Civic Muscle: building Toronto
(Part 1 of 5)
Whoever wins Toronto's mayoral election on Oct. 25 faces major challenges going forward.
The city is in a financial stranglehold because of a system that makes property taxes the only mechanism by which Toronto is able to raise substantial funds.
Urban sprawl has made Toronto one of the most congested cities in North America, where commute times can be worse than in Los Angeles. And amalgamation may have cost the city more than it has saved.
Daunting as the challenges are, there is plenty of evidence that Torontonians are eager to meet them. There is a renaissance of civic engagement in this city.
The evidence is all around us, from community festivals, farmers markets and art fairs to large-scale projects such as the Evergreen Brick Works, the country's largest environmental community centre, to the growing clout of civic organizations such as the Toronto City Summit Alliance.
Many citizens are demanding a bigger say in the formal processes of city-building. Civic institutions and agencies, from city hall to public school boards and agencies such as the TTC and the police force, need to catch up to their own citizens in order to harness their skills and goodwill.
Electoral politics are often polarized into divisive conversations about "who gets what."
For the 2010 election campaign, we are examining what it means to build civic muscle and asking which mayoral candidates are best able to harness the insights and skills of ordinary citizens to transform the conversation of scarcity into one rooted in older traditions of civic engagement -- not just on election day but throughout the year.
Rescuing a public park
We start with a story about the soldiers posted at Fort York in the late 1700s who were among Toronto's first city-builders. It's also the story of a group of committed residents, flexing their own civic muscle, to rescue a park and a piece of Toronto history.
When soldiers posted at Fort York in 1794 through to the early 1800s weren't guarding the fort against invading Americans, they were armed with spades and pick-axes, and set to work building Toronto's first roads and sidewalks.
Few Torontonians know that story. And for years, few people walking through Victoria Memorial Square, a little park in downtown Toronto, realized they were walking past Toronto's oldest European burial ground, where the bodies of those soldiers and their families had been buried.
Scott James, a resident of a condo building overlooking the square, was one of the few people who knew it was an important historic site.
As the former city archivist and former managing director of the Toronto Historical Board, he first learned of the park's historic significance years ago when he was organizing the original collection of papers for the Military Burial Grounds Commission.
But it was while living next door to the former military cemetery that James became intimately acquainted with the site. Together with his neighbours around the square, he began a campaign to rescue the dilapidated park and its eroding tombstones from more than a century of neglect.
A showcase of granite
Today, a granite monument showcases those tombstones. Only 17 remain of the 500 or so stones and wooden crosses that used to mark the site.
On one, you can faintly make out an inscription commemorating the brief life of a nine-month-old baby, born to one of the soldiers posted at Fort York.
For James, the story of this historic burial ground is a story of civic engagement.
"As the first people to move in," says James, "we knew the potential for the park."
The City's Parks department had no money to help, so a citizens task force was formed to raise money to hire a landscaper.
These were no ordinary residents. Scott's neighbours included other former city hall insiders such as architect Ken Greenberg, former director of the city's planning department, and one of Greenberg's planners at the department.They knew how to pull the financial ropes, working closely with developers in the area, who put up much of the money for park improvements.
The residents -- educated, powerful and well-off -- were also fortunate to be represented by two consecutive councillors who were eager to help. And yet, in spite of an abundance of goodwill, James calls the municipal government bureaucracy -- from the parks department to public works and planning -- "elaborate, labyrinthine, clumsy and often not transparent."
"I worked for city hall for 30 years," says James, "and I don't remember it being as difficult to get decisions made, and difficult to get contracts let, and difficult to get contracts adhered to and completed as I've seen in this case."
We are government
James says dozens of city departments with different, unco-ordinated agendas made it hard even for former insiders like James and his neighbours to navigate post-amalgamation city hall.
"We're supposed to be partners in this enterprise," says James. "We're not customers that can be marketed or ignored as the councillors or civil service sees fit. We're not clients or customers of the government. We are citizens. We are the government."
Two centuries ago, the soldiers buried in Victoria Memorial Square helped build Toronto. Perhaps it's no accident that 200 years later, the people living next door to their burial ground are prepared to fight for the right to continue building it.
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