By: Daniel Reynolds
It may surprise you to learn the City of Toronto actually employs an intricate, multi-stage development review process for new building applications. Anyone with land–and financial means–can submit a proposal along with the appropriate drawings, studies and reports to various City departments for review. This begins a process to determine the acceptability of any development idea for the City. This is your municipal government in action.
Part of this process includes a public consultation meeting whereby city staff presents the submission materials to area residents. For the applicants–a team which usually consists of the developer/builder, his lawyer, their planner and various other architects and consultants–these gatherings offer a chance to interface with the community directly to understand concerns and answer any questions residents may have regarding the proposed idea.
That’s the idea in theory, anyway. In practice, public meetings usually devolve into grandstanding and accusations, loud voices and pointed fingers. Complaints about building height, population density and increased traffic are heard again and again. And heaven help the proposal that even mentions rental or affordable housing units. Through it all, a tone of disbelief permeates the audience–how can this thing be allowed to happen? In reaction, residents are more than happy to tell you about how things used to be and why it was always better that way. I recall one instance when a woman reminded the crowd that Leslie Street in the north end of the city was once a two-lane dirt road. She said this proudly, the insinuation hanging in the air: Why does anything have to change at all?
Then we hear men like Donald Trump voicing a promise to return society to a different, better time, one frozen in the past, and recognize a larger problem. The news of the world lately has been steeped in this kind of throwback rhetoric, albeit on a much scarier, more radical scale; the stakes are often a matter of life and death. From America, we’ve been bombarded with stories this past year of horrifying violence–cops killing unarmed black people, a white supremacist shooting up a church, unstable people with guns opening fire on camera, or at a school. Recently, in Minneapolis, a Black Lives Matter protest was met with gunfire, maiming five people. Across the globe, we’ve borne witness to the Syrian refugee crisis, a result of the terrifying attacks from ISIS in the Middle East and abroad, and the attendant anxiety over where all these displaced people would go. The details of each story are different, but thrumming underneath is the call for, and reactive fear of, change–to thinking, to policy, to action.
In the aftermath of these events are the jarring reactions of the resolute: the ones who would leave gun control laws as they are, who do not see the problem with a proudly displayed Confederate flag, who get nervous when large groups of non-white people congregate in any number. They’ve never had a reason to question how or why society organizes itself the way it does, or how their voices came to be the ones that matter the most. Any challenge comes as an affront, as if someone else–unknowable, undesirable–is coming to take something away from them. An ever-evolving conversation about race, gender, sexuality, religion and more is passing them by. And they are being asked, with increasing insistence, to re-assess what they value and what kind of world they want to see as the days march on into the future. It will take some honest hard work; their neighbourhood is changing.
These are extreme examples, but the underlying thinking in many public consultation meetings in Toronto is similarly shaded. Those complaints about building height, or the influx of new people and traffic shields the same deeper-seeded worry. The “more” promised by these new developments is perceived as equating to “less” for the existing residents–less space in the park or on the road, sure, but also less of the familiar and the notion of less safety as a result. Long-time residents will speak of their investment into the neighbourhood, of protecting what it is, as if an urban area can be locked into a golden age. As such, it becomes something of a moral imperative for most residents to maintain the status quo. Their community should stay the same because that’s the way it’s always been, unquestioned; it’s comfortable and safe, a known quantity.
What this sentiment ignores is the primary principle of urban growth: Change is necessary for a city’s survival, the introduction of the new its lifeblood. For all of the hand-wringing over an individual building’s proposed design and impact, it’s important to understand the fundamental role these kinds of transformations have in generally improving Toronto as this country’s representative metropolis on the international stage. In the last couple of decades we’ve seen areas of urban blight renewed, neighbourhoods reclaimed and enhanced, and thousands of new people, from both near and far, move in. All of these happenings tend to add far more to Toronto (and the world at large) than they take away. And as a result, today this city matters; it matters more than it ever has before.
Naturally, the process is not perfect. Sometimes change happens too slowly, or a decision made in the interests of the future turns out to be the wrong one. Ask a member of City staff, or someone in the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, or a City Councillor what they’d like to see happen next and you’d get three different answers. Many will tell you not enough is being done–for transit, for affordable housing, for parks and community spaces. Ugly buildings get built, people are sometimes unfairly displaced, money gets wasted or worse, lost. Violence mars this city just as it does every urban area of a significant size. Sometimes Toronto doesn’t get it right.
But applications still come in, city staff do their review, the public is consulted, and a course of action is plotted. This is your municipal government at work, labouring to recognize change as inevitable. What we have at the end is a development, a single piece in a very large, sometimes impossibly intricate puzzle. But then again, that’s something of a misnomer – not the “development” idea, or puzzle metaphor, but the notion that there’s an end.