Let’s assume that you’re Mayor of your city and that, for whatever reason, you have no need to pander to voters. You’re a benevolent dictator. You can do whatever you think is best overall for the city and it will just happen. What would you do? This is more or less the question I asked on Twitter this morning, and I think it’s only fair that I answer my own question. So here is a non-exhaustive list of items that came to mind while thinking of Toronto:
- Substantially increase the pay of public sector workers throughout the city and bonus them based on measurable outcomes. Forget things like time limits on development applications; instead align incentives. For example, if we’re trying to get more shovels in the ground on affordable housing, incentivize people based on building permits issued. I’ll never forget what Roger Martin told me while I was at Rotman. When he became Dean of the school, Rotman was a whatever business school that wasn’t faring all that competitively in the rankings. One of the problems he discovered was that the school’s professors were getting paid far less than those at Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, and so on. So if you were a star, why would you ever want to teach at Rotman? He immediately matched the salaries of those top-tier schools and then, not surprisingly, the top-tier talent arrived. You get what you pay for.
- Immediately price roads and congestion, and direct, to the fullest extent possible, the funds toward transit and cycling infrastructure. At the same time, the planning and building of transit would be depoliticized. There would be a reccurring funding stream and a plan that we’re continually building out. Minimize protracted debates. Never stop building. There’s a lot of talk this mayor election about solving traffic congestion. I have yet to see a plan that will actually work. Accurately pricing congestion likely won’t be popular, but I can guarantee you that it will be highly effective.
- Ensure that property taxes are sustainably covering the costs of operating the city and then, at a minimum, peg all future increases to CPI.
- Make any new housing development less than 12 storeys as-of-right. That would mean, no rezoning process and no site plan approval; just straight to building permit.
- Empower the private sector to build affordable housing through incentives and subsidies. Affordable housing isn’t feasible to build on its own, which is why nobody is doing it. Inclusionary zoning also won’t get us there. Make developers want to build it and they’ll do it.
- Liberalize licensing and cut red tape to empower small entrepreneurs across the city in various industries. A perfect example in my mind is street food. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world with some of the best restaurants, and yet the only thing you can buy on the street is a stupid hot dog. If we empowered small entrepreneurs to setup shop on our streets, we would easily have the best street food scene in the world. And I am positive that there are countless other latent opportunities in this city that are being held back by dumb and archaic rules.
- Make dramatic improvements to our public realm with an eye toward becoming the most beautiful and livable city in the world. Finally pedestrianize Kensington Market, remove the elevated Gardiner Expressway, make it so that we can swim in the Lake, build beautiful public washrooms all across the city that are actually open and aren’t gross, and the list goes on. And yes, “beauty” should be requirement so that we don’t end up with shit like this.
- Focus on art, design, culture, and innovation as central pillars of Toronto’s brand. Miami is a good example of what this approach — along with favourable taxes and nice weather — can do for a city. I’ve said this before, but here’s just one example: Toronto is in many ways the birthplace of the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Why is nobody talking about this? Why are we not celebrating and leveraging this? It’s a missed opportunity. Broadly speaking though, I think just having and doing three things can be effective in promoting new ideas for these pillars: have reasonably affordable housing, be a city that young people want to live in, and remain open and tolerant to immigrants.
- Stop thinking of the night-time economy as a nuisance and instead think of it as a powerful economic development tool. I recently responded to this “night economy survey” that the City of Toronto released and the obvious bias is that nighttime things are seen as a terrible nuisance. In other words, “tell us how do we make all of this less annoying for grouchy voters.” My response was to extend last call to 4am and to start thinking of it as an opportunity to draw in young people, tourists, and whoever else. This complements my previous point.
This is, again, a completely non-exhaustive list. But if I had to summarize the overall ambition, it would be to make Toronto a truly exceptional and remarkable city. We should never be happy with mediocrity.
What else would you do? Leave a comment below.
Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash
Regarding the property tax: the property tax is actually 2 taxes, one on location and one on improvements, e.g. buildings, upon the land. To encourage development, cities should untax buildings and tax land instead (to keep it simple, start by doing it in a revenue-neutral way).
Taxing land discourages hoarding and speculating.
Untaxing buildings encourages building to highest and best use (at least within the restrictions of zoning, which is a separate topic but deserving of its own reform too).
The proof of Land Value Taxation stretches formally back over 100 years, and informally – that is, without scientific studies – 1,000s of years, to ancient Israel (see: “The Other Law of Moses” by John Kelly) and many cities and countries since then. It was most widely popularized by American writer and political economist, Henry George in the late 19th century.
A fuller explanation, with past examples in New York City, may be found here: https://commongroundnyc.org/nicemess.htm
I’m not a Toronto resident, but if I were, you’d have my vote!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Haha. Thank you!
All great points…just a few grammar and spelling issues (which are some of my pet peeves…:-))
– “faring” not “fairing”
– “recurring” not “reocurring”
– “complements” not “compliments” (the latter is something different).
Keep up the great work and the great conversation.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Les. Can I hire you to be my copyeditor?
Education…surprised nothing is mentioned on education or healthcare on this list!
To encourage a safe ride home for people I would ensure the subway is open until at least 2:30am, ideally much later if last call is 4am.