Editorial: Toronto City Hall versus Toronto Public Libraries

It appears as though Toronto City Hall is in the midst of a battle against culture that is largely fuelled by the need to close the gap on a $774-million shortfall in the City of Toronto’s 2012 operating budget. Mayor Rob Ford and his city councillor brother Doug are bullying other councillors who are fearful of appearing to be wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. As a result, Toronto’s municipal government is focused on eliminating services, encouraging public-private partnerships, and selling off municipal assets. These efforts will be detrimental to the vitality of Toronto’s culture because of the mayor’s deprioritization of services relating to arts, education, heritage, and environmental stewardship.

Armed with a recently released report undertaken by the management consultancy of KPMG, Mayor Ford has been given justification to demand why tax dollars must be spent on heritage preservation, libraries, day care and public art. Examples of the cost-saving recommendations contained in the KPMG study include abandoning Toronto’s urban agriculture program, shuttering successful community zoos such as the Riverdale Farm, cancelling public art and public realm improvement programs, removing heritage grants and eliminating the heritage tax rebate program.

But it is the possibility of closing some of the Toronto Public Library’s (TPL) branches and reducing its level of service that has triggered the most debate. When world-renowned author and Canadian icon Margaret Atwood instigated an online petition and social media campaign against likely TPL cost-cutting measures, she encountered dismissive–and even derisive–commentary from Doug Ford, who initially suggested that he wouldn’t recognize her if she were to walk right by him, and that he’d only address her concerns if she became an elected councillor.

TPL supports early literacy skills for both children and adults while facilitating a welcoming sense of community across the city’s diverse neighbourhoods. Toronto’s public library system is one of the largest in North America, with 99 branches containing over 11 million volumes. Its $183.4-million budget allowed it to circulate 31.2 million volumes and offer 27,862 programs in 2010. Over three-quarters of Torontonians use the public library.

In recent years, many of TPL’s new or renovated facilities have received architecture and urban design awards. Such projects include the Bloor/Gladstone Library (RDH, in association with Shoalts & Zaback Architects and ERA Architects), and Hariri Pontarini Architects’ Pape/Danforth branch that won a 2009 Toronto Urban Design Award–the jury report cited the project as a “testament to the dedication of a client who clearly values the benefits of successful architecture as a way of engendering community and community space.” In 2004, the St. James Town Library, which also incorporates the Wellesley Community Centre and the Wellesley Early Learning Centre, was recognized as a benchmark project for establishing a sense of place in its high-density neighbourhood context.

Across the country, there is a lengthy list of recently built architecturally significant libraries, with several more to be completed in the near future. The impact of these projects in revitalizing and strengthening their respective communities is profound. Today’s public libraries have a much greater purpose than merely serving as a repository for books. They exist as an invaluable resource that many people rely upon for research and private study, and to participate in their many popular learning programs. The City of Toronto has the responsibility to build upon its successful public library system so that its citizens can continue to enrich their minds through the wisdom of what today’s library continues to offer, until such time that Mayor Ford succeeds with his plan to close libraries and implement other unfortunate cuts to arts and culture in Toronto.

Ian Chodikoff ichodikoff@canadianarchitect.com