Can COVID- 19 lessons lead to a bold leap forward?
Mayor John Tory weighs in as we recap the Star’s yearlong series on how to make the city the best it can be by the end of the decade
Toronto 2020 was surely the worst first year of a decade in living memory.
So when Toronto 2030 debuts it will not have a high bar to clear.
Still, if it’s to be counted as a true success, the city has a lot of work to do over the next nine years.
During the past pandemic year, the Star has explored a host of ideas — from transportation to housing to technology, taxation and beyond — that could help create a better, more livable municipality when 2030 arrives.
They were ideas contoured by the virus, certainly, as it changed the way Toronto’s citizens work, shop, travel and play.
But the COVID- 19 crisis clarified thinking. The disease exposed many faults and needs that had been hidden or ignored for years, and pointed to more ethical paths forward.
And as we enter this vaccine year, many of these challenges will still need remedies, Toronto Mayor John Tory says.
“A vaccination is a great thing. It gives people hope, vis- a- vis how to deal with COVID- 19,” Tory said.
“A vaccination however ... won’t address affordable housing. The vaccination won’t address the inequities some people face in terms of access to opportunity. The vaccination won’t address how we can build out our transit.”
If it showed us our faults, however, Tory says the pandemic also exposed the city’s “really good bones” — infrastructure, values and institutions that it can use to successfully meet the decade’s hurdles.
“We have a pool of smart people here, the envy of the world. We have a set of values that has us respect and embrace each other, the envy of the world,” he said.
“We have a great industrial and commercial base of financial services, life sciences, technology and so on … a quality of life that is ranked objectively as being among the top in the world. All of that is still here.”
And perhaps, Tory says, the pandemic may have also made the city bolder, more able to go forward with less of the hallmark hesitation it has brought to big issues in the past.
While he advocates for continued consultation before major moves, Tory says that the dire contingencies of COVID- 19 showed the city could push forward with less trepidation than it often has.
“The city, over time, has been timid about making the kinds of changes that have to be made to keep the city great and I think that’s true, it’s in our nature,” he said.
“I think ( however) the pandemic has shown us that you can take bigger steps … ( that) you can do things that need to be done in a more expedited fashion.”
Here’s a recap of some of the top ideas touched on in the Toronto 2030 series, with updated commentary from some of the experts and thinkers who shared their ideas over the past 12 months.
The talent gap
In February, before COVID- 19 took its scythe to the job market, the city was facing an imminent shortage of workers in fields like construction, nursing and logistics over the coming decade.
The question was how to fill those jobs — jobs that themselves would shift in unknown ways as technology, shopping habits and demographics changed at a rapid pace.
One answer lay in North Carolina, where the collapse of the tobacco industry had left thousands of low- skilled workers unemployed, but where job openings in a nascent biotech sector were going unfilled.
“They were really struggling to find people with the skills they needed,” Sarah Doyle, director of policy and research at Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, told the Star’s Josh Rubin.
And the skills divide between low- tech tobacco and cuttingedge biotech might once have seemed impossible to bridge.
But then a combination of colleges, tech companies and different levels of government came up with a plan — a concentrated, six- week course that gave many of the former field and plant workers the skills they needed to fill the new jobs.
“It worked because it was all the stakeholders. Workers said what they needed. Employers said what kind of skills they needed people to have. Colleges helped design the courses, and governments asked, ‘ What can we do to help?’ ” Doyle said.
Similar strategies involving multiple players were part of the story’s suggested solutions to Toronto’s worker shortages, with the overarching theme that change might well be the one constant in many forms of employment.
An adaptable workforce primed to learn and able to access education would be key to the city’s talent gap.
“You need to see a much better co- ordinated effort in training and retraining,” Vik Singh, an expert in global management at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management said in a recent interview.
In March, as the virus took hold, we looked at five transit systems around the world — in London, Singapore, Luxembourg, Bangkok and Tashkent, Uzbekistan — for flashy ideas on improving Toronto’s system.
But the transit message that COVID- 19 would spread here was all about the city’s humble transportation workhorse, the bus. As downtown office workers stayed home in droves, subways and streetcars emptied, but suburban buses remained packed with low- wage “essential” workers who kept the city running.
“We really need much better surface transit, much better bus services,” said University of Toronto transportation expert Eric Miller.
“The baby steps the city of Toronto ( and) the TTC are currently taking in terms of some express bus lines, I think we have to be much more aggressive about that.”
Miller says the bus deficit has been hiding in plain sight for years, with jazzy subway and LRT projects taking precedence over beefing up the surface system.
And, he says, the chronic underservicing of some areas, especially in the suburbs, meant infrequent, crowded buses in swaths of the city that left them especially vulnerable to a pandemic.
And then the pandemic came. “One thing the pandemic has shown us is how dependent we are on our surface transit, particularly the buses, particularly in our suburban neighbourhoods,” Miller said. “I would hope we’ve learned some lessons from this and that we actually do invest in these things.”
A new emphasis on buses, especially on bus rapid transit or BRT routes that give the vehicles signal priority and rights of way, would have several advantages, Miller says.
First, it could be rolled out quickly and cheaply.
“It’s not without a price tag, but it’s much cheaper than multibillion- dollar subway investments, and it’s something you can get going on right now,” he said.
Second, it would address the inequity of service that left lessaffluent segments of the city with subpar transit and in more danger of disease spread via crowded buses.
COVID- 19 shone a spotlight on this inequity, Miller says, as it did the critical importance of the bus- bound workforce.
“Hopefully, we’ve come to appreciate how important, how essential these sorts of workers are, who we pay minimum wage and who we don’t orient our policies toward, whether it’s housing or transportation,” Miller said.
“COVID- 19 is highlighting how important these things are and how inequitable, in particular, these things are.”
The city is currently planning to roll out five priority bus routes over the next five years, but Miller says virtually any major suburban arterial road could host one.
He believes COVID- 19 is unlikely to change Toronto’s overall transit needs in the long run.
Even if, as expected, many people continue to work from home, population increases will push the system past its current limits, and planned GO Transit, subway and LRT expansions will likely still be necessary as we head toward 2030 and beyond.
That expansion should include the controversial extension of the Bloor- Danforth subway line into Scarborough, Tory insists.
“Sometimes people present these black- and- white choices and say, ‘ Well, you should build no subways at all, just build busways, or just do this or just do that.’ We are looking at a mix,” he said.
“I think looking at extending your existing subway lines to broaden out the reach of that subway system is something we should do and that’s what we are doing.’’
Greening our environment
The pandemic will end. But will global warming? That’s still unclear.
And even though COVID- 19 covered Toronto with cleaner air at times, largely because of decreased traffic, the existential climate crisis hovered like a spectre behind the deadly virus.
In April, the project looked at ideas for greening the city.
One of those ideas was borrowed straight from the pandemic moment: to reframe climate change as a public health threat.
“Climate change isn’t about saving the environment,” Miriam Diamond, a professor in U of T’s department of earth sciences told the Star’s Brendan Kennedy. “It’s about saving society.”
Diamond told Kennedy she’d been impressed with the ability and willingness of the public to absorb information on COVID19 from public health experts.
“The experts have prepped us as a population and we’ve risen to the challenge,” she said. “We can do the same thing with respect to climate change.”
The city actually had much to be proud of at the time, environmentally speaking. It had met its 2020 goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30 per cent from 1990 levels, and it was on its way to meeting its 65 per cent reduction target by 2030.
But the pandemic was also draining Toronto of the funds the 2030 target would require.
Robin Edger, executive director and CEO of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, urged the city to get “in the ear of the federal government,” for sustainable project funds.
“They should be arguing for the kinds of sustainable projects that will help you juice your economy and get money flowing and bring jobs to your region, while creating more sustainable cities,” he told Kennedy.
Those funds could go to such things as public transit, cycling infrastructure, electric vehicle charging stations and new green building initiatives.
The U of T’s Miller says transit is a particularly good investment as it creates jobs in vehicle, road and rail construction, and in decades of operations.
“It also has all the environmental benefits,” he said.
The housing problem
The pandemic changed Toronto’s housing plans, perhaps permanently.
For one thing, the virus made the idea of living in tall condos with crowded elevators unappealing to many. For another, it made the idea of giving up surrounding farmland — land able to sustain a stricken city — to suburban sprawl seem even more absurd than ever.
But if the city couldn’t grow up or out, what would it do? Cherise Burda had an idea. The executive director of Ryerson’s City Building Institute had an alternative to the “tall and sprawl” strategy preeminent in the city’s homebuilding sector for decades. “Gentle density,” she called it. The concept called for new housing units to be created in established neighbourhoods, while altering the area’s character as little as possible.
“We can distribute our density in a more gentle and thoughtful way throughout our neighbourhoods,” said Burda, whose institute had just released a report called Density Done Right.
The gentle alternatives included:
> Converting single- family homes into three- or four- unit apartments.
> Adding storeys of living space above existing retail and business properties on main streets.
> Building small, appealing condo or apartment buildings on large, teardown lots.
> Building lowrise condos or apartment complexes on parking lots or on gas station or fast food properties, rather than razing the sites of shops and restaurants that give main streets their heritage and character.
> The use of modular building techniques that can add living space to empty lots or on top of commercial properties without lengthy and disruptive construction.
“I am ... hoping this decade changes how we approve and deliver housing,” Burda said in a recent email interview. “We have reached the peak of the largest condo boom in history in Toronto, yet hundreds of thousands of condo units have failed to deliver affordability or suitable housing.”
Another option for new housing may be found in the abandoned downtown office space the pandemic may leave in its wake, says Mark Kamstra, a professor of finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
While the towers are unlikely to be abandoned entirely, tenant firms will almost certainly need less space with some of their employees continuing to work from home full or part time, Kamstra said in a recent interview.
“In terms of downtown, we’ll probably see some buildings repurposed as apartments,” he said, adding that current low interest rates would make such conversions more appealing to developers.
Technology for the masses
When the Google- backed Sidewalk Labs project pulled up its smart- city stakes in May, it wasn’t for lack of technological ambition.
The proposed Port Lands project was Jetsons- like in the robotics, apps and algorithmic gizmos it was offering the city. But it was the data collection that fuelled those high- tech bells and whistles that soured many on the enterprise.
In particular, said Ryerson’s Richard Lachman, it was the unchecked nature of that data stream, the perceived threat to privacy, and the lack of consultation on its sourcing and use that caused the backlash.
“A smart city at its core is about getting use out of data and limiting harm from that data,” said Lachman, director of research development at the school’s faculty of communication and design.
Sidewalk Labs’ fixation on unfettered technology fed by unchecked human data collection caused many to balk at the whole idea, he said.
“As a result of that — the back
lash against Sidewalk and then them pulling out — we’re able to see much more ( what we) need to do first.”
What’s needed first, Lachman says, is a citywide conversation on what’s desirable and what’s acceptable. “We need to figure out what benefits we want and what risks there are, and what we’re willing to do in order to gain extra utility.”
In a recent interview, Lachman said Toronto should strive to be wiser rather than smarter.
It’s the wisdom, he says, to avoid the allure of all the shiny technology that tech companies are hawking — often solutions in search of a problem.
“We ( should) choose how to solve for particular situations, not with technology first, because sometimes that’s the excitement we get,” he says
“They call it solutionism. We have this vast array of shiny gadgets, so let’s use them. Sometimes the solutions to the problems we see are going to be low tech.”
For Tory, the silver lining to Sidewalk Labs’ departure was easy.
“People said to me, ‘ Well, how do you feel about that?’
“And I said, ‘ I’m disappointed, except the good news is the piece of land that they found ( to be) one of the most attractive in North America ... in one of the cities they found most attractive — it’s all still here.’”
The gig economy
The last data available in August showed that gig workers made up more than 10 per cent of Toronto’s workforce.
These workers have been yeomen in the city through the pandemic months.
Yet they earned on average just $ 4,303 a year delivering our groceries, booze and restaurant orders, carting us in their Uber cars or doing piecework graphics on their laptops over Starbucks Wi- Fi.
There could be little we could do locally to remedy this inequity, that month’s Toronto 2030 story found.
But the solution was plain and available: just change the political definition of workers.
York University political scientist Leah Vosko says most gig workers are classified as independent contractors, leaving them without critical protection under the province’s Employment Standards Act ( ESA).
“One way to deal with this problem, a much- needed intervention that would bring improvements to many now ‘ essential’ workers in Toronto, is by effectively expanding the definition of who is a worker under the ESA so that its provisions apply to this group,” Vosko said in a recent email interview.
“Specifically, without even changing the definition of employee, the province could create a legal presumption of employee status for workers performing or providing labour services for a fee,” said Vosko, co- author of the 2020 book “Closing the Enforcement Gap: Improving Employment Standards Protection for People in Precarious Jobs.”
Vosko detailed an “ABC legal test” that employers would have to pass in order to justify their treatment and classification of workers as independent contractors.
The test she says, consists of these provisions: á An individual is free from control or direction over performance of the work, both under contract and in fact. á The service provided is outside the usual course of the business for which it is performed.
An individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation or business.
Vosko said this test has already been adopted in 27 American states, including densely populated ones such as California.
She also advocates for wider wage protections and a raise in the minimum wage.
“A second critically important project, for which I’d nominate Toronto as an incubator, involves addressing the need for a decent and inclusive wage floor,” she said.
“To make this happen, several policy changes are necessary. First, exemptions and special rules, applicable in certain industries, that limit workers’ access to minimum wages under the ESA need to be eliminated, where workers belonging to historically marginalized equityseeking groups dominate.”
Vosko says this includes many workers deemed essential, including many personal support workers, for whom certain exemptions and special rules can place them below the floor.
“There is ( also) a pressing need to raise the minimum wage,” she said.
Safety and crime
One of the more novel ideas for reducing crime in the city was put forward in October by Ryerson criminologist Emily van der Meulen: legalize some crimes.
In particular, van der Meulen listed prostitution and common drug possession as crimes that should be stricken from the books.
“Canada has a long history of criminalizing poverty,” van der Meulen said in an online interview.
“This is demonstrated particularly clearly by the ways in which police services target low- income and racialized people when enforcing certain laws, for example laws related to sex work and drug use.”
Striking down current prostitution and drug laws, van der Meulen says, would also lower poverty rates significantly.
“To alleviate poverty, we need to consider how policing, laws, sentencing and the criminal justice system as a whole target and discriminate against lowincome people, in turn keeping them in precarious situations,” she said.
“To begin to address poverty, these activities need to be removed from the Criminal Code.”
Acriminal record can be a barrier to accessing housing and employment, both of which are vital to financial success, van der Meulen says. She says past records for such offences should be expunged.
She also advocated for a reduced police budget in the city.
“There are dozens of criminal justice reforms that can be implemented to make Toronto a safer and better place to live by 2030,” she wrote in another email interview.
“First and foremost, police budgets need to be substantially reduced and those resources reinvested in programs that are run by and for communities.”
There are numerous organizations in Toronto that have spent decades working to improve the lives of marginalized, criminalized and racialized peoples, van der Meulen said.
“Many of these organizations are chronically underfunded and under- resourced, yet they have a wealth of skills and experiences that will be necessary for improving the quality of life for Toronto residents by 2030.
“Reallocating resources from police to community- based initiatives is a necessary first step.” Scan this code to read the full Toronto 2030 series.