By Ryan McGreal
Published July 17, 2012
There's a lot going on in a recent Star article about deputy Toronto Mayor Doug Holyday saying he doesn't think downtown Toronto is a good place for families to raise their children.
Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan insists that developers in his ward provide at least ten percent of their units as three-bedroom apartments to make room for families who want to live downtown. Holyday, who represents ward 3 in Etobicoke, argued against this in a July 11, 2012 meeting.
Asking, "Where will these children play - on King Street?" Holyday tabled a motion to strike the ten percent rule. Council rejected Holyday's motion and approved the building application, but the exchange between Holyday and staff is instructive:
The city's acting chief planner, Gregg Lintern, told Holyday that the area in question is "a neighbourhood, an emerging neighbourhood." Lintern added that "it just makes for a healthier city" to have families living downtown.
Holyday, dubious, said, "It makes for a healthier city to have children out on a street like King St. where it's bumper-to-bumper traffic and people galore at all times of night and day? I just think of raising my own family there. That's not the place I'd choose."
Lintern told Holyday that there are parks in the area. "In general, it might help to think about Manhattan or living in a European city where people live everywhere no matter what area of the city," Lintern said. "They have families, they raise families the same way they would in other areas of the city, they go to school, they go to work, everything happens in the same fashion, it's just that it's in an urban form."
Holyday then tabled a motion to eliminate the 10 per cent requirement. "As far as raising your children downtown, maybe some people wish to do that. I think most people wouldn't," he said to jeers from other councillors. "I mean, I could just see now: 'Where's little Ginny?' 'Well, she's downstairs playing in the traffic on her way to the park!'"
Josh Matlow, a midtown councillor, began his subsequent speech as follows: "To Councillor Holyday: Are you - are you serious? Do you really believe that there is some danger to children by living in the downtown area?"
Holyday responded: "Well, I certainly think it's really not the ideal place that people might want to raise their families. But on the other hand, if they do, I'm willing to leave the choice up to them, councillor. I'm not going to dictate to a developer that they must provide 10 per cent of their units in the three-bedroom form when there may or may not be a market for it."
It scarcely bears mentioning that a lot of families want to raise their children in suburbs. However, not all families do, and it's just as important for cities to provide family-friendly environments downtown as it is to provide them in the suburbs. Just because Holyday can't imagine himself raising children in the city, that doesn't mean no one can.
Furthermore, it's disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that the city has no business mandating an urban form that accommodates families, when the rules for suburban construction are far stricter and more prescriptive than a mandate that a multi-unit building should include a percentage of family-friendly units - not to mention the vast subsidies from all levels of government that make suburban living affordable.
But here is where it gets more interesting. The article frames this as a left/right divide between progressive urban councillors and conservative suburban councillors, but that misses the point.
The real divide is between councillors who understand how cities work and councillors who don't - or won't.
Cities are by necessity diverse, eclectic and messy. They bring a huge number and variety of different things into close proximity, producing unpredictable combinations and novel inventions. They allow for much wider personal expression and allow distinct subcultures to form.
They thrive on tolerance - tolerance of different ideas, different values and different ways of living. The more diversity that can coexist in a city, the more opportunities there are for that city to produce new ideas.
The leaders of great cities tend to transcend narrow political orientation. Think of Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson extolling the values of bicycles and bragging about a "communist scheme" to deploy a city-wide bike share.
In his book The Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser writes extensively about what he calls "self-protecting urban innovation, cities' ability to generate the information needed to solve their own problems."
This urban innovation is how, for example, New York City went from having a life expectancy much shorter than the American average in the 1800s to having a longer life expectancy today.
Cities figure out how to provide for the needs of their residents: like requiring developers to create family-friendly units, or creating pedestrian-friendly tree-lined streets, or maintaining neighbourhood parks, or establishing innovative public health outreach programs.
Holyday and the other anti-urban councillors are stuck in a narrow and static conception of what makes a safe place, what makes a place good for raising children. It's self-fulfilling nonsense to refuse to provide for families to live downtown because you don't think downtown is a good place to raise a family.
A better answer is to build on what downtown does well and mitigate what it does badly - like ensuring that families who want to live downtown can find homes big enough to support them.
One last thing about this article: the closing line mentions, almost in passing, that the city hasn't yet been able to replace its previous chief planner, who retired in March.
City officials have been searching since last fall without success; at least two candidates have turned down the job in part because of concerns about working for the Ford administration.
When the fifth biggest city in North America is led by a mayor and deputy mayor who hate and fear cities, it becomes difficult to attract talented senior staff. The days of visionary planners like Paul Bedford are over, at least for now.