Friday, February 25, 2011

Photo: No Pie

Forget about gravy, we gotta ban that pie!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When 0.155% is Deemed Too Big a Tax Increase

(Feb 25, 2011 edit: portions of this post appear in altered form in my article on the Torontoist)

This morning something unexpected happened to me. I began to watch the live stream of Toronto city council debating budgetary matters and was suddenly hooked. I don't know if it was Speaker Nunziata's saucy schoolmaster attitude or the overly sensitive councillors offended by such things as pointing and smiling, but I almost missed an appointment for a haircut.

Of course, I wouldn't have been so riveted if the debate hadn't been about something that seemed kind of important--like, oh I don't know, the money the city needs to operate.

Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14 - Parkdale/High Park) introduced a motion to raise the property tax rate by 0.155%. As Perks pointed out this would raise enough money to avoid the proposed service cuts to TTC bus routes, save the urban affairs library from closing, with a chunk of change left over that could be used for other things. He also pointed out that this would be an incredibly small tax increase, costing taxpayers between $4 and $9 for the entire year.

Sounds reasonable, no?

27 councillors didn't think so, as the motion was defeated 18-27, causing sane people all around the city to grab a fistful of their hair and rip it out.

But there were some good points raised in the debate about the motion (by debate I mean of course that everyone got to speak and no one listened to each other). Josh Matlow (Ward 22 - St. Pauls) made the observation that service cuts are all relative: while Rob Ford may deem some service cuts to be minor, the citizens affected by such cuts may deem them major.

Karen Stintz spoke about how she believed that it would be better to let the citizen's of Toronto figure out how to spend their $4 to $9 since the City has proven unable to do so in the past. I guess some of those people could pool their $4 to $9 together, invest it, and maybe in a hundred years they'd have enough money to buy their own bus. That's reasonable.

What was really on the table though was blind ideology against common sense city budgeting. Rob Ford was bent on freezing the property tax no matter what, so they were going to freeze the property tax no matter what. How else could councillors really justify cutting services as opposed to approving a tax increase so small that most citizens wouldn't even notice if no one told them? I mean, really, most people probably lose that much change in their couch each year.

Budget talks continue. Tune in.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Toothpickopolis, Rob Ford as Godzilla, Sheppard Subway Skewered, & Miniature Toronto in Russian

As I sit here in my pajamas, nursing a slight headache (thanks to the Spacing Magazine release party last night at the El Mocambo), and listening to the soothing sounds of honking from my back alley where yet again the white van I have come to loathe has blocked the only entrance/exit, I can't help feeling that today is not going to be a very productive day.

Compounding my feeling of unproductiveness is the story about a man who spent six years building an entire city out of toothpicks. That is some serious serious serious patience that I don't have. I get impatient just scrolling down looking at the photos. Of course now that he's done his toothpickopolis, he will spend the rest of his life guarding it from people who want to dress up like Godzilla and crush it in a rampage.

Speaking of Godzillas destroying cities in rampages, Rob Ford's proposal to privately build the Sheppard subway line has drawn the ire of newspaper columnists, transit advocates, Twitterites, and Blogonians everywhere. I'm particularly enjoying Marcus Gee of The Globe and Mail skewering first the economics of the proposal and then the ideology. But don't worry everyone, Rob Ford sent his brother Doug to chat with Matt Galloway and assure us all that the private sector will be holding all the risk if the development doesn't materialize. Really? You might want to clear that with them first, Dougie.

But, hey, if you're upset with the way the city is heading, why not bury your head in the nostalgic sand of times gone by and check out these old-timey photos at BlogTO that document Toronto dating back to 1850--which also, as it happens, is when Hazel Mccallion became mayor of Mississauga. Athankyouverymuch.

I'll leave you all with this slightly confusing somewhat terrifying but always awesome video on the Torontoist of a Russian music video that uses the magical powers of tilt-shift to reduce Toronto to mere miniature size.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Photo: Iced Coffee, to go

That moment of sadness when you spill your coffee, frozen by the snow in space and time for all to see.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rob Ford the Strong Mayor?

A few days ago, the quote that zoomed around the internet was Doug Ford opining the relatively little power his brother Rob Ford has in Toronto’s weak mayor system, prompting the blogo- and Twitter-sphere into a foamy frenzy. “I believe in a strong mayor system, like they have in the States,” Doug Ford said. “The mayor should have veto power ... so he has enough power to stop council.”

Just to recap: in Toronto’s weak mayor system the mayor has one vote, just like every other councilor. Rob Ford cannot let loose with the gavel and cancel projects willy-nilly. He must first garner the majority support of councilors, which can be pretty annoying and difficult and laborious, but, you know, that’s democracy.

In an electoral system where the mayor had won a clear majority of the votes, the idea of a strong mayor system begins to look a little less undemocratic. For example, a strong majority from voters could mean they have confidence in the mayor's own personal vision for the city. But one has to wonder if allowing a mayor veto power when he was elected with less than a majority (Ford was elected with 47%) makes for a democratic system. Perhaps before we look to overhaul the powers of our mayoral system, we should look at the system that elects the mayor in the first place to make sure that it provides the most fair and democratic manner of election.

In the current system, first-past-the-post, a mayor, or any councilor for that matter, can easily be elected with well under majority support. James Pasternak in Ward 10 York Centre, for example, was elected with a paltry 19% of the vote this past election, meaning that over 80% of voters didn’t want him to be their councilor. Organizations like Fair Vote Toronto, Better Ballots, and the advocacy group Ranked Ballot Initiative (RaBIT) have all proposed solutions and started dialogues on the matter of refining Toronto's municipal electoral system.

It’s not surprising, however, that Rob Ford would want to govern with a weightier hand, given his propensity for proclaiming various city projects dead (coughTransitCitycough) without first discussing the matter with the other 44 councilors. His campaign was focused, hard-lined, and unbending, so why should we expect his mayoral reign to be any different? Of course Ford would want veto power because then he wouldn’t have to work with all those pesky left-wing councilors and their kooks of a constituency.

In the current weak mayor system, the mayor must forge relationships with a diverse group of councilors (and with Toronto’s 44 councilors plus a mayor you are going to get a lot of diverse opinions to contend with). How much of a mayor’s vision gets implemented during his or her term is a reflection of how much support he or she garnered on council. The mayor cannot rely on party support because there are no parties in the Toronto system. Contrast this with the Vancouver system, which introduces parties into municipal politics. While still a weak mayor system, Mayor Gregor Robertson of the party Vision Vancouver can usually rely on the support from other councilors within the same party—and with 7 out of 10 current councilors affiliated with Vision Vancouver he usually has the support he needs.

But Toronto’s system is different. Without parties, there are no givens in terms of what councilor is going to support what or who is aligned with who. While Rob Ford certainly has clear alliances on council, there is nothing officially tying any councilor to vote with the mayor. The mayor must work with councilors to gain the support needed, which works then in theory to keep the mayor from becoming a lone wolf figure. The weak mayor system acts a check-and-balance against power, preventing the mayor from simply over-riding council decisions and implementing his or her own civic vision--for better or worse. The downside to a weak mayor system is that things could move a lot slower as the mayor works to gain support. Of course, this can be an upside too, depending on the agenda.

Before we even think about giving our mayor the power to veto decisions by council, we should make sure that he or she is elected in a truly democratic system.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Video: Toronto By Numbers

I posted a video a few week's ago that my friend in England made while in Toronto (the video was later picked up and posted on the Torontoist as well). I thought I would share another video by the same friend, in which he sets a collection of numbers found in Toronto to music.

Watching this video (as I have done several times now; how could you watch it just once?) reminds me of all the small details that we might miss in our everyday goings about town. House numbers don't necessarily command our attention as we walk down the street, but as this video shows they are numerous (ha!), unique, and often beautiful.

It's the cumulative effect of such diverse details that make Toronto so visually dazzling at times. When I first moved here from Vancouver it would take me forever just to walk down the street in my Annex neighbourhood because my eye kept becoming caught left and right by the amazing architectural diversity and the detailing on the houses. Coming from the land of the architectural cut-and-paste (glass condos; Vancouver special house) it was refreshing to see such character. Sure some of the paint is peeling off the brick, and the wood may have a warped, bloated look at times, but each house seems to have its own unique stamp. If the devil's in the details, then beauty is as well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Imaginative cartography, Calgary Vs. Toronto, & Vancouver Bike Politics

Although I'm sure everyone and their dog has come across this video already, here is the New York subway system as music. And if that wasn't enough New York for you, Charles-Antoine Perraul at Columbia University asks what if Manhattan was designed like Paris? But Toronto has some cool creative graphic stuff, too. Like this reworked map of the Toronto bicycle network. Oh, wait, that's just sad.

Calgary's mayor Naheed Nenshi was in Toronto speaking about his ideas on civic engagement and city building. Careful, Mr. Nenshi, if you keep speaking so eloquently and responding to questions with thoughtful answers Torontonians might never let you leave the city. Meanwhile, headlining Toronto's civic news Rob Ford has a kidney stone removed and his brother tells a poverty activist to get a job. Seriously, Mr. Nenshi, don't go. Please.

In Vancouver-related bike news, Rob MacDonald rails in The Vancouver Sun against the city's separated bike lanes saying they are, among other things, unsafe for cyclists and a complete disaster--which prompts transportation economist and regional planner Stephen Rees to post a link on his blog to a study done in Montreal showing the exact opposite. Ah, bicycle politics, thou art so filled with rhetoric as to bring forth much bile.

If you can't stand all this back-and-forth bike related internet yelling (one look at the comment section of that Vancouver Sun article is enough to give anyone a coronary) then fear not, you'll soon be able to blow of some of that steam on Vancouver's to-be-built bicycle polo court in Grandview Park off Commercial Drive. The East Vancouver hipsters salute you, Vancouver Park Board--but only in a, like, you know, ironic way.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book: Why Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is a Planner's Nightmare

Imagine a world where books are are viewed as smelly relics from the past, where everyone scans information on screens instead of reading, where "credit poles" set up along streets broadcast your credit rating to everyone, where the subway has a first-class and coach section, where shopping has become the only leisure activity besides streaming yourself to the world on handheld devices that can also instantly evaluate your hotness level in relation to everyone else in the room. Oh, and the most popular form of clothing are Onionskin jeans, which are not only super tight, but completely transparent. Yowza.

This is the world Gary Shteyngart creates in his book Super Sad True Love Story.

It's a satire of the highest order; meaning that it takes things that we immediately recognize in our world today and makes them ridiculous--but not so ridiculous that we aren't a bit afraid that it will actually come true. The laughter derived from the book is a nervous laughter. You laugh because you recognize a bit of this society today, a bit of these characters in yourself, and then you stop laughing because it's not funny at all actually.

And maybe it's because most of my life in the past few months has been so focussed on urban planning, but I couldn't stop myself from seeing this book through that framework.

Basically, Shteyngart paints the portrait of a city (it takes place, of course, in New York City) completely devoid of planners. Reading this book we are reminded what would happen if the market, with its callous hand (invisible or not), was what ran everything. People are classified as either High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) or Low Net Worth Individuals (LNWI) and you don't want to be considered the latter. In this world, corporations have merged to create super-conglomerates, with scary multi-syllabic names like the airline UnitedContinentalDeltamerican. The city is nothing except a venue for shopping, with Retail (yes, now featuring a scary capital "R") as the prime use of streets.

As mentioned previously, transportation planning has also be taken over by the market, with erratic scheduling and a separate compartment for HNWIs (if you can afford it). Urban design and architecture, if they exist at all, are there simply to facilitate the creation of flashy, Retail avenues. The city ceases to become a place that can (or should) be planned and become instead just a conduit for capital, for endless consumption.

The way I saw it (and I'm completely leaving out the entire love story portion of the book) Super Sad True Love Story is a lament for regulation. Planners exist to balance interests between stakeholders, to (and I'm being idealistic here, I realize, but so what?) create communities that are more equitable, more livable and not simply based on market calculations. Shteyngart's book shows us a future available to us if we want to do away with that vision for the future and leave everything up to the market. While the market may be efficient at delivering certain services, it's also highly volatile (as we've seen the past few years first hand) and discriminatory. The city and the people in it have become the complete slaves of capital in Shteyngart's future. A planner would take one step inside this world and her head would explode.

Without getting into the debate, the book made me reflect on Rob Ford's push for privatization and contracting out city services in Toronto. Shteyngart's city is one where everything has been privatized from transportation to police. Of course, it may be unfair to draw parallels to our current situation based on a satiral novel, but then again it's exactly those parallels that make the satire so biting, so funny, and so scary in the first place.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Defence of Graffiti

When I was in St. Petersburg, Russia just before the G8 in the summer of 2007, I stalked the streets of that ancient city snapping pictures left and right. I have pictures of beautiful churches, canals, and monuments. I have soviet-era apartment blocks and crammed, twisted streets. I have pictures of ornate castles, with so much gold that it's almost hard to look at them in the sun. But those aren't the pictures that I love the most. The pictures that I love the most are of the graffiti.

Every so often a politician vows to clean up a city's graffiti. Rob Ford has made it his personal task to see all the graffiti eliminated in Toronto within six months of taking office--a truly ridiculous proposition on par with other never-ending, amorphous battles like America's "war on drugs". He argues that a graffiti-free city is 'clean' and business-friendly (if I was to engage Ford on the business-friendly front, I could invoke Richard Florida and claim that graffiti is a sign of a vibrant creative class--but that's another story).

A city should not simply be a vehicle for business. It's built environment should not be seen only as a conduit for making money, but as the arena in which citizens interact with each other, with their society, with the world. Part of this interaction is expression through forms of art.

[photo taken in Los Angeles]

I will not even dive into the vandalism vs. art debate that surrounds graffiti like an eternal haze (I could call huge, sprawling advertisements clinging like some second skin to the side of a building as simply state-sanctioned vandalism). That conversation is a dead end. We shouldn't be asking ourselves: is it art? is it vandalism? We should be asking ourselves: what would our city be without it?

Erasing Toronto's graffiti is akin to erasing part of its cultural history, part of its democratic expression, its conversation with its residents. A city is not static, but an ever-changing, morphing entity and attempts to rein this in run the risk of stifling what makes cities alluring in the first place. Imagine the alley behind Queen St scrubbed clean. Is it better off? What do we lose?

[photo taken in graffiti alley behind Queen St.]

Graffiti is what gives a city part of its character, its history, its contradictions. What was particularly intoxicating about the graffiti in St. Petersburg was the juxtaposition of the newness of the colourful sprayed paint with the intense oldness of the rest of the city. It was a mash of history, of time lines, of layers of society. Some of it was ugly, true. Some of it, given the impending G8, was political. But all of it added to the complexity of my experience to the city. Here was a city that was ancient, but throbbing and alive as well, evolving and living on the walls in dashes of colour.

Now the City has issued a notice to the Evergreen Brick Works site to clean up the graffiti on the walls there, some of which has been there for 30 years. Attending a walking tour of the site a few months ago, one of the architects on the project remarked that keeping the graffiti was an important part of the preservation of the history of the site. He rightly saw it not as an act of vandalism (which legally, it is), but as a crucial moment in the site's rich history. Erasing the graffiti, would be like knocking down one of the site's walls. There, as in St. Petersburg, the contrast between the old, industrial buildings and vibrant, fluid colour is striking. Without it, the site would lose that contrast.

Not all graffiti is great. Tagging--which is like running around and writing your name in everyone else's underwear--can be crude and decidedly unartistic. But even tagging, layered over time as it is on many buildings on Spadina, creates a kind of depth, a collage.

OK, so I said I wasn't going to get into the vandalism vs. art debate, but I do have to say after all this that I understand the frustration of businesses and residents who have found their property 'defaced' by graffiti. I'm not arguing that we should never clean up graffiti, or that all of it merits protection. I am arguing that despite whether you view it as art or not, graffiti has a purpose in the city that needs to be recognized. It contributes to the contrast between old and new, often blending them together. Part of the allure is how it seems situated in time, but also completely unbound by it. How old is some of that graffiti anyway? Do we really know? Graffiti is at once a documentation and an ongoing conversation.

A graffiti-free city is a silent city.

[photo taken at the Evergreen Brick Works]

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Photo: Snow vs. Bike

Looks like this biker won't be going anywhere until springtime.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Footsteps in the Snow: A Pedestrian Map

Coming from Vancouver, it's a strange experience to have snow stay on the ground for so long. I'm used to light dustings that melt and disappear, usually within a 24 hour period. But it's amazing how fast you become used to something, and now that snow on the ground has become just a part of the city for me.

It also serves the purpose of unveiling the walking patterns of everyone in the city, something that is usually invisible on grass and pavement. Sure, there are some dirt paths carved through grassy areas in the spring and summer, but generally people's footsteps go unrecorded as soon as they pass through. It takes a good amount of snow on the ground in order for people to begin to leave little trails of themselves all around the city.

One thing that's obvious is people's hate for 90 degree angles. It's also interesting to find all the spaces where people cross mid-block, thus carving out a little space amidst the piled up snow at the curb. There is probably a lemming effect to all of this as well. I know that when I have to cross an area that is covered in snow and there are already one set of footsteps, I will literally follow in the footsteps of that former person.

And a note to the paranoid: if you are going to be away from your house for an extended period of time in the winter in Toronto be aware that everyone will know you're not home due to the unbroken field of snow before your front doorsteps. Someone could probably make a few bucks renting themselves out as front-door walkers, leaving their footsteps up and down the yard, stamped into the snow to say: someone was here.