Neigh­bour­hoods get­ting bet­ter in spite of mayor

Com­mu­nity-build­ing ini­tia­tives move qui­etly for­ward thanks to ac­tivist coun­cil

Midtown Post - - Sewell On City Hall - by John Sewell JOHN SEWELL Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist John Sewell is a for­mer mayor of Toronto and the au­thor of a num­ber of ur­ban plan­ning books.

Look­ing at the lit­tle pic­ture some­times gives you a bet­ter sense of the big pic­ture, and that’s true of city pol­i­tics. We’ve been so bam­boo­zled by Mayor Rob Ford and his an­tics that many of us might have missed the real change that has hap­pened in our city.

While the mayor and his de­creas­ing num­ber of coun­cil al­lies have been flail­ing away at is­sues that have not met with suc­cess — the Fer­ris wheel on the wa­ter­front, a big casino, jets on the Is­land air­port, a very limited property tax in­crease — a num­ber of coun­cil­lors have been get­ting things done “un­der the radar” as Coun. Gord Perks puts it. “For the first two years, coun­cil fol­lowed Ford, but the dy­nam­ics have changed and people now go their own way.”

Perks was a sig­nif­i­cant player in the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment be­fore be­ing elected in 2006.

He talks about the ac­com­plish­ments of his col­leagues on coun­cil such as Adam Vaughan (Trin­ity Spad­ina), Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Cen­tre–Rosedale), Janet Davis (Beaches–East York), Shel­ley Car­roll (Don Val­ley East) and oth­ers as the “ca­coph­ony of the small.”

“There’s a shift in em­pha­sis to build an ac­tivist com­mu­nity,” he says. “The ap­petite for a lively city is con­sid­er­able, and it hap­pens by nor­mal­iz­ing projects on a neigh­bour­hood level.”

It hap­pens not by get­ting city coun­cil to es­tab­lish some big broad new pol­icy, but in­stead by mak­ing some­thing hap­pen as though it is a one-off that doesn’t chal­lenge any greater agenda.

That’s why, now that June is here, there are so many lo­cal farm­ers’ mar­kets flour­ish­ing in the city. It’s why in­no­va­tive bike lanes have sprung up such as the con­tra-flow bike lane on Shaw Street or the bike lane threaded into the com­plex­i­ties of Ron­ces­valles Av­enue.

It’s why fun and com­mu­ni­ty­build­ing projects such as tem­po­rary par­kettes have ap­peared on streets. Or the pedes­tri­an­iza­tion of streets to meld to­gether the dif­fer­ent parts of Ry­er­son Univer­sity. Or the prom­ise to close King Street to traf­fic for the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val this fall.

“This neigh­bour­hood level of in­vest­ment has been hap­pen­ing in spite of the mayor,” Perks says.

“There are good people in the city’s pub­lic ser­vice. If politi­cians give them the ap­pro­pri­ate per­mis­sions, they are more than will­ing to sit down with the pub­lic and im­ple­ment in­no­va­tions. But the coun­cil­lor must be will­ing to take some risks.”

There have been many dis­putes about de­vel­op­ment, and Perks and most other coun­cil­lors blame the On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board for the stag­ger­ing num­ber of condo tow­ers un­der con­struc­tion. But the most ac­tive coun­cil­lors have ne­go­ti­ated with de­vel­op­ers for lo­cal ben­e­fits, us­ing Sec­tion 37 of the Plan­ning Act that en­ables them to de­mand money and/or af­ford­able hous­ing units.

Perks notes that achiev­ing these af­ford­able units is of­ten done qui­etly, given that some com­mu­nity mem­bers are op­posed to a good mix of in­comes. But he thinks many hun­dreds of new units have been se­cured this way.

Gains have also been made in fi­nan­cial sup­port for day­care and new park space. He thinks the new de­vel­op­ment per­mit sys­tem will strengthen the lo­cal coun­cil­lor’s hand and deny de­vel­op­ers free and easy ac­cess to the OMB.

One other hope­ful sign is the re­newed in­ter­est in what hap­pens at city coun­cil it­self. There’s enough of a mar­ket for coun­cil news that sev­eral people have found pay­ing work tweet­ing and reporting on coun­cil meet­ings. “There’s a whole new so­cial net­work that en­gages people about city pol­i­tics,” he says.

And the tenor of coun­cil will surely change with new can­di­dates who are chal­leng­ing Ford sup­port­ers on the same ba­sis, such as Alexan­dra Bravo against Ce­sar Pala­cio (Daven­port); Bob Spenser against Gary Craw­ford (Scar­bor­ough South­west); Russ Ford against Mark Grimes (Eto­bi­coke-Lakeshore).

All of which leads one to be­lieve that these rosy lit­tle pic­tures will prob­a­bly lead to a much health­ier big pic­ture even in the un­likely event that Rob Ford re-emerges as a se­ri­ous ac­tor on the Toronto stage.

Many projects that boost lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties hap­pen un­der-the-radar and use funds pro­vided by de­vel­op­ers

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