Viewpoint (November 01, 2010)

“Stop the gravy train!” Most architects cringe (or at least they should) when they hear City of Toronto mayor-elect Rob Ford speak about his platform, in which stopping the flow of gravy has proven to be the main event. Toronto’s next mayor appears to have little interest in championing community development projects, pedestrian-friendly design, and sustainable design initiatives. Throughout the recent mayoral election process, Ford positioned himself as a politician who vociferously pledged to reduce needless spending by Canada’s largest municipality. Bureaucrats at City Hall never anticipated the unprecedented wave of disenchantment from voters who have seen their salaries stagnate, household debt increase, and municipal taxes climb over the past several years, as they perceive public-sector elites to be amassing huge pay packets and spending taxpayers’ dollars on seemingly frivolous programs and services. To these voters, Ford is their defender and represents a candid politician who is able to speak for the angry everyman. To others, Ford’s boorish tactics and outspoken demeanour represent nothing less than a xenophobic, homophobic right-wing conservative who may singlehandedly erase whatever is left of a dwindling sense of public good in Toronto. The fact that Ford has comfortably won the election based on a platform that includes, among other things, cancelling Transit City–a hard-fought initiative to build eight new light rail transit (LRT) lines connecting neighbourhoods currently not served by rapid public transit–and vowing to tear up Toronto’s existing streetcar system, are just two reasons why urban-minded citizens should be concerned.

While the political barometer of change reads particularly gloomy for Toronto, a number of municipalities across Canada have also had their mayoral elections this fall and in many of these cities, voters will see positive changes in the weather, or at least a sense of municipal calm as their elected leaders pursue agendas that improve the quality of urban life.

For example, just north of Toronto in the Town of Markham, recently re-elected mayor Frank Scarpitti is achieving significant strides in progressively managing urban growth. With just over 300,000 people, Markham is aggressively pursuing the second phase of its bus rapid transit program and will likely establish a LRT system before any other municipality in the region. Furthermore, a new central business district is under construction–a $6-billion, 243-acre site that will include condominiums for 20,000 people, office space for 16,000 employees, and a host of ground-level retail and mixed-use housing–all within walking distance from each other. Scarpitti and his City Council will continue to promote compact transit-oriented communities for its residents, complete with a variety of housing options and adequate access to public transportation. Markham is also proving to be quite green–a recently completed high school, a condominium development and a number of office buildings are connecting into the municipality’s district energy system for heating, cooling and hot water requirements. Other sustainability measures include the promotion of projects that use cisterns to capture rainwater, thereby reducing the water load on the city’s infrastructure.

One of this fall’s more exciting mayoral races occurred in Calgary. To the surprise of many, Naheed Nenshi, a 38-year-old Ismaili Muslim won, becoming the city’s first non-white mayor. Nenshi produced a coherent and intelligent agenda based on optimism and common sense. His platform evolved into a set of issues that includes the promotion of sustainable mixed-use communities with good access to public transit and jobs. Nenshi understands the difficulties associated with urban sprawl, and that continuing to provide infrastructure and services for typical suburban development is simply unfeasible. Canadians were surprised to see Calgary elect such a progressive mayor, but with 23.2 percent of daily commuters using transportation other than cars to get to work (just slightly lower than the more self-righteous city of Vancouver) and the fact that Calgarians spend more per capita attending arts performances than any other major Canadian municipality, traditional stereotypes of Calgary as a backward city need revisiting.

Despite the crushing disappointment felt by many that Rob Ford will be the next mayor of Toronto, there continue to be many bright lights leading municipalities across Canada who support policies that are inextricably linked to progressive architecture and urban design principles: transit-oriented developments, a wide range of housing options, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and macro-scaled sustainability policies. If politicians like Ford continue to pursue an agenda that favours the freedoms of the individual taxpayer over the wisdom of building for the common good, then everyone will suffer.

Ian Chodikoff