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Guest Post: How We Changed Toronto

This past summer I participated in a Jane’s Walk here in Toronto, where I was the only speaker to advocate for removing the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway.

After my short talk I was feeling a bit like the black sheep of the group. Either nobody felt the same way as me, or nobody was willing to speak up. Most of the other people there seemed more enamoured by architect Les Klein’s “Green Ribbon” proposal.

But as I put down the megaphone and began walking to the next stop, a man came up to me. Truthfully, I didn’t know who he was at first, but he reassured me that it was the right thing to do. The Gardiner East should come down.

Eventually he gave me his business card. On the front it said: John Sewell. And as soon as I saw that I said out loud: “I know this name!”

John Sewell was a member of Toronto City Council from 1969 to 1984 and was Mayor of Toronto from 1979-1980. Today, he is a Toronto activist and has written dozens of books, mostly relating to urban issues.

His latest book, released last month, is called: “How We Changed Toronto – The inside story of twelve creative, tumultuous years in civic life, 1969-1980.”

And today I’m delighted to share a guest post that he has written for Architect This City. The focus of his post below is on the importance of community participation in the planning process and how it was used in this city in the 1970s.

If you’re a developer, this post might scare you. I think there’s often the perception that communities will generally oppose any sort of development. But there are developers in this city, such as Westbank, which have been taking a more proactive approach to community consultations. And it appears to be working for them. So maybe this is something we should be talking about.

If you have any thoughts on this, let’s have a discussion in the comment section below. I hope you enjoy the guest post. Thank you again, John.


Transportation plans, redevelopment schemes, urban expansion: municipalities address big issues like these in several different ways. A staff report can be requested; consultants can be called in; a competition can be held.

The device used most successfully by Toronto City Council in the 1970s was a committee of citizens working directly with city staff and council members. It produced enormously successful results, as I recount in my new book `How We Changed Toronto’, but sadly it is rarely used in the 21st century.

In 1970 City Council appointed a working committee of local residents and several councillors to create a new plan for the Trefann Court Urban Renewal Area, a neighbourhood that had been fighting the city’s plan of demolition for half a dozen years. With the help of a city planner hired specifically for this task, a new plan satisfactory to the different factions in Trefann was hammered out within a few years, then successfully implemented.

In 1973, when the new Council pondered how to rethink a downtown designated for more office towers, it appointed the Core Area Task Force, a body of community representatives and developers, to give direction to city planners as a new approach to the downtown was devised. The result was the remarkable Central Area Plan which encouraged housing downtown and mixed uses, put an end to windy plazas, and generally created an environment that was active and felt comfortable to anyone on foot.

In 1974, as Council faced the problem of how it would redevelop 45 acres of wasteland on the edge of the downtown, it appointed a working committee of concerned residents and councillors to give direction to city staff. It’s fair to say that no one had a good idea of how the site should be developed, but the working committee and city staff conceived a brilliant plan which was quickly executed – the first new building was under construction within two years of the working committee being established – and the neighbourhood, now known as St. Lawrence, remains one of the great successes of the latter half of the 20th century.

From the 1980s onward, City Council has touted the idea of citizen participation, but confined that activity to public hearings on decisions recommended by staff. That generally is the practice today, although open houses have been added, as though showing people plans and getting informal comments is a good way of involving people.

What’s lost in public hearings and open houses is the creativity that a group of committed, diverse individuals can bring to a problem when they meet together over a number of weeks and months. The members of the group know the local scene but they aren’t experts, so they must be advised by planners and other professionals about the issues they should address, the pitfalls of some options, and the trade-offs available before decisions are taken. It is an open ended process fueled by debates about different opinions, but held together by a common purpose and the realization that those around the table are playing an important role in shaping the direction of the city.

The working committee that started meeting in Trefann had no clear idea in advance of what the plan it finally arrived at would look like. It was the same with the Central Area Plan, the St. Lawrence community, and the other processes in the 1970s which I touch on in the book. The process that the politicians, staff and residents committed themselves to made all the difference.

One reason this kind of process is not employed much today is because too many elected figures take an ideological approach. They think they have the answers which they have been elected to implement, rather than to establish ways in which many more minds can be involved in seeking results which are widely agreed on.

As well, city staff are not seen as independent professional advisors serving the public at large, but as a part of a corps serving the mayor and city councillors. In the 1970s in Toronto there was a clear separation between the politicians and the administration, and there were frequent (and welcome) debates on the floor of City Council between the two factions. Both were there to serve the public although they might have different ideas of how that should be done. This kind of tension was seen as entirely appropriate.

In Toronto (and probably other cities) the situation is now even more complicated as councillors see themselves not as public servants for a few years, but rather as individuals with a lifetime commitment to holding public office. Too many members of Toronto City Council have been there for more than 15 years, and they fear that taking a principled stand on an important issue might result in the worst of all possible outcomes, their defeat. They decide not to take on the big issues.

Toronto is currently facing significant problems.  The downtown is being overrun with new tall condo towers, for which the city does not have the infrastructure, and the new housing is not designed to meet the needs of future residents. It is the perfect opportunity for a new look at the Central Area Plan, using the same mechanisms as in the 1970s: a holding bylaw so the new plan won’t be pre-empted by development applications; a citizen-led task force including some councillors, advised by city staff. Who knows what brilliant plan an open ended process can recommend?

Another problem is money. Toronto does not have enough money to upgrade its transit system or repair the affordable housing it owns, let alone build the new affordable housing it needs. The demands of the mayor that other governments should pay are understandably disregarded. It is time that the city had its own revenue sources, and what better than a citizen led initiative to point the way?

It’s the same with a plan to build the affordable housing the city needs, to ensure development activity enlivens the near suburbs, to put some restraint on the continued low density subdivisions which are being unrolled far beyond the city’s borders, to restructure the megacity into something which works for the different communities within the city. These challenges all need strong citizen driven processes.

As I recount in `How We Changed Toronto’, the 1970s really did change Toronto for the better. The city has been coasting ever since on those successes. It is time for renewal, and using the successful mechanisms from forty years ago is something worth doing.

-John Sewell

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