Richard Joy, Executive Director of ULI Toronto.
In the wake of the urban-suburban division story associated with Premier Wayne’s denial of Toronto Mayor John Tory’s proposed ‘416’ road tolls, a glimmer of positive regional coordination may be emerging. Recently, the GTA’s political and business leadership launched the region’s only cross jurisdictional municipal agency: Toronto Global. The headline narrative is the creation of a foreign investment promotion office, especially timely against the backdrop of growing global protectionism. But it was the display of regional coordination that was the bigger story. For the first time in a decade, after two decades of false starts, tenuous roots of metropolitan regionalism may be taking hold.
The importance of this cannot be understated. The foundation of so many of our greatest public policy challenges sits on the fractured foundation of balkanized and parochial municipal jurisdictions that for years have not been given – or taken – the opportunity to find common cause. Our leaders have known for decades that the region requires stronger coordination across such areas as mass transit and arterial roads, economic development, regional planning, water and sewage, garbage, smart-city information technology, the environment, policing, licensing and more.
The historic misstep of the civically searing experience of the amalgamation of Metro Toronto in 1998 froze all thinking of further governance reforms for a generation. We’ve had to live with the insanely lopsided governance where half the regional population is in one, massive, single-tiered, city government (Toronto), and the other half in over two dozen, two-tiered municipalities (the ‘905’).
In the same period our metropolis has grown at a rate faster than any other in North America. And the weight of this growth is collapsing our capacity to deliver an economically competitive and liveable region. The lack of regional municipal structures of any kind means we are unable to mount a serious challenge to such vexing issues as traffic gridlock, declining economic prosperity, and social inequity. The good news is that the solutions to these challenges have been well-studied and documented. Where we lack in action we have over-compensated in meetings, planning and reporting. We are not starting from scratch.
Of all of the advice we have been given over the past two decades, perhaps none is more essential than the 1996 report of the GTA task force led by Anne Golden. Golden provided urgent direction to the regional governance crisis of 20 years ago, a crisis that is only that much greater all these years later. Golden observed that city regions – more so than provinces or nations – are increasingly the economic jurisdiction where global competition takes place. But to compete, city regions require a level of organization and coordination on the range of services and responsibilities (as identified above). Today, of the 11 areas she cited for such coordination, the Toronto region is only marginally organized in maybe three: transit, planning and economic development (the new Toronto Global). And two of these are provincially led initiatives, not municipal: Metrolinx and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
It is an alarming fact that not a single municipally elected politician in the GTA wakes up with a responsibility to think or act regionally. Their only duty is to serve their local municipality. And not surprisingly, we are seeing more and more evidence of parochialism. When our mayors do get together informally they do so to advance local interests or stand against bigger regional interests, like arresting the rate of urban sprawl.
As the 2018 municipal elections approach, we need to demand bigger thinking from our current and future municipal leaders. But we can’t expect to see this under the current structures of governance across the region. This must be both a bottom-up and a top-down process of structural renewal. And this means we need to engage all the provincial parties, who are also vying for election next year.
The timid rise of Toronto Global must not stand as an exceptional moment. It is an opportunity to find more common ground to progress our many shared regional priorities. Strong globally competitive regions stand together to be more than the sum of their local parts. It’s finally time for the Toronto Region to step up to this challenge.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice-president, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at Richard.Joy@uli.org