Is Toronto falling into disrepair? The city says it's in 'good shape,' but some residents disagree

Examples of overflowing garbage bins and pothole-filled roads are plentiful, often shared by exasperated Toronto residents on social media. But are these just signs of a growing city in transition or symptoms of a bigger problem?

Overflowing garbage bins, broken water fountains and potholes are just some of what is angering Torontonians

A broken water fountain steps from city hall is one of several installations in the satirical art project, AusterityTO, which calls attention to what its creators say is the decline of infrastructure and amenities in Toronto. (Tom Ruhig/AusterityTO)

Walk, drive or cycle through Toronto on any given day and you're bound to come across examples of public infrastructure or amenities not working as they should.

Construction debris littered across a sidewalk. A pothole-filled road. A broken garbage bin stuffed to the brim. A drinking fountain that doesn't spout water. A locked washroom in a public park. A bike lane that abruptly ends.

A city spokesperson says these are mostly isolated, temporary issues that quickly get fixed and that Toronto is generally in "very good shape." But for some residents, it feels like the place they call home is falling into a state of disrepair.

"You walk ... in New York City years ago and it was disgusting. Now we are looking the same way," Alistair Francois told CBC Toronto in an interview outside city hall last week. 

"We used to be the city that people admired worldwide; now we're not."

The issue of how public spaces are maintained is top of mind for many Toronto voters heading to the polls for the Oct. 24 municipal election.

Public art project highlights 'urban decay'

The belief that Toronto isn't living up to its reputation as a world-class city is shared by James McLeod and Tom Ruhig, creators of a satirical public art project launched earlier this month that provocatively calls attention to what they see as the city's "urban decay."

The Austerity TO project features a series of plaques styled like those seen in art galleries placed in various locations around the city. Residents can see them on a broken water fountain with its plumbing removed outside city hall, a sidewalk garbage bin covered by a black tarp on Danforth Avenue and a curb on Dundas Street West where part of the sidewalk's been replaced with sloppily poured asphalt.

The state of Toronto is becoming a ballot box issue, and Linda Ward delves into what solutions look like, ahead of the municipal election on October 24.

A website includes longer descriptions that critique the state of infrastructure and other public amenities in Toronto, as well as other issues such as the treatment of the unhoused, single-family zoning, as well as dangerous roads and bike lanes.

The website describes John Tory, who is running for a third term as mayor, as a "bold, world-class artist" using Toronto as his canvas and "ultra-low taxes, municipal bureaucracy and political stagnation" as his artistic tools.

A public garbage bin covered in a black tarp.
A city garbage bin covered in black tarp is another of AusterityTO's installations. The project's website states: 'Instead of merely fixing or removing the bin, the artist uses it as the basis of a powerful commentary, calling attention to the city’s refusal to provide even the most basic public services.' (James McLeod/AusterityTO)

McLeod, a communications professional and former journalist, and Ruhig, a design student, blame Tory for keeping property taxes low and leaving the city strapped for cash during his eight years in power.

"The bottom line is that for more than a decade, Toronto has had rock bottom low taxes and everything else followed from that," said McLeod.

"It does feel like the city is coming apart at the seams."

"There are real people being hurt by the lack of funding, the lack of care that's being taken to deliver things to the residents of the City of Toronto," added Ruhig.

This year, Toronto is facing a whopping $857-million budget gap — mostly due to the cost of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic — which forced the city to pause or shrink nearly $300 million in infrastructure projects. The city has also put off millions of dollars worth of road resurfacing projects until next year.

Two men stand behind a broken water fountain.
James McLeod, left, and Tom Ruhig, right, are pictured with a broken drinking fountain with its plumbing removed outside Toronto's city hall. The fountain is one of several installations the pair created as part of their the AusterityTO public art project. (Linda Ward/CBC)

Meanwhile, Tory has largely kept the pledge he made during two previous election campaigns to keep property tax increases below the rate of inflation. According to a 2021 report from real estate website Zoocasa, Toronto had the lowest property tax rate in Ontario before it instituted a 2.9 per cent increase in this year's budget.

With the tongue-in-cheek project, McLeod and Ruhig are hoping to start a wider discussion about the state of the city during the municipal election campaign.

"It really is the time to think about what the vision for the city is and really look into the candidates and what they can offer to you both at the mayoral level and at your councillor level because their votes do matter," Ruhig said.

A plaque McLeod and Ruhig attached to a defunct water fountain at Toronto's city hall identifies Mayor John Tory as the artist. (Linda Ward/CBC)

A spokesperson for Tory defended his record against critiques raised by AusterityTO, saying he secured a $28-billion transit plan, got thousands of housing units built and led the city through a pandemic.

"He has done all this while keeping taxes affordable when many found life in a big growing city difficult to afford, and still prioritized excellent delivery of the services residents expect," Jenessa Crognali, director of communications for Tory's re-election campaign, said in an emailed statement.

John Tory is running for a third term as mayor and is again promising to keep property tax increases below the rate of inflation. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

According to the city, only two to three per cent out of 187 park washrooms are closed for repairs at any given time. Out of the 700 drinking fountains in parks, the city said around one to two per cent are in need of fixing. 

Minor issues such as a broken water fountain button or a clogged toiled are usually fixed within 24 hours, the city said, but larger problems affecting major parts or infrastructure behind walls can take longer. 

Astral Media, which owns and operates the city's 10,000-plus public litter bins under a 20-year advertising contract, said in an email statement that it cleans and inspects the bins once weekly. The company says that increases to twice weekly in business improvement areas and high density neighbourhoods.

The company wouldn't disclose how many service requests it receives, but the city said there are currently 30 open work orders for repairs. 

Brad Ross, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto, said the city's 311 response service hasn't seen a recent spike in complaints.

"Are there areas we can do more? Absolutely. There's always room for improvement but overall the city remains in very good shape," Ross said.

"If there's an area that needs greater attention then staff look at that. So it's a constant work of continuous improvement. You're going to see a broken garbage bin from time to time, absolutely, and we do deal with them as quickly as possible."


Ryan is a reporter with CBC Toronto. He has also worked for CBC in Vancouver, Yellowknife and Ottawa, filing for web, radio and TV. You can reach him by email at

With files from CBC's Metro Morning


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