Canadian Architect

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Editorial: Do Mayors Matter?

The real heroes may turn out not to be mayors at all--but the city bureaucrats who persevere in advancing major planning projects during lacunae in political leadership.

January 1, 2013
by Elsa Lam

A commuter on Bixi travels along the Milton Street bike lane in the Plateau district of Montreal. The shared city bicycle program was created under former city mayor Grald Tremblay, while borough mayor Luc Ferrandez has championed the local network of designated lanes. Alanah Heffez

A commuter on Bixi travels along the Milton Street bike lane in the Plateau district of Montreal. The shared city bicycle program was created under former city mayor Grald Tremblay, while borough mayor Luc Ferrandez has championed the local network of designated lanes. Alanah Heffez

January is traditionally a time for fresh perspectives and renewal. For many Canadian architects, the most pressing issue at the forefront of change for 2013 is municipal governance.

Allegations raised during the Charbonneau Commission hearings led to the resignation of Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay, Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, and Mascouche mayor Richard Marcotte. London mayor Joe Fontana faces charges of using federal money to pay for his son’s wedding. In Toronto, an Ontario court judge ordered Rob Ford to leave his position over donations to his football charity solicited using city resources.

From all appearances, the office of mayor is key in championing a long-term vision for the physical territory and cultural image of a city. Mayor Tremblay, for instance, fought to keep the Formula One Grand Prix in Montreal and oversaw the transformation of the area around Place des Arts into the broader Quartier des Spectacles. While these projects have incited local debate, the popularity of events including the Grand Prix and the International Jazz Festival–the latter of which is now hosted on grand plazas instead of parking lots–have kept Montreal on the global stage as a cultural metropolis. This progressive image is underscored by the city’s popular, if financially troubled Bixi bike-sharing program, also initiated by Tremblay and accompanied by a comprehensive network of bike paths in the downtown core.

Mayor Ford’s year in office has, for his part, been marked by controversy over Toronto’s waterfront plan and the city’s public transportation infrastructure. In adopting an aggressively pro-business and pro-automobile stance, Ford threatened to derail plans long in the making, inciting the righteous ire of the local architectural community, among other constituencies.

Throughout the past century, municipal governance has attracted its fair share of strong personalities. However, these figures do not exclusively occupy the seat of mayor, nor are their legacies uncontested.

Perhaps no city-shaper is as notorious as Robert Moses, who comprehensively transformed New York from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, while occupying various non-elected roles in city and state government. Robert Caro’s 1974 biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, long the definitive oeuvre on his legacy, criticized Moses’ aggressive management style and charged his urban renewal projects with an underlying racist agenda.

History is a fickle judge, and the critical winds have more recently turned in Moses’ favour. Columbia University professors Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson’s 2007 volume, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, accompanied by a trio of exhibitions across New York, shifted the focus from the man to his works–the formidable portfolio of highways, bridges, buildings, parks, playgrounds and pools that have, mostly for better than for worse, made the city what it is today. Critics such as Samuel Zipp have gone further, characterizing the urban renewal projects of the era as the result of broader cultural and economic forces rather than the product of a single mastermind.

Will current opinions on Canada’s troubled mayors endure in the future? It seems that many of those in present circulation are based on emotionally satisfying judgments of personality. An even-handed assessment of Tremblay’s attempts to rehabilitate Montreal over the past decade has been overshadowed by criticism of his moral legitimacy. Ford’s simplistic demeanour is all too easy to mock, and many urban-minded Torontonians have celebrated his potential dismissal from office.

But pundits have also noted the broad public awareness around urban issues generated during Ford’s short term in office: Doug and Rob Ford’s pitch for a megamall, monorail and Ferris wheel on the port lands spurred many Toronto residents to take a closer look at the sophisticated plans already in progress for the former harbour. Like Robert Moses, the real heroes may turn out not to be mayors at all–but the city bureaucrats and the directors of bodies such as Waterfront Toronto, who have persevered in advancing major planning projects during the present lacuna in political leadership.

Elsa Lam [email protected]

 


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