May 08, 2010
“To me,” says former mayor David Crombie, “asking about the importance of planning is like asking where oxygen belongs? It’s central.”
During Crombie’s time as mayor, which lasted from 1972 to 1978, neighbourhood planning offices were opened across the city. Inspired by Jane Jacobs, Crombie was determined to rid Toronto of the U.S.-style single-use planning that prevailed in the suburbs and still does.
The finest example of 1970s planning in Toronto is the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, which to this day hums along nicely, a fully integrated part of the city. Though construction continued long after Crombie left office, his administration’s contribution, the plan, was the critical component.
Nothing as ambitious or successful has even been attempted since. And if the decade-old waterfront revitalization program is any indication, the city has lost its ability to think big and act accordingly.
“I used to meet with planners on a regular basis,” Crombie recalls. “We put a lot of faith in planning; we didn’t see it as a narrow discipline. We managed to attract creative young guys. I think I gave them an easel to paint on.”
One of those young guys was Paul Bedford, who in time would become chief planner: “When I was hired in 1973,” he explains, “my employer was the City of Toronto Planning Board. Its job was to advise the mayor and the Building and Development Committee. We never had a city manager; all department heads reported directly to the mayor.
“It’s just insane,” says Bedford of the current organization. “Of course the city planning department should report directly to council and not be filtered through a deputy city manager. It should have a close working relationship with city council. That’s obvious. If you have a toothache, do you go to a dentist or a politician?”
And forget those arguments that post-amalgamation Toronto is too large to operate as did the old City of Toronto. Bedford points to the example of New York, where the planning director, Amanda Burden, serves at the pleasure of the mayor. That has its drawbacks, but, he argues, it gives her the authority needed to control planning in a city of 8.5 million. New York is divided into 59 districts, but has one planning director.
Ken Greenberg, a Toronto based architect and planner who has worked in many cities around the world and served as director of Toronto’s urban design department from 1977 to ’87, also despairs at what he sees here now.
“We have an extremely dysfunctional system,” he declares. “But people take it for granted and think that’s just the way it is. In most places where planning works there’s a body that reports to elected officials but which also makes key planning decisions. The chief planner is seen as a strategic position; he has a direct voice in economic planning and so on. They don’t have a situation like Toronto’s where the chief planner reports to a deputy city manager.”
Greenberg also points out that the Ontario Municipal Board, the quasi-judicial provincial body that has final say over all planning matters, has done tremendous damage to this city and others.
“The OMB makes a huge difference,” he says. “There’s nothing like it in any other jurisdiction that I’m aware of. The OMB means people focus on municipal planning in a completely different way; they always feel they’re going to be second-guessed. The effect is vast and profound.”
For his part, however, Toronto’s current chief planner, Gary Wright, declares himself quite content with the situation as it exists.
“Planning has never been done at arm’s length,” he insists. “Even in the former City of Toronto, the chief planner didn’t always report to council. I feel I have a good working relationship with the mayor. I meet with him on a regular basis, monthly. I don’t feel administrative governance diminishes my role.”
Yet when Bedford retired in 2004 and the city went looking for a high-profile chief planner to replace him, there were no takers. Word was that once prospective candidates learned the lay of the bureaucratic land, they caught the next flight home.
As Tony Coombes, another of Crombie’s bright young men, puts it, real planning power in Toronto rests with the local councilor.
“Rezoning has become a trip-wire,” he explains. “Virtually everything must be rezoned; that means it’s the gift of the local councilor. There’s really no oversight. It’s wildly open to abuse. A lot of this has to do with overwhelmed councilors.”
But with a municipal election underway, anything — or nothing — could happen. Planning has not become a campaign issue so far, though that might change. Ironically, the big topic among Toronto’s mayoral wannabes right now is transit; though no candidate has demonstrated any meaningful grasp of the issue, it also lies at the heart of the planning process.
Little wonder then that it, too, is coming off the rails.