Monday, December 20, 2010

London Fawning

Just some thoughts I've made about Shawn Micallef's excellent Back to the Mothership article in this week's EYE Weekly...


Whenever a Torontonian goes to London for the first time, I find they often come back saying something along these lines… "Oh my God, it's the greatest place ever! Did you see their subway map? Like holy shit! And those palaces! Picadilly & Oxford Circuses all the shopping, museums…lager, lager, lager! It leaves Toronto in the dust!” Not that I thought you’d write a piece like that, but I really did enjoy the timely honesty and the fact that you’ve experienced London and Toronto both deeply (which is key in writing such a piece). In many ways they two cities are incomparable as London is a genuine “centre of the universe” alpha city whereas Toronto is an emerging upper-beta city (arguably going through a mid-life crisis). Still, I think it’s fair to find and draw similarities in their existences, urban forms and even cultures. I’ve made the same sorts of comments with friends that Toronto and London sometimes remind me of each other and I’m usually laughed at or met with a strange silence. Why? Because most people experience London as a “west end tourist” which is very different from any “living in Toronto” experience. However, if you get into the messy urbanism of some of the neighbourhoods, where real Londoners live, I think your comparisons are pretty apt.

Not necessarily disagreements, but a few things that stuck out for me…

•London, like New York, offers a heck of a lot of economic and cultural freedom and this is probably the #1 reason for its continued draw, despite the British economy and the crap weather. London, unlike the rest of Europe, heck the world, is a place where nobody really cares what you do as long as you do something. Berlin has a bit of that too, but London has the economy to push those ideas forward perhaps better. Also, somewhat like Toronto, there’s no real requirement to “fit in” or to become “Canadian/British” (whatever that means). Indeed, London is thoroughly British in some ways, but is also an island unto itself at least figuratively (and NYC being both literal and figurative vis-√†-vis the US). I feel Toronto plays a similar role in English Canada.

•Outside of London’s “west-end” the messy urbanism of London and Toronto are similar in their spirit, although not always architecturally. There’s no rigid design plan, but generally somewhat sensible urban policies are followed in both cities. They allow and welcome various styles and heights and both Greater London and the GTA are poly-nucleated with virtually dozens of sub-centres relieving somewhat their respective cores. London’s density is pretty-much always miles-ahead of T.O.’s though and is quite a bit better at cenetring that density around transit (our Yonge line being an obvious exception). Moreover, something like Liberty Village or the current Don Lands/Portlands developments would never be allowed in London without a Tube/DLR extension, yet we allow it here with the faint hope that one day we’ll get a dedicated tram line or maybe, just maybe, a Downtown Relief Line. Basically, we let development drive development. For example, their gentrifying neighbourhoods (i.e. Shoreditch, Dalston, etc.) are now served by the brand new 86 km Overground system that is longer and more extensive than the entire TTC subway. Yet our Junctions, Leslievilles, and Parkdales have virtually no hope of transit improvement this generation.

•Toronto’s subway is indeed more reliable and more comfortable that just about any TFL line. However, its skimpiness does impede transit around the city arguably greater than London’s notorious Tube delays (which are getting better in general). If there are no Tube delays, you can be anywhere within Zone 1 or 2 in London within 20 minutes which is an incredible feat if you really think about it. However, if one tries to get from Parkdale to the Don Valley in Toronto they have zero options, save two antiquated streetcar lines the have no priority over single-vehicle traffic that can often take 45 minutes or more. I guess what I’m saying is that despite the smaller trains, the deep stations and the cumbersome delays, I feel much more stranded in parts of the old city of Toronto than I ever do in London. The night busses running on a spoke-like system also make things quite easy. Moreover, London’s system is built around the network principle and integrated with national and regional carriers and therefore there’s always other options even when a delay occurs. The other Toronto option is pretty much always "let's just take the cab." It is very fair to say though that both Toronto and London suffer from decades of underfunding and non-investment in infrastructure. I'd give the edge though to London here in doing the better job of reinvestment (especially in light of the "cancellation" of Transit City). It's definitely not run like the Swiss or Germans in London, but I'm quite comfortable in saying that it is better than in Toronto.

•Toronto and London both currently have what could be thought of as “bad mayors.” However, as ill-informed and downright cringe-worthy as some of things that come out of Boris Johnson’s mouth are, they are never anti-urban. In fact, they are thoroughly the opposite. He rides his Barclay’s bike to work, he talks about investing in all forms of transit where they make sense, improving the public realm, not pitting one part of the city against another (at least anymore). Yes, Toronto has survived bad mayors before, and we will likely survive this one, but I’d put Ford in a very different category than Boris. We are dealing with ill-informed, knee-jerk anti-urbanism. London is just dealing with a guy who says silly things, but completely understands that investments, transit and public realm issues aren’t gravy, but central to competitiveness.

•Toronto clearly wins in the affordability category (even compared to other Canadian cities like Vancouver). Even if you were sharing a flat with three or four people in London, you certainly wouldn’t be living in Soho, but possibly somewhere out in Hackney (or beyond). In Toronto, you can live next to our west-end theatres on a single middle-income wage. It may be tight, but doable. Still, I suppose the counter-argument is that you pay for the city and London clearly has more to offer (not to say that Toronto doesn’t punch above its’ weight). Basically, if you are middle-class and you value having "nice things" it is far easier in Toronto. No question. In London, you will have less personal stuff, but arguably more good public stuff. Also, London's famous unaffordability has dropped in recent years, but is admittedly still much more expensive on most fronts (i.e. real estate, petrol/gas, transit, etc.)

•Christmas decorations on Yonge Street versus any High Street in all of London is a stark contrast in getting the little things right (and yes, Yonge gets it very wrong). Moreover, it reveals lots about our different thinking about urban design and other public realm issues (like trees, garbage cans and paving stones). Britain’s High Street policies may have led to almost every High Street's retailers looking like the next one over (i.e. Boots, Ladbrokes, M&S, etc.) but at least it has kept people on the High Streets. Stores sizes are also strictly regulated in the UK and councils work to keep the shopping in the centre. Moreover, the public and retailers demand a street to match their vast assortment of goods to be consumed. A good example is Camden High Street which recently removed lanes of traffic and became a "woonerf" to slow and reduce vehicular traffic and to make it easier/safer for pedestrians. Moreover, the local retailers were begging for this to happen. In Toronto, these improvements are often fought by the very businesses they are intended to help or worse now called "gravy."

Like you Shawn, Toronto is my hometown and I love it dearly for many reasons that go beyond it being my hometown. And yes, I still like it better than London in many ways. However, at this juncture in our history I think we can learn a lot from the colonial mothership and I’m happy you’ve made the argument. At the end of the day, I could list 100 things wrong with both cities (and 100 things right), but I'm a fair bit more optimistic about London than Toronto these days.

Wow, and I just wrote all that withouth mentioning "multiculturalism" or referencing Brit Pop.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why I'm Going with George

A few of you have asked for my opinion in this year's Mayoralty race. Others have expressed surprise that I'm supporting Smitherman over Pantalone. Most of you haven't asked me anything, but I feel this election is THAT important, that I'm just going to go-ahead and tell you anyway...

I'll try to keep this concise, but like a big complex city, my answer is somewhat the same...

First off, I like Joe Pantalone and his record of service is pretty impeccable for a 30-year veteran at City Hall. I generally vote NDP-ish municipally as I think public services are most important at this level. Joe would seem like my natural guy. What I don't like about his campaign though is the complete lack of individual vision. Let's say that Mayor Miller were the undisputed greatest mayor of Toronto ever (and I think he was a fairly good mayor) I still would not be impressed by Joe simply running on his record. He doesn't need to run against it, but he's his own man and I want to know what he'd do different. However, he's never actually answered that. It's just more of the same. Which in the grand scheme of things wouldn't be so bad (at least compared to Ford), however there are some real issues about the city's finances that "creative" budgeting can't forever solve (and is the elephant in the room of Pants supporters). Tell me your vision Joe! I just don't hear it. He's also been completely unable to read the political wind and sentiment regarding said finances (reality or not) and it really makes me question if he's actually Mayor material or should have just stuck to being a reasonably good councilor. Yes, he's done a good job as the city's "tree czar" and running Exhibition Place, but they are pretty small fish compared to running Canada's sixth largest government. Moreover, he's one of the architects on Toronto's so-called "war on fun" and has been giving entrepreneurs along Harbord Street a hard time for opening restaurants and let’s not forget that he also helped push through the draconian new law that makes it next-to-impossible for a restaurant/bar to open a back patio or second floor south of Bloor throughout the core. There's also the issue of transit planning in the developing west waterfront from the railway lands through Exhibition Place which has been fragmented for years with no clear vision from Joe except a strange anti-DRL (Downtown Relief Line) and pro-Front Street Extension stance.

I'm also very unimpressed by Joe's behaviour this last week. He's going down regardless, but he's trying to pull Smitherman with him which I really don't understand. He doesn't have to pull-out (that's his prerogative) and he doesn't have to endorse Smitherman either. But why oh why is he calling Smitherman "worse than Ford" and "Mini Mike Harris" when all reasonable analysis would suggest that's not at all accurate? Smitherman helped bring down Mike Harris' "Common Sense Revolution" which Joe seems to be conveniently forgetting. Basically, he's playing party politics over the good of the city and it really disturbs me. NDP hatred of the Liberal machine basically. However, as per usual, the only machine that will take a public relations beating if Ford becomes Mayor is the NDP's and I'd say with good reason. Suggesting Ford would be better as he "couldn't pass anything" isn't really honest either. The 2005 City of Toronto Act gave our city's Mayor powers that go beyond being "just one vote on a 45-member council." The thought of someone like Giorgio Mammoliti running the TTC is not a scare tactic on my part, but a genuine possibility.

I'm not a massive supporter of strategic voting, but I think strategy has to be part of everyone's decision as the voting system we have is, well, sucky and forces us to hedge bets, compromise positions and ultimately vote for the realistic candidate. It's not anti-democratic to use strategy, but basing a choice on the hand given. I hope initiatives like David Meslin's RaBIT ( lead us down the path to a better voting system and that Toronto never again finds itself in a position where a large percentage of the population is to likely vote for their #2 guy. What I tell my friends though (and many of them are Pants supporters) is that if you feel Joe is way better than Smitherman and that you don't like Smitherman at all, then your vote should clearly be going for Joe. I would never want to tell someone not to vote for someone who is so clearly their #1. However, if you find Joe and George equal or that Joe is only relatively better than George, I seriously don' t think there is anything wrong with putting the interests of your city (and yourself) first in your important decision. It's cliché to say, but people not using some strategy clearly leads to four years of Rob Ford. For the record, I don't think Smitherman is a crazy amount better than Pantalone either and if their polling numbers were reversed, Pantalone would be getting my vote on Monday.

I'm not an urban planner, architect or traffic engineer, but have spent a good portion of the last 15 years actively engaging myself in such debates and writing and thinking about them as well. Everything in me tells me that Rob Ford would be just about the worse thing I can imagine for Toronto. Anti-intelligence, anti-urban, anti-diversity, simpleton messages based on fear and a policy that actively pits people against people and parts of the city against each other. He's become our version of the Tea Party and is now even sprouting anti-science nonsense that homosexuality is a "lifestlye choice." Perhaps most importantly though, he's at odds with how just about every western city is heading in the world and would have Toronto standing alone on many issues (sort of like Harper’s Canada). Even right-wing Mayors like NYC's Bloomberg and London's Boris Johnson have been investing in the public realm BIG TIME and understand the complexities of being a global city. Ford doesn't get that and has no desire to either. It will be four years of frustration and embarrassment for Toronto and the region. Full stop. Actually, potentially eights years of Ford (as there are lots of electoral advantages that come with incumbency). Four (or even eight) years is a heck of a long time with so much momentum and city-building happening right now. Stopping that momentum I feel would set us back far more than four/eight years as the stars will have to be perfectly aligned once again for it to continue at today's pace with some possible new mayor in the distant future. This city has already lost a generation, particularly on the transit front, and I'm not sure we could ever play catch-up and maintain our competitive place with Rob Ford creating gridlock and embarrassment at City Hall. So yes, I think Rob Ford is that bad and also why it is that important that people seriously consider what years under Ford could do to T.O. This isn't a reasonable Conservative like John Tory. This is a very different animal. As NOW Magazine's very lefty Alice Klein said... "God save us from the electoral idealists who want you to 'vote with your heart.' Time after time, they are the right-wing’s secret weapon." Rob Ford clearly knows this and his strange alliance with Pantalone this week is proof.

George Smitherman was never my first candidate. I was hoping to be able to support Winnipeg's former Mayor, Glen Murray, but that never happened as we know. However, I have come to George over the last few months for a variety of reasons and can comfortably say I would vote for him even if Ford were not in this race. Admittedly, his campaign has been pretty all-over the place and he's been in catch-up mode for months as he let Ford (and to a lesser extent Rossi) define the summer and the election. However, I think he's been on-message and very good these last few weeks. I had the opportunity of seeing George speak in-person just a few nights ago at Salon Camden @ The Martin Prosperity Institute where no media were allowed access and he was questioned quite heavily from a variety of academics. He responded brilliantly and was able to fully form answers (without being cut-off in debates) to very complex city-building questions. It was also great not having the media there to just report his "A Vote for Pants is a Vote for Ford" sound bites which makes it seem like that's all he ever says. Basically, George believes in Toronto, but that its place on the global list of top-tier cities is tepid at best. We've accomplished a lot, but we need to continue building our infrastructure (hard infrastructure, cultural infrastructure and business infrastructure). Nowhere have I got the sense from him that he's out to slash and burn Toronto and reading his platform doesn't suggest much of that either. Endorsements from city builders like Ryerson's Sheldon Levy and architect Ken Greenberg are very telling on this front. The caveat though is that a coming half billion dollar 2011 budget deficit will mean a few hard choices and yes, some temporary cuts. However, we are in a global recession and both our senior governments are also broke. Something somewhere has to give a bit and he's not afraid (unlike Pants) to admit this. He's also not like Ford pretending that Toronto sits on the precipice of disaster because of non-issues like the plant watering guy at City Hall. So yes, I do see George as a bit of a turn to the right financially for Toronto. I won't deny that and some don't like that. However, I also think it may be warranted and that any talk of George being a "Mini Mike Harris" remain ridiculous. If you still feel he's too right-wing than your vote can always be tempered with voting for the most progressive Councilor in your ward (something that has endorsed).

On the social front, George's credentials on the environment, human/equality rights, arts/culture, etc. have always been equal or better than Pantalone's as has been widely published in local media via many, many organization's report cards (including the Green Party just this week). George can appeal across the political spectrum (i.e. David Crombie, Alice Klein, Adam Vaughan, Sarah Thomson, John Tory's son's, etc.) and actually get things through council (which doesn't scare me by the way). Moreover, he'd also have a decent shot of getting senior governments to listen (regardless of what party is in power). Let's all keep in mind how successful our last mayor who said stupid things was with the province (despite both being c/Conservative at the time). The "furious" in George may very well come in handy for a city that gives far more to Ontario and Canada than it gets back (to the tune of $9 billion/year).

George does have some baggage, most particularly eHealth, but under most reasonable analysis, he's to blame for maybe 20% of that money "not being spent to its full potential." Nonetheless, the fact that it constantly plagues him I think is reason enough to believe that he'll be very aware of this in future decision making and can be trusted to run a clean City Hall. I also think he has the personality traits to really grow into a decent Mayor for this city even if they aren't all crystal clear yet. Basically, he can be a change agent without burning the house.

Let's also not forget the #1 issue in Toronto that has mostly been forgotten about this election due to the "gravy train" nonesense... transit! George's transportation plan takes the best aspects of Miller’s Transit City and builds on them. It's also more subway-heavy which is reflective of what Torontonians are asking for and sensible on the right corridors. He's not anti-streetcar by any means and would continue to build our tram system while saving and enhancing the legacy streetcars. He's of the correct belief that trams are not the one-size-fits-all solution Pantalone believes they are. Big city's need a variety of transportation options to match the needs of the individual corridor. Ford and Pantalone don't offer that. It's either subway or tram with no in-between. As you may know, Steve Munro (Toronto's most famed transit advocate and a big backer of Transit City) has now thrown his support behind George too. George's 2020 transportation map can be found here ( and looks ridiculously good next to Ford's regressive non-transit "plan" found here ( George's transit plan is also a good bit better than Pantalone's who believes that subway expansion does not really have a future in Toronto and whose streetcar-only plan will undoubtedly lead to more neighbourhood tensions, perhaps similar to what was witnessed along St. Clair West over the last seven years.

Another couple pluses are that George is for reforming the voting system, he's looking to allow Community Councils greater power (which hopefully would solve some of the alienation some in the mega-city feel), will continue Miller's green agenda and the initiatives of WaterfronToronto. He's also pro-"open data" and wants to institute fines/penalties for construction delays (which will go along way to easing the business pain seen on St. Clair W, Roncey and on Bloor through Yorkville). He also has proven leadership experience, particularly in the Ontario Ministry of Health (which is the largest single ministry in Canada). Moreover, as Mayor Barbara Hall's assistant he has the local experience to back it up. I also think he has the ability to be a good statesman and promoter of our city at home and abroad. He's not perfect, but I feel he's a decent bit better than Pantalone and miles better than Ford.

If you think everything I say is hog-wash, that's fine. As long as you are passionate about your Toronto and vote on Oct. 25th than we have much more in common than we don't. Also, if any of your friends/colleagues are confused about where to place their vote, feel free to distribute this. I don’t mind at all!

Lastly, if you aren't sure where to vote on Monday, please cite this...

Thank you for your time and let's hope this all works out.