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)
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
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:
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