Walk With Joy: Toronto’s Fragmented Urban Governance

David Crombie liked to say that we don’t need regional governance in the Greater Toronto Area as we already have it: it’s called the Province of Ontario. In his eye, a benevolent provincial government with almost limitless constitutional powers negates the need for a formalized municipal structure or coordinating body at the metropolitan scale. It’s an odd thing to say for Toronto’s 1970s mayor, whose tenure coincided with the golden era of local democracy and regional government. I think he was wrong.

In the many decades that the population of Metro Toronto spilled over its former boundaries, we have allowed the expanded region to become so fragmented that no locally elected politician in the Toronto region has any responsibility beyond their own local jurisdiction. It’s a structure that has led to a political culture of regional division and parochialism.

The Toronto Region is arguably the least regionally coordinated of any comparable global urban region. It’s a serious problem that we have allowed to fester, and the symptoms of this failure abound. The recent 10-year review of the provincial growth plan revealed a confusing patchwork of local land use policies. There exists no regionally led climate change strategy or social policy initiative. Economic coordination remains largely a subset of provincial strategy. Perhaps most frustratingly, transit planning and operations has largely neglected the need for a seamless integration to shift commuters onto mass transit, in spite of a decade of Metrolinx and the advent of the Presto card.

ULI Toronto Executive Director Richard Joy argues for a stronger regional governance structure in the GTA. Phoot by City Glow via Flickr Commons.
ULI Toronto Executive Director Richard Joy argues for a stronger regional governance structure in the GTA. Phoot by City Glow via Flickr Commons.

It is the failing of regional transit especially that now threatens to thrust us further toward wrong-headed solutions, tilting municipal governance away from its most important priority: local service delivery. Indeed, the Toronto Region Board of Trade is actively pushing to remove local representation entirely from transit operations and infrastructure planning, reducing it to “rotational” representation within a crown corporation entirely accountable to the provincial government.

While the new Ontario government does not seem interested in a full uploading of Toronto’s transit system, which constitutes over 70 per cent of all ridership in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, it is rapidly advancing an election promise to upload Toronto’s subways. Post-election, this has expanded to include related land holdings of the TTC and possibly the broader planning around them. Further provincial intrusions into local planning jurisdiction are also highly anticipated, including the future of employment lands and the waterfront.

Strong cases can be made for the occasional provincial intervention into municipal authority. The imposition of a massive regional growth boundary, the Greenbelt, and the accompanying Growth Plan to curb urban sprawl and encourage intensification arguably qualify as good example for exercising such power. But like the emerging transit and planning takeover agenda, the Greenbelt and Growth Plan were not simply policy shifts (good or bad); they were institutions of paternalism that ultimately weakened the very goal of regionalism that they sought to advance.

A strong regional governance structure should balance the micro with the macro, where the regional and local perspectives mutually respect each other. This is often best achieved when the democratic representation at each level aligns with the geography being governed, and better still, when there is cross-representation and leadership between both realms. The two-tiered, Metropolitan Toronto government of 1954-1998, including the imperfect “glory days” of Mayor Crombie, is often considered a best international example.

Running the Toronto Region by provincial fiat will never achieve regional harmony and cohesion. Infantilizing local municipalities by removing such basic powers as planning transit infrastructure, and by not establishing any metropolitan governance model comprised of municipally elected leadership, the province threatens to further divide the region and foster local fiefdoms of inward looking leadership. This is not the governance model that will allow us to optimize the internationally competitive urban region that we have become. It will undermine it. It is not the model that follows the successes of our past. It’s a model that threatens our future.


Richard Joy is the Executive Director of ULI Toronto.

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