The Real Divide is Between Urban and Anti-Urban

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.

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 wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 17, 2012 at 10:13:40

To be fair, NYC is also money. Money also tends to make sure you don't have a protracted lifespan.

But the point is still well-made.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 10:19:14

writers always lose me as soon as they pull out the tired left vs right stuff. This isn't America.

Wanting a vibrant, safe city that is open for anyone to live in has nothing to do with political stripe.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 12:07:59

"The article frames this as a left/right divide between progressive urban councillors and conservative suburban councillors, but that misses the point."

Unfortunately, ALL issues are, today, framed as a left/right divide. The purpose of doing so is to force people to pick a side on an issue not in terms of evidence or the most compelling arguments but along partisan, bordering on sectarian, political lines.

As Jason says, this isn't America, but our political leadership and commentators have adopted American style discourse, or, more correctly, American style obstacles to meaningful discourse. So, today, in Canada, science is political as we have just witnessed in Ottawa scientists in lab coats taking to the streets as research funding and facilities are axed for a political agenda.

In Toronto Holyday is an ally of Ford, an anti-city big city mayor, who is engaged in an ideological war against the city from bicycles to streetcars to libraries to development and so much more.

We live in interesting times.

Comment edited by ViennaCafe on 2012-07-17 12:09:42

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 17, 2012 at 14:06:20 in reply to Comment 79513

Unfortunately, ALL issues are, today, framed as a left/right divide.

If we allow them to be.

If, when we get to actually discussing them, we allow others to frame them this way.

In the end, if we're talking about our discourse, then we have to own it.

I'm not saying that anyone in MSM or even in the blogosphere has any responsibility to follow suit, merely that we need to start taking ownership of more of what affects us.

On a personal level, I don't use labels. I may be of a certain leaning, but I'm more interested in the idea being expressed. (Which is why I don't have a problem with anonymous commenters, and I don't dismiss people strictly on the basis of them previously having been asshats.) So the whole juvenile, tight-sphinctered labelling of things 'right', 'left', 'liberal', 'conservative' 'whatever' deflates me at every turn. How do you reconcile that kind of facile approach with genuine inclusion?

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2012-07-17 14:06:58

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 21:32:33 in reply to Comment 79516

Related, in many ways ...

"...Miller said the complexity of climate change and global weather patterns, combined with contradictory messages broadcast by politicians, environmental groups, media outlets, and fossil-fuel companies, make it difficult for busy people to wrap their heads around the issues. “People have less time to read carefully about it. They’re trying to catch it on the fly — and climate change is not something that’s easy to catch on the fly,” he said ..."

Worth reading.

Comment edited by ViennaCafe on 2012-07-17 21:33:19

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 17:20:28 in reply to Comment 79516

"How do you reconcile that kind of facile approach with genuine inclusion?"

The very question I ask all the time. Of course, it is not dissimilar to asking how does one convey a complex idea in a 30 second sound bite or, worse, a 140 character tweet.

I think the nature of modern mass communications favours simplistic arguments in the time frame most often allotted for public debates.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 13:24:58

comment from banned user deleted

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 17:09:14 in reply to Comment 79515

Have you been there? Have you read the article? There is a very large open area one block away. Also in short walking distance is theatre, libraries, and concert halls. Who would want to live there when you can drive to McDonalds and a Home Depot?

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 17:30:11 in reply to Comment 79517

comment from banned user deleted

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 18:06:44 in reply to Comment 79519

You said, "I happen to agree that the particular intersection he was referring to is not suitable for raising children and its not possible to create the open recreation facilities kids need growing up there"

And yet there is an open space and what is in them is not fixed for all time. And you know what, I grew up in Toronto and I crossed King St., all on my lonesome as a child and many, many busier streets.

If you're arguing the streets are dangerous (they're not in the suburbs?), perhaps then you should be arguing for streets that are safe for everyone rather than cities that are devoid of young families and children. Just a thought.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 20:19:08 in reply to Comment 79520

comment from banned user deleted

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 20:40:44 in reply to Comment 79524

Here is what you said:

"Seems to me that what the protesters to the statement are missing is that he wasn't talking about an urban residential area but rather an urban commercial area almost completely devoid of opportunity to create open recreation spaces. I happen to agree that the particular intersection he was referring to is not suitable for raising children and its not possible to create the open recreation facilities kids need growing up there"

But let's deal with what you're saying now. If it is not safe for kids to cross streets, why do we build them? If the councillor is anything less than disingenuous in the argument you ascribe to him, then why has he consistently opposed making streets safer for pedestrians of all ages, bicycles, and transit users? Why is it, for example, he supports ripping out streetcars in order to allow cars to travel faster on city streets?

If the Connaught was to be redeveloped as a residential condominium complex then, yes, it should be mandated to provide housing for families. That is what councillors are supposed to do: direct development to ensure the livability and vitality of the city.

It is not unreasonable. And here is a newsflash for ya: children of all ages live in downtown neighbourhoods including Toronto and Hamilton.

Should we not provide them services and housing opportunities because of some suburban politician's elitist and short-sighted snobbery?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2012 at 12:50:12 in reply to Comment 79526

"And here is a newsflash for ya: children of all ages live in downtown neighbourhoods including Toronto and Hamilton."

True. Though in Hamilton's case at least, they do tend to be less numerous.

Going off Ec Dev’s 2011 Downtown Hamilton Profile (which uses 2006 Census stats), 17% of downtown residents are 19 or under (compared to 25% citywide). That’s around 1,400 individuals.

The most anomalous segment of the population appears to be the 20-34 age bracket, which makes up 29% of the demographic (around 2,500 individuals), compared to 19% city-wide.

So Downtown Hamilton has markedly more individuals in their prime child-rearing years than the rest of the city, but considerably fewer children per capita.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 20:43:34 in reply to Comment 79526

comment from banned user deleted

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 21:30:22 in reply to Comment 79527

I would like to improve. In what way, precisely, have I been "dishonest"?

Thanks, in advance.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted July 18, 2012 at 09:23:15 in reply to Comment 79528

Ugh, please stop feeding the obvious troll.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted July 18, 2012 at 09:25:25 in reply to Comment 79534

comment from banned user deleted

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By z jones (registered) | Posted July 18, 2012 at 09:26:44 in reply to Comment 79535

Get a life Allan.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted July 17, 2012 at 18:10:14

And as it turns out, your kids are likely safer crossing King St. W. at John in Toronto for band practice than being driven to soccer:

I love research.

Comment edited by ViennaCafe on 2012-07-17 18:10:50

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted July 18, 2012 at 13:49:15

Why not bridge the urban and anti-urban with a nice superhighway?

Commuters Pedal to Work on Their Very Own Superhighway

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 19, 2012 at 09:50:16

Traditional right/left dichotomies don't fit municipal politics very well. Not that they fit other kinds of politics well either, but the added element of local, personal politics tends to make such one-dimensional oversimplifications totally unworkable. The same is true (in very different ways) with small-town politics.

The kind of anti-urban sentiment quoted above can just as easily come from middle-class suburban liberals as hardened conservatives. A quick look at Communist city planning shows many of the same problems with utterly dehumanizing streetscapes. On the other hand, all three groups boast others who are staunch advocates for vibrant city fabrics. Every group on the political (and geographic) map is divided on the issue.

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By alhambra (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2012 at 13:18:35 in reply to Comment 79542

then why do cities vote left and suburbs vote right?

Here's another interpretation: that suburbs are economic freeloaders paid for by the rest of society so that a portion, largely middle and upper class, can live unsustainable lifestyles and be separated from the poor.

Boris Johnson may have been a conservative same as Fred Eisenberger or David Crombie. But all were those remnants of intelligent conservatism who do not hate government the way a rapidly growing portion of today's conservatism does. Today's conservatives could care less about larger society and want only to prop up their own.

That's why this discourse matters. It will be the main factor in the next election. Liberals will continue in their idiotic fashion of hoping people will just listen to reason, and refuse to expose this attack on the state being perpetrated by conservatives in our own country.

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By Ocular (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2012 at 12:55:23 in reply to Comment 79544

Urban living certainly tends to be more communal. Freeholds are not normative. High density living favours shared amenities, whereas the suburbs tend to encourage/enable cocooning. That may express itself in the "default" political postures as well.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2012 at 09:48:38 in reply to Comment 79544

Simpler reasoning: Living in a suburban home is labor-intensive. You've got home repairs, commuting, vehicular repair, lawn care, etc.

These issues tend to shrink the more urban you get - less lawn, less home, less commute, less car. Less time and money being spent on maintaining your lifestyle.

That means things like taxes are a bigger hit on your already-strained wallet. The labour you spend on your home makes you grumpy about anybody you perceive as "lazy".

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By norendr (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2012 at 20:23:43 in reply to Comment 79547

It's up to parents to decide where to raise kids.

City kids - and adults - walk more, better exercise and less green house gas emission than driving kids everywhere as in the suburbs.

People have their own reasons for their own choices and so be it. The mistake made by Holy day and by commv res here is in thinking their choices should be imposed on others.
It's nobody's business.

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By LOL (registered) | Posted July 20, 2012 at 13:44:14 in reply to Comment 79547

That explains why so much of the money lives in the burbs and the less well off in the core. A lot of folk just cannot afford to live in the burbs.

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By blip (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2012 at 16:33:36 in reply to Comment 79549

Take a longer and wider view. Globally and through history the money lives near the core (because they can afford to) and the less affluent live out in the burbs because it's all they can afford. Things went wonky in North America after the war because of huge subsidies for highways, roads, mortgage guarantees, interest write offs so that lots of people were incented to move out to the burbs but that is probably going to be a temporary blip in the long run of history. It's already changing, many cities in North America are once again wealthier in the core and poverty is being suburbanized, we can expect that to continue.

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By umbra (anonymous) | Posted July 20, 2012 at 16:45:30 in reply to Comment 79552

that's optimistic but what do you do when the suburbs elect a nasty Rob Ford committed to destroying the city? There was a huge incentive made for people to move to the suburbs, taken politically and twisting the economic feasibility of cities. For that to be undone it won't be a matter of economics working normally - the incentives need to be removed.

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By chris angel (registered) | Posted August 15, 2012 at 09:45:34 in reply to Comment 79553

Ford is a reaction. Too many Torontonians feel that their core has wagged the dog for way too long. If enough suburban voters feel disenfranchised a Rob Ford will always float to the surface. Remember he's a floater not a sinker. Apologies for the juvenile reference I just could not help myself. You can only be patient and do what you can on a personal level to help change the perceptions of those who might be inclined to support an anti urban agenda if that is your belief or the inverse if it is not.

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By Today (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2012 at 13:23:00

People can choose where they want to live for whatever reasons. I'd love to live downtown as long as I can have what I have now - a nice house, backing onto a ravine on two sides and a one story house beside me, for an excellent price. That is right in the city.

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By LOL (registered) | Posted July 20, 2012 at 10:46:21

And all this time I thought the real divide was between one way and two way

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted July 20, 2012 at 17:16:11

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Chris Angel (registered) | Posted August 15, 2012 at 09:48:48 in reply to Comment 79556

Julian Fantino

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By anon450 (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2012 at 14:08:29

With the ever-increasing expenses of an oil-dependent 'car culture', we, as humans, simply must adapt to the new evolving reality. The big gov/big corporate DREAM of endless highway-linked suburbia is currently a myth-in-transition.

There is absolutely no reason in the world why a 'cosmopolitan' urban environment can't be a great place to raise children. What's needed are responsible & mindful adults who put kids, not cars, first.

For those adapting, useful links can be found here:

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