How Ama­zon brought the GTA to­gether

Is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties fi­nally chang­ing for the bet­ter?

Thornhill Post - - News - DAVID FLEIS­CHER Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist David Fleis­cher is a long­time jour­nal­ist and cur­rently an ur­ban plan­ner liv­ing in York Re­gion.

It may be a long shot that Ama­zon will choose to build its mas­sive sec­ond head­quar­ters in Markham or Vaughan, but what if a side ef­fect of the ef­fort to woo Jeff Be­zos is fi­nally chang­ing the way Toronto and its sub­ur­ban neigh­bours see one an­other?

To my mind, there’s some­thing un­seemly about the way Ama­zon is mak­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties grovel for the priv­i­lege but given the prize — high pro­file, 50,000 jobs and un­told spinoff ben­e­fits — it’s un­der­stand­able.

It wasn’t sur­pris­ing Toronto threw its hat in the ring, but it was sur­pris­ing how it hap­pened: in con­cert with the rest of the re­gion.

York Re­gion ran five po­ten­tial sites up the flag­pole dur­ing the six weeks in which most of the GTA’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties worked in uni­son to de­velop Toronto’s pitch. Ul­ti­mately two of them — Markham Cen­tre and Vaughan Metropoli­tan Cen­tre — made the fi­nal cut, along­side down­town Toronto and sites scat­tered from Mil­ton to Ajax.

Putting aside how great it would be for ev­ery­one if any of the GTA’s sites ac­tu­ally landed this cor­po­rate catch, what may be most note­wor­thy is how rare it is for our may­ors to ac­tu­ally ar­tic­u­late what’s so ob­vi­ous: that we have a com­mon eco­nomic in­ter­est.

It al­most makes you won­der why they don’t do some­thing sim­i­lar, pitch­ing the up­per lev­els of gov­ern­ment on their mu­tu­ally de­vel­oped plan for tran­sit or elec­toral re­form or what­ever.

No, most of the time they go about their busi­ness with lit­tle time or con­cern for one an­other.

“We need a gov­ern­ment sys­tem rel­e­vant to 2018, not 1972.”

That was Ajax’s mayor, Steve Par­rish, speak­ing last month at York Univer­sity along­side a panel of sub­ur­ban may­ors as part of the Af­ter Sub­ur­bia con­fer­ence.

The con­fer­ence marked the cul­mi­na­tion of a seven-year re­search project that has stud­ied sub­ur­ban­ism (the lifestyle or so­cial com­po­nent of sub­urbs) around the world, based out of the City In­sti­tute at York Univer­sity (CITY). (Full dis­clo­sure: I was priv­i­leged to con­trib­ute to the project dur­ing my two years there as a grad­u­ate stu­dent.)

The panel was rep­re­sent­ing the Greater Toronto Sub­ur­ban Work­ing Group, formed to “cre­ate a dis­course about the sub­urbs by the sub­urbs, in the sub­urbs, for the sub­urbs,” ac­cord­ing to its co-co­or­di­na­tor, Sean Her­tel, a Toronto-based plan­ner who once worked for York Re­gion.

Par­rish was point­ing out the ab­sur­dity and pow­er­less­ness of the current sit­u­a­tion of On­tario’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and the im­por­tance of gov­er­nance and mu­tual self­in­ter­est.

Bar­rie’s mayor, Jeff Lehman, in­di­cated the proof is in the pud­ding: 443 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in On­tario are gov­erned by a sin­gle law, and yet the City of Toronto has its own leg­is­la­tion and per­mis­sion to use tax­ing pow­ers that give it greater in­de­pen­dence.

Linda Jef­frey, Bramp­ton’s mayor joked, with only a hint of irony, that it’s her mu­nic­i­pal­ity, not Toronto that is the prover­bial cen­tre of the uni­verse.

It’s cer­tainly a bit of dark hu­mour for those of us who live just out­side Toronto and feel eter­nally in its shadow. And it’s not just that it feels that way. Jef­frey noted there’s “a lot of turf war” and scarce re­sources when it comes to our fast-grow­ing re­gion.

Just look at tran­sit, where York Re­gion needs to wait for Toronto to fix its own net­work be­fore the des­per­ately needed Yonge sub­way ex­ten­sion can get rolling. Even if that weren’t the case, nei­ther Toronto nor York Re­gion is re­motely ca­pa­ble of build­ing such a project alone. The way our coun­try was built back in the 1860s en­sures mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are legally ham­strung. As Par­rish pointed out, the growth logic that dic­tated the need for our re­gional mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the 1970s is equally ob­so­lete.

It’s been more than 20 years since Anne Golden’s re­port out­lin­ing a more sen­si­ble re­gional sys­tem of gov­er­nance, but all that’s hap­pened since is some new pow­ers for Toronto.

The Ama­zon bid, along with 2015’s Pan Am Games, show that, when push comes to shove, we know — not very deep down — that we’re all on the same side. And yet, ac­knowl­edg­ing it day to day re­mains a rar­ity for some rea­son.

The chal­lenges we’re fac­ing can’t be ad­dressed by pow­er­less fief­doms, but there is strength in num­bers. To Jef­frey’s point, those num­bers favour the sub­urbs, where the ma­jor­ity of GTA res­i­dents live, whether Toronto likes it or not.

Sure, it would be cool if Ama­zon shocked ev­ery­one, build­ing its new cam­pus at Jane and High­way 7, but whether we win the bid or not, maybe the more im­por­tant legacy would be a new era of team­work.

A ren­der­ing of the three bio­spheres be­ing added to the Ama­zon head­quar­ters in Seat­tle

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