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Rob Ford and the Challenges Facing Toronto

"We got this mayor, who I would argue is the worst mayor in the modern history of cities." - Richard Florida, urbanist and academic.

Toronto mayor Rob Ford has been a disaster. There is no other way to state it. He has been an embarrassment to the City of Toronto, and even to Canada as a whole. Toronto is a world-class city with an international reputation, a destination for immigrants from all over the world, multicultural and cosmopolitan, a cultural centre. Toronto - and the surrounding region which constitutes the Greater Toronto Area - comprise a growing and sprawling metropolis, facing pressures from urban/suburban sprawl, from traffic congestion.

In many ways these can be seen as fortunate problems - of a city and region that is growing and prosperous - however, they nonetheless comprise real problems that warrant attention, that bring serious pressures on urban planners, on transportation and other municipal infrastructure.

The antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, in particular the video of him allegedly smoking crack, has gained international attention for both Toronto and Canada, in the worse possible way, being fodder for late night comedians in the United States. Overall, this is a distraction from the serious issues facing the city.

The video is not an isolated incident, it is the culmination of a pattern of behaviour and poorly conceived policies that have marked the Ford administration. For example, Ford has been known to frequently - and frivolously - call 911, including on a comedian from This Hour Has 22 Minutes. There are allegations that Ford gave a middle finger to a mother and a daughter after they pointed out he was driving while on a cell phone.

There were proposals to eradicate certain bike lanes. Ford's brother Doug Ford - a city councillor and close ally - wanted to build a Ferris wheel and megamall along Toronto's waterfront, something that can only be described as tacky, and which ignored a long and deliberative process of planning that had been in place concerning Toronto's waterfront. Then there is Rob Ford's championing of a mega-casino in downtown Toronto, something that would be disastrous for the city's downtown, and hurt Toronto's reputation as an international cultural centre.

An article in the Globe and Mail cited how many casinos are losing money. According to a 2010 Ontario Auditor General's report, the four largest resort casinos in the province were losing money from 2006 to 2007. A casino in downtown Toronto would only make this worse, as stated by the Globe and Mail article's author, by "cannibalizing" the other Ontario casinos.

In addition, casinos can become magnets for crime and money laundering, creating greater costs in law enforcement. Economist Henry Lotin, cited in the above mentioned Globe and Mail article, has stated that three new casinos in Ontario would amount to $500 million in additional costs in law enforcement.

Richard Florida has described Rob Ford as being "the most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a big city."

It is noteworthy that at a time Toronto has a mayor pursuing such regressive policies, traditionally suburban municipalities are - more and more - recognizing the benefits of walkability, mass transit, and mixed-use downtown-like developments. In Mississauga, the ambitious Downtown21 project is aimed at building a dense and walkable downtown around the area of Square One Shopping Centre, trying to shed Mississauga's image as solely a suburban bedroom community.

Despite the distractions and turbulence of Rob Ford's administration, there are positive signs for Toronto. Among other things, Toronto City Council has blocked many of his more retrograde policies.

As well, the city's recently named Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, is a charismatic public figure who is championing public involvement and consultation, and has expressed a strong commitment to mixed-use planning that promotes walkability. Among other things, she has recognized the importance of sustainable urban planning practices that focus not only on downtown, but on Toronto's older suburban neighbourhoods - contained within city limits - termed "in-between cities" by York University's Roger Keil.

These older suburban developments contain high areas of poverty alongside areas of affluence, have characteristics of cultural diversity and poverty traditionally associated with urban cores, along with single-detached homes and strip malls traditionally associated with suburbia. This is an area Keil has stated is overlooked by planners, something which Keesmaat agrees.

A planning and development strategy that incorporates both Toronto's urban core and older suburbs is key to overcoming the political polarization that gave rise to Rob Ford in the first place.

Other positive signs for Toronto are the priority Ontario's premier Kathleen Wynne has placed on investing in mass transit, on relieving traffic and infrastructure pressures plaguing the Greater Toronto Area.

However, in all this, Rob Ford remains a distraction, an embarrassment, and a hindrance to truly achieving the sustainable urban planning practices needed for a growing Toronto, to overcome the political and social polarizations that affect the municipality of Toronto, to invest in areas such as mass transit and seriously deal with the infrastructure costs facing the city. Toronto is an emerging international metropolis, a growing and cosmopolitan city, these aspects need to be promoted, not attacked, as Rob Ford has been doing.

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