Columnists

Elizabeth Littlejohn
Design for Democracy: A different path for Toronto

| June 28, 2013
Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

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"A city is like our family portrait. We don't rip our family portrait, even if we don't like the nose of our uncle, because this portrait is you." - Jaime Lerner, Mayor of Curitiba

 The allegations that Mayor Ford smokes, or has smoked, crack are just that -- smoke and mirrors --- obscuring the real issue at City Hall, Toronto's public infrastructure is in tatters. There is a window of opportunity to build a smart, green city, but distracted by Mayor Ford's sideshow antics, billions of dollars of infrastructure funds have the possibility of being poorly allocated, while consultation time is wasted, during his time in office.

This misuse of funds could have a lasting impact on our quality of urban life. His legacy -- and let's not forget to add his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, as part of his tag team, as well as the developers who funded Mayor Ford's campaign -- could be retrogressive urban planning, which will undermine the Greater Toronto Area's ability to build a city resilient to climate change, and match the healthier environment those cities are beginning to enjoy as they implement principles of new urbanism.  

Toronto will be lost in the smog of the 19th century, while these cities will move ahead with integrated transit networks -- including bike paths and electric rail systems -- and preserved downtown core green space.  

The wheel has been invented; the City of Toronto is spinning its wheels in reverse. Case in point? Wasting $275,000 to erase $1.3 million of bicycle paths on Jarvis Street, while Portland, Vancouver, Curitiba and New York City cannot build them quickly enough. Benefits of bike paths? Enabling citizens safer travel, increased satisfaction with perceived return on our taxes, fewer cars on the road, and less road rage from drivers and cyclists alike. Once these rare infrastructure funds are gone, they will never be available again to build a less congested Toronto.

Since Mayor Ford has come to office, his Executive Committee has enabled contractual agreements for Transit City and the Port Lands to be reconsidered, as well as the Tripartite Agreement governing the Island Airport, complicating prior solutions to Toronto's congestion. Mayor Ford also tried to run around City Council's voting protocol to support the province's and Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's bid for a downtown casino, although, in an abrupt turnaround, he rescinded his vote when he was told the City of Toronto would receive only $53.7 million in hosting fees, half of what he requested. His carefully selected Executive Committee enabled Porter Airline's president, Robert Deluce, to walk on a $2.26-billion purchase order to expand Porter Airlines with jets, which will increase air traffic and pollution over the waterfront, and extend both ends of its runways by 168 metres, blocking boat traffic in Lake Ontario's inner harbour. The Toronto Port Authority is paying $600,000 for the first part of this consultation, with $1 million estimated for the second part, a $1.6 million expense which will be downloaded to the taxpayer.

Amusingly, ex-Mayor David Miller's "Transit City" came back to be rebranded by Mayor Ford's office as "Transportation City," to be lauded as one of his office's triumphs in his latest form letters sent to anyone who has ever sent him a letter. This transit planning was left primarily intact as the previous mayor designed it, except for significant financial penalties for cancelling the original contracts. In times of austerity? Pay contractors to stop work, rebrand the plan as part of your office's achievements, and send the contractors back to the same jobs.

At the end of the casino debate, Councillor Shelley Carroll said it best when she said that Mayor Ford lost 30,000 jobs for the GTA when he voted against the $1.3 billion plan for Transit City to support his mantra for "Subways, subways, subways." Subways would re-open Transit City contracts for developers to acquire air rights for high rises along corridors, but subways would not connect Toronto's underserviced exurban communities, and alleviate "poverty by postal code" for those wasting hours in transit on crowded buses. 460,000 vs. 217,000 would be served by light rail transit through disconnected neighbourhoods, at half the price of subways; infographics on maps provided by the Toronto Environmental Alliance and the TTC Riders swayed the council decision against subways, and Mayor Ford's push for subways was defeated. Every hour in gridlock adds to pollution and is an hour not working, or spending time with friends and family; the Toronto Board of Trade estimates that congestion costs the economy $6 billion each year in lost productivity.

By including local businesses in this greater transit planning, there is still an opportunity for job growth in the GTA. Canada has Bombardier, and some of the finest construction firms for streetcars and subway cars internationally; Metrolinx will not help to build the Canadian economy by contracting out $8.4 billion of transit infrastructure to a multinational firm to build Transportation City. These jobs should go to Canadians first, and city councillors should be pressing for more municipal inclusion in these contracts. Instead, both Mayor Rob and Councillor Doug Ford spoke publicly against raising taxes to help Metrolinx build transit infrastructure, actively campaigning against the transit needs of many of their supporters in Ford Nation.

Infrastructure planning for the Pan Am Games has fared no better, but shows promise. Although the Pan Am Games are just a two-week event, the purchasing of diesel, rather than electric, trains for the Union-Pearson Express to run athletes through a 10 km wall of 5-metre high noise walls in the west end of Toronto, and the loss of the University of Toronto's back campus to two artificial turf field hockey playing surfaces -- one for practice and one for play-- will become historical bloopers, and costly, concrete reminders of thoughtless budget allocation, scarring our downtown core.

The two high performance sports fields for the Pan Am Field Hockey Centre will cost $400,000 a year to maintain by the university, and will change the multipurpose back campus to a single use sports facility. No more pick-up soccer and football games, frosh orientation, or picnics will be possible on these lined fields, and although City Council voted that they were to be revisited ten years from the Pan Am Games, their metre of concrete bedrock and crushed plastic underlying the turf means that they are unlikely to be removed.

Gideon Rose

These fields could have been built on Roberts Street, or been negotiated to just one field, instead of two, or the event held on the playing fields already being built for the Pan Am Games in Brampton. Green space loss in central Toronto will add to the heat island effect of the downtown core, rather than providing cooler temperatures. The official site for the Pan Am Games 2015 says that it will be the first games 'to be fully carbon neutral' and 'green'; how can we ensure this?

The City of Toronto representative in charge of the Pan Am Games, Councillor Mark Grimes, has an extraordinary opportunity to develop a master plan to integrate housing, transit and sporting needs with the Pan Am organizers, funders and Metrolinx, and crowdsource ideas from urban advocacy groups -- such as the Canadian Urban Institute, Waterfront Toronto, TTC Riders and Pan Am Path -- to maximize the funds available to Toronto to provide long term benefits. Positive examples? After the Pan Am Games, the athletes' village housing in the West Donlands will become residences for George Brown, with affordable housing planned in its Canary District, and the University of Scarborough students will be able to utilize the Pan Am aquatic center and field house.

On July 3, City Council will consider a proposal for the Pan Am Path connecting seven neighbourhoods, with twelve public art installations and community projects, along its 80km route. An active transportation network for cyclists and walkers, it will be a living path connecting key sites from the games through a continuous bike path from Brampton to the waterfront to Scarborough. Costing just $2 million, its modest funding would come from a Pan Am Games foundation for legacy projects, and would be an invaluable contribution to safe bicycling infrastructure and the arts.

Pan Am Path from Pan Am Path on Vimeo.

Golden opportunities to build a future for a greener Toronto could be lost in times of budget austerity, while transit and sporting facility contracts quickly exchange hands, and international best practices to implement public transit, urban sustainability and planning for climate change are left in the lurch. Urban stakeholders have excellent projects to propose to the City of Toronto, the federal government, Metrolinx, and the Pan Am Games organizers to ensure that future infrastructure has a permanent, positive legacy.

We all deserve an integrated transit system, bicycle paths, and multipurpose housing and sporting facilities as the Pan Am Games' legacy, and our consultation should not be ignored, but actively solicited. It is free, informed and relevant, and we will have to live, travel to work and pay the economic and environmental costs as GTA. citizens -- and, secondarily, as taxpayers -- long after the games have ended.

Citizens invested in a vibrant Toronto are cutting off our nose to spite our face if we do not intervene with these granting bodies to provide better solutions for this use of public funds. Fortunately, this discussion has begun.

 

Elizabeth Littlejohn teaches sustainable design, social innovation and new media. The column "Design for Democracy" focuses on sustainable design solutions for a greener future.

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