Recent global context suggests that the rise and enduring strength of Ford Nation (which spills well beyond Toronto’s borders) is representative of broadening unrest within western democracies where too many feel that they are outside of the institutions that are shaping our future and the opportunities afforded by it.
Irrational or not, these populist expressions speak to a need to improve our public dialog relating to matters affecting the economy, social inclusion, climate and quality of life. And this is true whether the focus is the European Union, the presidency of the United States or (more locally) the Toronto Region.
In a recent column I wrote of ULI Toronto’s multi-year initiative, Electric Cities, aimed at strengthening the role of communities in city and region building by listening more carefully to them and their role in embracing urban transformation. That our future must involve significant land use and transportation changes in almost every neighbourhood –as we continue our shift from outward to inward growth — is not something we can responsibly avoid. But explaining these changes and ensuring that the benefits of such transformations are understood, shared equitably and more fully embraced is something we can better manage.
This means better getting out in front of change in our communities before change presents itself. The emerging Regional Growth Plan and the updates to our municipal official plans are opportunities to better bring communities into the fold. And these opportunities need to be taken more seriously than ever before. Their successful implementation demands it.
Our local neighbourhoods need to understand their regional context, and that their viability depends on a more mobile and intensified regional land and transportation system – meaning they must embrace the expansion of higher order transit infrastructure and the building of density along such corridors and stations. That shifts in our economy will require that employment and retail often needs to mix with residential, and that housing affordability demands more mixing of incomes.
Conversely, city builders must do better at understanding and being sensitive to local communities. That the strength of our urban region is our strong neighbourhoods is no coincidence. Toronto’s international ranking as one of the most liveable cities in the world is first and foremost a product of the strong identity and leadership of our local communities. We ride roughshod over them, in the name of “progress,” at our peril.
Going forward, communities will be better served if, within the context of the forces of change facing them, they are ready to leverage such opportunities to improve their neighbourhoods. This may mean more libraries, community space, or parkland. It may also mean more choice in housing supply or retail spaces. It may mean more construction jobs or affordable day care. For sure it means demanding the highest caliber of urban design and architecture.
To his detractors, Rob Ford may not easily be recognized as a leading global indicator. But his tenure and ongoing legacy speaks to how easily a dangerous disconnect between policy makers, industry leaders and the broader public can cast awry best laid plans.
Communities in our region must have a more meaningful role in the shaping of our region, of which they themselves are the building blocks. This is the belief that is the core of ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities initiative, which seeks to foster a new level of dialog between government, industry professionals and local communities across the Greater Golden Horseshoe. A community that is ready to leverage change is a community more likely to embrace it.