Canadian Commentary: Society
Postscript: January 2001 - Gratifyingly, a few months after I wrote this article, the City of Toronto unveiled a draft of the city's master planning document, which contained many of these ideas. The main element it is lacking is a vision for the development of the subway system. A subway system is the backbone of a large city, and if the subway does not expand, the city will not develop. The city is intimidated by the huge capital costs involved - but if the city uses some of the ideas I discuss below, these costs could be addressed.

A Vision for Toronto

November, 1999

At the end of November, 1999, the Toronto Star ran a series calling for new visions of Toronto for the new millenium. Unfortunately, the Star, despite its "populist" image, only ran visions written by its staff writers and one or two well-known commentators. Input from the public was limited to soundbites, and the whole initiative quickly fizzled out. Yours truly submitted his own vision to the Star, but (inexplicably!!!) they chose not to print it. So I'm publishing it here instead.

New visions for Toronto usually focus on Toronto's downtown - developing the waterfront, burying the Gardiner, filling in vacant land - and on the linkages between the downtown and the outer suburbs, such as traffic management and integrating the municipal and GO transit systems. While these visions are worthwhile, they ignore a vital part of Toronto that could be in danger - the "inner" suburbs, North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York and York.

Fo many years, these cities competed effectively using the suburban model - cheap land, low taxes, sprawling car-based development. Social services could be largely ignored because the demand for these services was concentrated in the downtown core, where the much greater density of residential and commercial development provided a sufficient tax base to support these spending needs. However, beginning with the creation of Metro Toronto, and culminating with amalgamation, the inner suburbs have been increasingly faced with "downtown" responsibilities. At the same time, commercial and residential development beyond their borders has been exploding - and this development is cheaper than development within the city limits. The inner suburbs will be gradually caught in a catch-22 - they are too expensive to compete with the outer suburbs for development, yet they cannot offer the atmosphere or amenities of the downtown core that could justify these greater expenses.

Now that Toronto has been amalgamated, there is no possibility of the inner suburbs "going back" to a low-cost, sprawl model of development. The only way the inner suburbs can compete is by steady urbanization - by increasing their density, by providing a more attractive, sophisticated and integrated space to live and do business, and by improving public transportation service, thus increasing property values and tax revenues while making the provision of services more efficient.

Suburban dwellers tend to see such "urbanization" proposals as a threat, fearing it will introduce "inner-city" problems and decrease property values. In fact, however, such urbanization can only work if property values increase. Any such urbanization plan would have to be carefully thought out, with community involvement, and would have to be part of a long-term vision. The result would be a great improvement in the vibrancy of Toronto's suburban areas. At the moment, they consist of attractive residential neighbourhoods joined together by retail strip arteries which are effectively urban wastelands, ugly, alienating and inefficient. A good urbanization plan would maintain the integrity of the residential areas, and focus on developing the main arteries and under-used industrial spaces. Retail strips would be gradually transformed into boulevards, attractively landscaped with trees and wide sidewalks, lined with dense, mixed retail/commercial/residential low and medium rise buildings. Such development would necessarily be accompanied by expansion of the subway system or dedicated rapid transit lines along these new corridors. After all, why should only downtown Toronto have attractive main streets and good public transportation service?

The long-term plan would be that, in 50 year's time, Toronto will be transformed into a beautiful, densely populated, fully urban city. The goal should be an increase in population from 2.5 million to at least 4 million souls, and a public transportation network in which no-one is more than 15 minute's streetcar or bus ride from a subway station. The increased property values and better efficiency of services brought about by densification would mean that the city would be able to maintain itself without having to rely on the province.

The big question is, of course, how could the city pay for such expansion? Commentators often claim that upper levels of government must contribute, but in reality the city will never be able to rely on provincial and federal funding. The feds won't pay because cities are a provincial responsibility; the province won't pay because the rest of the province does not like or understand Toronto, and they are in the majority. The best thing Toronto can do is persuade the provincial government to take on full responsibility for social services such as welfare, in return for the city accepting full responsibility for infrastructure, such as public transit and housing. Such a move would reduce Toronto's competitive disadvantage with other municipalities. The provincial Tories might be open to such a deal, as they have promised to rationalize service delivery and reduce property taxes.

But how will Toronto pay for such development on its own? The answer is that expansion of the public transit system and landscaping of suburban arteries must be paid for by the increase in property values created by densification itself. In the first place, the city must pay for the Sheppard subway by greatly increasing the density allowed along Sheppard. In the longer term, the city could explore the use of Tax Increment Bonds, in which the bonds issued to pay for infrastructure development are paid off through the increase in tax returns from the ensuing rise in property values. These bonds have been a fundamental tool in the regeneration of many American cities. As long as their use is properly regulated, they enable development, while ensuring that new investments are targeted in ways that will increase property values.

There are also other funding possibilities that would avoid any increase in property taxes. It has already been proposed that the city sell off Toronto Hydro and use the interest to pay for infrastructure development. This proposal is illogical - any private enterprise that purchased Toronto Hydro would have to hike rates considerably to cover the price of buying the utility. Why not simply keep Toronto Hydro in public hands, but add a small surcharge to hydro bills that would go towards infrastructure development? The effect would be the same, but Toronto Hydro would remain the property of the citizens of Toronto.

Another idea would be to establish tolls on ALL of the highways going into Toronto. Since these highways are already paid for, the tolls would be lower than those on the new toll highway north of Toronto. They could be no more than the cost of a TTC ride. But at least those who use these highways would have to pay, which would be a more accurate reflection of the economic cost of their choice of transportation. A toll system would be much more practical than the gasoline tax that many commentators advocate (notably The Star). We know that the provincial government is committed to not raising taxes - but on the other hand, it has shown some enthusiasm for user fees. A toll is a user fee, and the government might well be willing to implement more tolls if it helped get Toronto off its back. The money from these tolls could go directly towards paying for the expansion of the TTC's subway network, an expansion that would drive Toronto's continued economic development and integrate the whole city.

With such a long-term plan for the city's development, all of Toronto could be turned into a densely populated, prosperous, vibrant city, in which one could travel quickly by public transit between any two points of the city, in which the whole urban space was beautiful to drive through or walk around. Building on our city's many current advantages, such a vision could transform Toronto into one of the great cities of the new millenium.

November, 1999

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