities actually work. Never mind that he seems preeningly boastful about not even knowing that the marathon was happening on Sunday – a suggestion to Councillor Ford? Maybe if you used some of your office expenses to keep your constituents updated with what’s going on around the city, you might learn a little something yourself – his knee-jerk pro-car stance reveals a mind utterly out of step with the trajectory of how 21st-century cities should be evolving. He is a 1950s man campaigning 60 years behind the times.

Ditto, all those candidates simply mimicking his regressive, throwback views. You’re floundering because you’re simply offering up a pale imitation of the real, Paleolithic deal. The city’s already outgrown your antiquated ideas of how to help it, build it. The people out on the streets, participating in all the things Toronto has to offer, are waiting for you to catch up.

chastizingly submitted by Cityslikr

Meet A Mayoral Candidate XI

April 30, 2010

It’s Friday so let’s Meet A(nother) Mayoral Candidate!

This week: Michael Bloomberg.

What? Wait? Who? Michael Bloomberg?! What are you talking about? Enough already with the New York kick. Are you talking, Michael Bloomberg, that Michael Bloomberg? He’s not running here, is he? Can somebody actually be mayor of two cities at the same time?

No, no. Michael Bloomberg’s not running for mayor of Toronto but he probably could if he wanted to. I mean, who’s going to say ‘no’ to the 8th richest person in the United Stats?

We’re just taking a little break this week in the Meeting A Mayoral Candidate in order to explore a couple issues about electoral reform using the New York mayor as a jumping off point. Don’t worry. We’ll be back next week with our regular post highlighting one of the lesser known names in Toronto’s mayoral race.

When you’re talking a strong mayor system, New York City has, I think, what would be called a very strong mayor system. The position is a branch of municipal government all on its own, the executive branch to be exact, separate from the city council, much in the way that the American president is separate from Congress and governors are distinct from state legislatures. While mayors of Toronto have just recently been given modest powers to name committee chairs (and therefore the majority of members of the executive committee), in New York the mayor has a much wider reach of appointees who oversee the running of the city.

In Toronto, as a voting member of the council, the mayor can more readily steer the agenda toward the floor of council to be voted on but ultimately the position amounts to just one vote of 45 albeit the most prominent vote. Unless a mayor can muster 22 councillors to vote with them, a simple majority can override a mayor’s wishes. Not so in New York. While a mayor there doesn’t even vote with the council, they can veto any law that arrives on their desk from council and if the council then can’t muster up a 2/3s majority to override the mayor’s veto, the bill dies. So a mayor of New York can shape the debate with only 1/3 of council+ 1 behind them.

Michael Bloomberg himself brings a couple interesting things to the table. He takes no pay aside from a $1.00/year token sum. He does not live at Gracie Mansion, the traditional home of New York’s mayors. He’s taken no public money to finance any of his 3 election campaigns and reportedly spent over $70 million of his money to win the office back in 2001 and again in 2005.

To some, this makes him beholden to no one. Owing no favours, he governs with the city’s best interest at heart. A beneficent ruler, you might say, the ultimate philanthropist. Hopefully the next billionaire who decides to buy the office is as enlightened as Michael Bloomberg.

So beloved by his subjects electorate that when Bloomberg decided the two term limit was for mere mortals like Rudy Giuliani, the council extended him an additional term and the voters agreed by re-electing him in 2009. What happens in 2013 when Bloomberg comes to the conclusion that his work is not yet done as mayor of New York? Another special dispensation? Why go through the whole motion of setting term limits as a device to curtail career politicking if you’re simply going to ignore them when you have someone in office you particularly like or, at least, don’t yet loathe?

In the hyper-partisan world that is politics in the U.S., Michael Bloomberg is something of an oddity. He is a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent who seems to be working well with a city council that is heavily, heavily Democratic. Maybe that’s a sign that party affiliation at the municipal level doesn’t matter. At least, not if you’re ultra-independently wealthy like Michael Bloomberg.

So what does all this tell us about the varying types of governance at the municipal level which is something the Better Ballots folks are in the process of exploring here in Toronto? Do we really want people financing their own way into politics even if their intentions are honourable? Doesn’t that just lead us back down the path to a past where wealth and status trumped everything else including any sort of party system that might be in place? Democracy bought by few people to represent those without deep pockets.

This is especially troubling when paired with a strong mayor system. The richest person in the race gets elected and, fingers crossed, they’ve sought office for the best, most noble of reasons. And if they haven’t? Well, term limits aren’t going to spare us if they can just be ignored especially if other like minded politicians have also purchased elected power. It all seems unhealthy and a step back to a time that was not very conducive to a full and equal participatory democracy.

And yet, New Yorkers still seem quite happy with their mayor. Hardly the case here in Toronto. Maybe we’re not the big fans of democracy we like to think of ourselves as. All that we’re really looking for is a benign autocrat. A rich uncle who will know what is best for us and will act accordingly.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr