Toronto, not Ontario premier Doug Ford, should decide for itself whether it wants a casino

The Toronto Waterfront. Image: Getty.

After the Ontario Court of Appeal recently ruled that Toronto’s recent municipal election would go ahead with 25 wards instead of 47, the province turned its attention to the city’s waterfront.

There’s speculation that Ontario premier Doug Ford has a personal interest in reviving the idea of a casino on the city’s waterfront. In 2013, when Ford was a councillor, Toronto city council rejected a downtown casino in a near-unanimous vote. Likewise, municipalities in the pre-amalgamated Toronto fiercely opposed the creation of a casino in 1997.

Renewed provincial interest in pushing the deeply unpopular idea forward may give us a hint into why the Ford government was so determined to shrink Toronto city council.

After the court’s decision was released, government House Leader Todd Smith told reporters that having a “streamlined council” would allow the government to “move forward with all of our election promises”.

This reaction should make us fear for the power of local governments not just in Ontario, but all of Canada.

Municipalities are democratic institutions

While they do not have constitutional status, Canadian municipalities are crucial democracies that are grounded in particular locales.

The Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the impact of the diminished number of wards in Toronto as merely “inconvenient” displays a lack of understanding of the way these local democracies work.

Unlike provincial and federal candidates, aspiring and elected municipal councillors must speak to voters about their streets, their community centres, development applications in their neighbourhoods. While there are many issues that matter across the city, local politics is just that: local. These local issues are often what voters want to talk about at the dinner table, at the door and on the street.

In the wake of Ontario’s Bill 5 to shrink the size of Toronto city council, Todd Smith’s comments along with casino speculation confuse the role of municipal governments. Are city councillors elected to facilitate the agenda of the province? Or are they elected to deliver on the agenda city councillors put forward to voters at the local level?


Now what?

In the City of Toronto, the answer is clear: Like all municipalities, city council is a level of government deserving of recognition and autonomy.

Many residents were disappointed the local election went forward on 22 October with 25 wards. Even so, it’s important to forge ahead and seize this moment to affirm and expand the meaning and practice of local democracy.

The complex work of municipalities is everywhere in our day-to-day lives. City governance can look chaotic and messy from the outside. But we should not mistake messiness for ineffectiveness. Indeed, much of the appearance of messiness pertains to the transparency required of municipal councils compared to provincial or federal governments.

While city councils must deliberate most issues in the open — in council chambers, or at planning meetings and community consultations — provincial cabinets meet behind closed doors, spending unknown hours or days deliberating out of public view. Even the “open” nature of debates in the Ontario legislature has been limited recently, with galleries cleared during debates over the Toronto legislation.

More mess, not less

The City of Toronto and its residents should use the new 25-ward model to push for other forms of local democratic decision-making.

Toronto city council is far from perfect. Indeed, regardless of the chaos caused by Bill 5, local governance can be galvanised through the empowerment of community councils and local planning bodies. Toronto already has four delegated community councils that make decisions and recommendations to council about a range of issues.

We can learn a lot from how the 2013 casino debate unfolded, when the Toronto-East York community council played a crucial role by examining in detail the effects on local communities regarding traffic, addiction and businesses.

There are many important issues best dealt with at the local level; hence the growing importance of local governments across Canada. On crucial issues like climate change, cities have emerged as some of the most effective actors globally.

Local governments have also been at the forefront pushing for more affordable housing and better transit.

Some argue that we should rethink Canada’s Constitution in the wake of Ford’s successful move to shrink Toronto city council. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities stated recently: “Local governments are building a more liveable, competitive Canada. We are ready to have an important conversation about greater municipal autonomy, and the tools needed to support it.”

Changes should start at home, by building strong and vibrant democratic structures in our neighbourhoods and communities.

Torontonians — not the province — should decide whether to have a casino on the city’s waterfront.

City councillors and the public were best able to speak to the consequences of a downtown casino in 2013. They still are. The key to improving city governance is to add more democracy, more openness and more messiness — not less.

The Conversation

Estair Van Wagner, Assistant Professor, York University, Canada and Alexandra Flynn, Assistant Professor of Human Geography & City Studies, University of Toronto.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.