Events

David Crombie on the Future of Cities in Ontario

In an age of vulgar, hyper-partisan absolutism, Crombie gave us a taste of what a politics can look like that is civil, moderate, inclusive and responsive.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 19, 2013

this article has been updated

On Sunday evening, I had the privilege of moderating a Q&A session with David Crombie, mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978 and a Minister in Brian Mulroney's government. The meeting was organized by Supercrawl and The Brain and hosted in the gorgeous office of TCA Architects on James Street North, on the third floor of the building housing CBC Hamilton and the Art Gallery of Hamilton Design Annex.

David Crombie talking at TCA Architects (Image Credit: Richard Allen)
David Crombie talking at TCA Architects (Image Credit: Richard Allen)

A crowd of around 50-60 people turned out for a lively one-hour session on the future of cities in Ontario. Crombie is a so-called Red Tory, a Progressive Conservative who has not discarded the "progressive" part of the tradition.

In 1972, Crombie led a progressive Toronto Council that pushed back against the prevailing "urban renewal" agenda of the time. Instead of municipal expressways, block-busting demolitions, housing megaprojects and unconstrained sprawl, Toronto rezoned the downtown for high-density mixed residential use, protected heritage buildings from demolition, and gave urban neighbourhoods the tools to preserve their sense of community.

Armed with the support of a broad coalition of neighbourhood and community associations and undergirded by the writings of Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), that Council laid the groundwork to transform Toronto into one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities.

Crombie spoke about that time, noting that all the established power brokers and media were arrayed against Council. It was only through the strong support of the community that they were able to stand against the destructive "renewal" agenda.

In one interesting aside, he noted that he is often remembered for setting a 45 foot height limit on all new constructions. He explained that at the time, the Municipal Act gave city councils very few tools to oppose an undesirable development, and the height limit bought Council enough time to establish a new zoning plan that would protect heritage and encourage mixed use.

Crombie also spoke about school closures, noting that School Boards across Ontario are being pressured to close community schools due to the Provincial school funding formula, which has not been updated to reflect changes in demographics and class sizes and still prioritizes capital spending on new construction over renovation.

He argued that school boards have never been good at managing real estate, but that the most effective way to change how the Board operates is to advocate at the provincial level, and that Premier Kathleen Wynne, a former school board trustee, understands the issues and should be amenable to the changes that need to happen.

He also touched on the concept of community hubs, which he has championed as the chair of the Toronto Lands Corporation. Community hubs are integrated neighbourhood facilities that combine school, day care, recreation and library services to make more effective use of public properties as assets, not liabilities. (Ahem.)

Again, he stressed that the School Board is just doing what the Province has mandated, and that citizens need to be pressuring the Province to change its policy so that small neighbourhood schools can function more effectively as community anchors and resources.

A recurring theme in his talk was the importance of citizens organizing to put pressure on politicians. In response to one question, Crombie acknowledged that most of the initiatives he pushed for actually came from groups of engaged citizens, not from his own agenda. He said that politicians tend to give more weight to initiatives that citizens advocate to promote the public good rather than their own self-interest.

Crombie also maintained that it's important to advocate at the appropriate level of government for a given issue. In a surprising answer to a question about a national housing strategy, he argued that affordable housing is primarily a provincial issue, not a federal issue, and that the Federal government's impact on cities is mostly limited to the federal constitutional responsibilities that impact cities, like marine ports and so on.

He suggested that, aside from occasional one-off investments in local projects with a federal interest, the time and energy spent trying to make the Feds care about municipal issue like housing may not be worth the level of commitment achieved, especially since a federal housing program would be the first budget item to be cut in the case of a deficit.

TCA Architects office, 118 James Street North, third floor
TCA Architects office, 118 James Street North, third floor

In terms of neighbourhood revitalization, Crombie acknowledged that it always starts with individuals buying properties, investing in them and finding innovative ways to generate revenue. Municipal government rarely provide leadership on this kind of neighbourhood-level revival, but that they will be quick to provide "followship" once it's clear that things are happening - like on James Street North in Hamilton, which he praised for its dynamism and energy.

For small investors hoping to do business in the city, he recommended developing relationships and working with both city staff and politicians at the same time to achieve results.

In response to a question about the urban/suburban divide and the fractious structure of amalgamated cities like Hamilton and Toronto, Crombie argued that the amalgamation was already effectively in place under the regional governments that preceded amalgamation, which he criticized as being two separate municipal governments overlapping the same territory.

According to Crombie, the solution to urban/suburban tension is not deamalgamation but a broad, inclusive politics that recognizes and builds on the shared interests of urban and suburban constituencies and works toward a common goal. He drew a sharp contrast with the current mayor of Toronto, the embattled Rob Ford, whose cynical political strategy has been to "drive a wedge into the city and grab the bigger piece".

This was not the only contrast between the former mayor and the current mayor. While politics at all levels in North America seems to be descending into a vulgar, hyper-partisan absolutism, Crombie gave us a taste of what a politics can look like that is civil, moderate, inclusive and responsive.


Update: Richard Allen of Renew Hamilton has posted a great summary of this talk, including an audio recording so you can listen directly:

http://renewhamilton.ca/latest-updates/david-crombie-hamilton-podcast/

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2013 at 09:26:51

Very nice piece. "vulgar, hyper-partisan absolutism" bang on! Would love to see Crombie back in politics. Right now it's either him or Russel Brand. ;)

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2013 at 10:51:15

Can we have a political party with all the actual moderates? The Paul Martins, the Fred Eisenbergers? Oh wait, it's the Liberals, a party that us constantly pinned down by the weight of its own corruption.

Crombie a reminder of everything the Liberal party should be. Conservatives are courting a new group, the "vulgar hyper-partisans", but Crombie's moderation is supposed to be the Liberal party's platform. But instead, we have a Liberal party with the gas-plant controversy, a party that refuses to put the brakes on their crazy ARC, a party that keeps seeing programs turn into corrupt money-pits like ORNGE.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted November 19, 2013 at 13:38:34

A recurring theme in his talk was the importance of citizens organizing to put pressure on politicians. In response to one question, Crombie acknowledged that most of the initiatives he pushed for actually came from groups of engaged citizens, not from his own agenda. He said that politicians tend to give more weight to initiatives that citizens advocate to promote the public good rather than their own self-interest.

Quoted for emphasis. Maybe a second time for good measure...

A recurring theme in his talk was the importance of citizens organizing to put pressure on politicians. In response to one question, Crombie acknowledged that most of the initiatives he pushed for actually came from groups of engaged citizens, not from his own agenda. He said that politicians tend to give more weight to initiatives that citizens advocate to promote the public good rather than their own self-interest.

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By viennacafe (registered) | Posted November 19, 2013 at 23:28:50

"In response to a question about the urban/suburban divide and the fractious structure of amalgamated cities like Hamilton and Toronto, Crombie argued that the amalgamation was already effectively in place under the regional governments that preceded amalgamation, which he criticized as being two separate municipal governments overlapping the same territory."

I disagree with him, here. While certainly regional governments were an additional layer of government overseeing shared services such as transit and police, so what? It worked. The 45' limit Crombie imposed that "bought Council enough time to establish a new zoning plan that would protect heritage and encourage mixed use", would be all but impossible, today.

"According to Crombie, the solution to urban/suburban tension is not deamalgamation but a broad, inclusive politics that recognizes and builds on the shared interests of urban and suburban constituencies and works toward a common goal."

Repeating a comment I made earlier today, elsewhere:

Mike Harris' forced amalgamation of cities has hobbled cities leaving them dysfunctional and locked in the 1980s.

Suburban councillors, all over Ontario, concerned with only pipes, pavement, and police act as inhibitors to innovation in urban cores. From bicycles, to transit, to housing, to urban agriculture, to local economies, human scale development, and social service improvements and innovations, it is most often suburban councillors who stand in the way.

Consider that Ezra Levant reminded his few viewers that Ford is not a downtown millionaire living in a condo both perpetuating a stereo-type of urban elites (unlike the multimillionaire, Ford).

This forced marriage of disparate communities of interest also hurts suburbs. Because so long as cities are stunted, the suburbs need not evolve. They remain trapped in a time warp defined by an economic paradigm that no longer exists except in the imagination and rhetoric of small 'c' conservatives and those who fear change more so than failure.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted November 23, 2013 at 15:02:38 in reply to Comment 95003

I agree with you, Vienna Cafe. I was the one who raised this question last Sunday evening, and although David Crombie's optimism is contagious, the mathematical reality of suburban councillors outnumbering core councillors is something that is not solveable by advocates alone.

We need a different model that allows progressive improvement in the downtown core to go ahead. I'm thinking of small issues (backyard chickens) and large ones (complete streets) that directly affect downtown residents and don't, or only marginally, affect Flamborough/Stoney Creek residents. I don't think de-amalgamation is the answer either, and I don't know the answer. But I do know the math doesn't work for progress in the downtown, except the miniscule steps that we have to fight for every step of the way. And it gets tiring, and then a local columnist blames advocates for dropping the ball on campaigning for bike lanes on the Queen Street Hill.

It really shouldn't be this difficult. Where are our progressive thinkers in public office, like the David Crombies, who read Jane Jacobs and apply the principles to their own urban environment?

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2013 at 10:50:15 in reply to Comment 95117

"Where are our progressive thinkers in public office, like the David Crombies, who read Jane Jacobs and apply the principles to their own urban environment?"

We basically have two urban wards. So only 2/15 of our councillors have "their own urban environment" to be concerned about.

I agree that this makes real change mathematically improbable.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 27, 2013 at 18:03:16 in reply to Comment 95132

Compounding the problem is that the more urban wards are extremely under-represented compared to the more suburban wards. The 2006 census shows that wards 1-8 have an average population of 41,000, while wards 9-15 have an average population of only 25,000. This means that a resident of wards 9-15 effectively has 1.64 times the influence of wards 1-8.

The most extreme example is ward 7 which has 3.6 times the population of ward 14!

At least if the wards had more or less equal population we wouldn't be exacerbating the urban/suburban imbalance ... and basic democratic principles say that representation should be at least roughly based on population.

https://raisethehammer.org/blog/2244/ham...

There was a petition to force a review of the ward boundaries to keep the number of resident per ward within 25%, that unfortunately failed on a technicality (the impossibility of verifying the signers against a non-updated voter list).

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/2414/peti...

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-11-27 18:03:41

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 27, 2013 at 18:41:23 in reply to Comment 95209

Whoa there, let's not forget that Ward 7 isn't exactly downtown. They're not exactly clamouring for LRT and bike-lanes up on the mountain.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 28, 2013 at 11:25:47 in reply to Comment 95212

Of course, there is still a difference between the downtown wards and the densely populated mountain wards.

But the lack of representation by population in Hamilton makes decision making much more divided and is over-emphasizing the interests of the least densely populated and most rural/suburban areas. Dividing ward 7 would be fairer and might allow more diversity on Council. We might discover that different parts of that ward have different interests. I would guess that residents north of Mohawk could have different priorities and interests than those south of the Linc.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-11-28 11:27:51

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted November 20, 2013 at 07:27:54

Sorry to have missed this. Sounds like a great talk, hopefully the first of many. Thank you for moderating and documenting.

Crombie is absolutely right that political change is often defined by external forces, and that organized messaging and action is a time-honoured way to get results. If it were simply a matter of professional experience, personal conviction and political opportunity, Premier Wynne would have reformed the school funding formula during her six years on the Education portfolio (2 as Parliamentary Assistant, 4 as Minister) under "The Education Premier" in a majority government.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted November 21, 2013 at 07:54:15

"I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving..." --Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race. Not only every religious symbol, but every human thought has its page in that vast book." --Victor Hugo

"How happy are those whose walls already rise." --Virgil

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2013 at 11:33:35

Great article Ryan. Crombie really was one of Toronto's 'best' mayors. His understanding of the importance of the Lake on the psyche of the City gets little mention, but is well worth noting. Wished I'd been at this Q&A.

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