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Urban Experience

Toronto needs more power to live up to its duties, says former chief planner

Hogtown should either shirk its fiscal responsibilities or bring home more bacon. Paul Bedford advocates the latter.

By Stefan Dubowski

Toronto’s woes are largely due to a lack of political power and fiscal control, according to the city’s former chief planner. He says it’s time this city had the clout to make its own way.

Speaking as a guest of the University of Toronto’s Urban Studies program in January, Paul Bedford, Hogtown’s recently-retired chief planner, called for a new City of Toronto Act that would give the urb the power to raise new revenue and control its destiny.

“We can’t do very much,” Bedford said, describing Toronto’s current situation. “We’re treated like a small Ontario town,” with little authority to raise its own cash.

As a result, Toronto can’t cover its expenses, Bedford said. It can’t take care of parks properly, so trees go un-watered. It can’t invest in social housing projects to give homeless folks places to live. It can’t put money into its public transit system, and it’s tough to convince citizens to leave their cars at home — all the better for the environment if they do — when public transit isn’t up to snuff.

“This city is up against the wall in a very unsustainable financial position,” Bedford told the people gathered at the U of T to hear him speak. “It didn’t happen by accident,” he added, noting that the province “downloaded” responsibilities such as social services onto Toronto, but gave the urb no new ways to raise money and cover the costs.

Bedford said it’s time for a new Toronto Act, an agreement with the province and the federal government that would give T.O. more financial leeway than it has now. The Act would let Toronto implement its own, city-specific taxes to bolster its bottom line, Bedford said.

For instance, “many places have their own income tax,” he said, noting that some municipalities in other countries have more control over their income than Toronto does, which gets 45 per cent of its income from property taxes. London, England takes just eight per cent of its income from property, he pointed out. That city has other means of raising capital.

A new Act might even let Toronto contemplate controversial moneymakers, like tolls on the highways feeding into this place — a notion that, although unpopular, Bedford refuses to discount without serious discussion.

“That’s part of being a planner,” he said. Planners must raise controversial issues to effect change on the urban landscape.

But it won’t be easy for Toronto to get what it needs, Bedford said. For one thing, citizens are largely uninterested in civic matters, so there’s no massive hew and cry for the province and feds to give this city more capital-raising power.

“A lack of interest in your city — that’s pretty sick,” he said.

That disengagement translates into zero political will at city council, Bedford said. He noted that the Gardiner Expressway — a raised highway largely considered a blight on the landscape — remains standing even after discussion around the concrete eyesore led to a strong suggestion that it should be buried or taken out altogether.

The plan would cost money, and it seems T.O.’s pols weren’t willing to put money where their mouths were, Bedford said.

Bedford’s presentation seemed to go over well with his audience at the U of T. Gabriela Mendoza, an Urban Studies student, said it was encouraging.

“I’ve lived here four years now, but I’m from Mexico City,” she said, noting that her home has some work to do. “We lack urban planning completely. Things get done haphazardly because the city doesn’t have the power.”

But it could be a while before Toronto and Mexico improve their planning situations, judging by Pat Peterson’s words. Director of the U of T’s Urban Studies program, Petersen used to chair Scarborough’s planning board. Back when Scarborough wasn’t just another Toronto neighbourhood but a standalone city, the planning council spent a lot of its time trying to convince politicians that they should aim for intensification — more development where it’s already started.

“We were promoting it out there in Scarborough and hoping it would get developed,” Petersen said.

And so it did. The area around Scarborough’s main shopping mall, the Scarborough Town Centre, is sprouting townhouses and condominium towers. It might prove to be an intensification success story. But Petersen and her crew were pushing for the very thing nearly 30 years ago. It takes a long time for change to come, she noted.

Bedford was Toronto’s chief planner for more 30 years before he retired in 2004. In that time the city took on more responsibilities through provincial downloading, and grew through forced amalgamation. Its pocketbook became strained; its public transit system, in dire need of a fiscal injection. But despite it all, Bedford seems hopeful that the province and the feds mean it when they promise new powers for T.O. so the city can make its own way, and make new funding to help it live up to its duties.

In the end, “2005 may be Toronto’s year,” he said.