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Azure January February 2023 issue cover

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Gil Peñalosa greets me holding a bicycle helmet. For the designers, architects and urbanists that visit Azure‘s office, it’s a common accessory. After all, this is a professional niche where cycling can be as much a political credo as a daily mode of transportation. And Peñalosa fits the bill: Founder of the non-profit 8 80 Cities and a former parks commissioner of Bogotá, the Colombian-Canadian has cultivated a reputation as an advocate for the public realm. But Gil Peñalosa isn’t just an urbanist — he’s running for Mayor of Toronto.

So definitely consider the bike helmet a political credo. It might resonate, too. While Toronto is a city full of cyclists, pedestrians and transit users, this reality is seldom reflected in our urban fabric — or our politics. Days before our interview, Peñalosa garnered headlines for a video on an infamous stretch of Parkside Drive, where fatal car accidents, cyclist injuries and stunt driving are frequent. The plan? For starters, redesign streets, lower speed limits, build sidewalks and ban distracting billboards.

Gil Peñalosa headshot

Ahead of an October 24 election where incumbent John Tory seems all but certain to ease into a third term, Peñalosa’s emphasis on re-imagining the public realm — which includes a detailed parks plan — has seen him emerge as a de facto progressive standard-bearer. With equity and sustainability at the heart of his messaging, the mayoral candidate is hoping to shift the political discourse. But it takes a lot more than bike lanes and sidewalks to make a safer, more inclusive city. In our interview, Gil Peñalosa weighs in on the issues facing Toronto.

You’re a relative political outsider. Before this election, you’ve never run for local office, and you don’t come from the municipal bureaucracy. Why now?

Gil Peñalosa

I’m here because I love Toronto. I live in Toronto because I think that it’s a magnificent place. We’re an incredibly diverse city — where more than half of the population was born in another country, but where no individual group or ethnicity makes up more than three or four per cent of the population. That’s a remarkable thing. And we have people of all social and political backgrounds. Our system of libraries is incredible. And then there’s the geography of the city: the lake, the islands, the parks and, of course, our ravines.

But I’m also running because I’m concerned. Toronto has increasingly become a two-tier city, where everything works for rich people, and it doesn’t work for everyone else. We’re a city of growing divisions, across racial lines, between immigrants and Canadians, young and old, downtown and the suburbs. And I think it’s getting worse.

By most global economic measures, Toronto is also one of the most “successful” places on the planet. We’re the biggest city in one of the world’s richest countries — a global financial centre at the heart of one of the fastest-growing urban regions in the world. Why hasn’t this translated into a better standard of living for everyone?

This year, Toronto was named the world’s “Best Place to Live” by The Economist.  And we’re usually near the top of similar global “livability” rankings. So how can a city with so many problems be so good? Well, it depends on what you’re measuring — and who you’re measuring it for. The audience for these lists is mostly executives and business owners: If you’re a professional considering relocating to Copenhagen or Toronto, or if you want to expand your business, and have a high net worth, those lists are for you. But if you’re struggling to pay rent, find shelter or have a safe commute, then Toronto’s definitely not the best city in the world. It’s not for the people getting evicted from encampments.

So it’s about how we choose to measure success. In Toronto, we have chosen the wrong things — our politics have the same priorities as the lists. From Mel Lastman to Rob Ford and John Tory, it’s all about being “open for business.” It’s dressed up in different ways with different characters, but it’s all basically the same thing. Keep taxes low, encourage investment and big business, and hope that maybe it’ll help everyone else. But it’s not the Reagan era anymore; we know that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. We have to invest in the city.

It used to be different. In the 1970s and ’80s, Toronto’s parks and its transit system were studied around the world. Then things changed. People blame amalgamation, but it’s bigger than that. Our priorities turned from the public good to business and investment, and — other than David Miller — we’ve had bad mayors for the last 30 years.

You’re talking about some of the most fundamental equity issues facing the city and society at large. At the same time, your campaign is strongly focused on the public realm. What role do parks and sidewalks play in reconciling our fundamental divisions?

I’m an immigrant, and I spend a lot of time in parks. When you go to a park in Toronto, especially outside the downtown core, and see a group of 15 people, I can tell you from experience they’re usually immigrants. Wealthy people – and politicians — have cottages where they spend the weekend, but most people don’t. So when you have water fountains that aren’t running, bathrooms that are closed and people getting arrested for drinking a beer in the park, of course it’s an equity issue. And when the encampments were violently cleared, it all took place in public parks. These are spaces where life happens.

We have to make public spaces that are for the public. In parks, it starts with things that are not so complicated or expensive. Winterize washrooms and keep them open, make sure the water fountains are working, empty the garbage bins more regularly, keep swimming pools and splash pads running longer.  It’s not just parks. We need sidewalks to connect the city. Right now, almost 25 per cent of Toronto’s streets don’t have a sidewalk. That means they serve drivers, not pedestrians.

Street safety also affects all of us. Our high speed limits and lack of safe infrastructure endangers pedestrians and cyclists. We have to redesign dangerous roads with wider sidewalks, street trees and lower speed limits. I also want to ban right turns on red and eliminate billboards to stop dangerous driving. Similarly, we can speed up transit by prioritizing buses and streetcars at intersections. When you look at how many people are in a streetcar compared to a private vehicle, that’s equity too.

Parks, street trees and sidewalks aren’t distributed equitably: Being a pedestrian in Yorkville isn’t representative of being a pedestrian in Toronto. Meanwhile, some of the cities that most thoroughly redesigned their public realm in recent years — like Paris – have been criticized for further beautifying already thriving, wealthy neighbourhoods, while doing little to advance equity in marginalized communities. How will you ensure that doesn’t happen here?

The changes have to apply everywhere. It’s dangerous that in Toronto, different neighbourhoods are subject to different public standards. I remember a situation about a decade ago in Thorncliffe Park — a part of the city full of young families and children. There wasn’t a playground in the community, until a second-hand jungle gym was brought over from Leaside. And Doug Ford [then a City Councillor] even suggested that he’d encourage private companies to sponsor similar initiatives. That can’t happen. We can’t be a city where wealthy neighbourhoods like Leaside have public goods and lower-income communities get whatever’s left.

Even when we build new sidewalks, the local Councillor has veto power, which allows pressure from constituents to keep pedestrians out of neighbourhoods. I’d overturn the veto and build the sidewalks.

The tree canopy is another good example. Wealthier neighbourhoods generally have more street trees and more public parks than lower-income communities. With my “3-30-300” plan, we can change that. Every resident should be able to see three trees from their window, have 30 percent canopy coverage in their neighbourhood, and have access to a public green space within 300 metres.

We also have to open up the ravines. They’re some the best greenery in the city, but they have to be accessible to everyone. Right now, it’s hard to even know how to get in — unless they’re in your backyard. We need good trails, safe, accessible entrances (not those rickety staircases) with clear signage and maps to welcome people in. The ravines can be a network of greenery that connects Toronto.

A great public realm doesn’t mean much in an otherwise unaffordable city. You’ve mentioned the encampments, which are a symptom of a bigger problem. But the housing crisis is evident at every level — from Toronto Community Housing’s repair backlog to the shortage of new subsidized units, rising rents and continued suburban sprawl. What’s your plan?

I think that encampments are a product of a broken shelter system. People are living there because the shelters are dangerous and dysfunctional. Instead of spending millions on private security and mounted police to violently clear the encampments, we have to reallocate funds to improve shelters, provide on-site healthcare, harm reduction and appropriate accommodations.

More fundamentally, our problems are rooted in a lack of affordable public housing. John Tory has talked a lot about accelerating subsidized housing construction on City-owned sites, but it hasn’t happened. Instead of relying on private developers, the City has to hire builders directly, streamlining the process and creating more affordable homes, more quickly. But the City land is there, and we can also work with provincial and federal governments to open up additional sites. I want to implement a revolving public fund for maintenance, like they have in Vienna.

When it comes to market housing, the system’s broken too. We have a city of 60-storey towers and single-family homes, with too little in between. To create more inclusive, liveable neighbourhoods, we have to end exclusionary zoning and eliminate most parking requirements. I’ll allow taller buildings on main streets — equal to the right-of-way of the road — and end the angular plane restrictions that hinder new mid-rise housing.

We also need to encourage renovations and retrofits, which are more environmentally friendly than demolition. Toronto was once a city where large homes were divided into smaller units — we need to encourage that again. I want to allow homeowners to convert their homes into multiple units as-of-right and legalize multi-tenant homes. We can allocate federal funding from the National Housing Strategy to help do it.

We also need to strengthen rent control by eliminating above-guideline increases for tenants and stop “renovictions.” At the same time, we have to limit speculation. I’ll increase the vacant home tax as well as the land transfer tax on secondary homes.

You’re an architecture journalist? You’ll like this. I want to create the position of a City Architect to help beautify the city — like they have in Copenhagen and Melbourne. From the street furniture to the sidewalks, transit stations and private development, I want to bring design into the conversation of city-building.

How are you going to pay for it? It’s an ambitious agenda for a city that faces a perpetual budget shortfall — there’s a projected deficit of $857 million for the end of this year. You’ve mentioned reallocating funds and drawing on federal support, but Toronto is short of revenue tools. Aside from speculation taxes, what’s on the table?

First off, there’s a lot of funding to reallocate. Just look at how much money we’re spending on rebuilding the Gardiner Expressway. It’s expected to cost almost $2 billion. And what for? So that a few thousand drivers can shave a few seconds off their commute? It doesn’t make any logical or fiscal sense. No progressive city anywhere in the world is doing anything like that. Tear it down. And look at the millions we spent on private security and mounted police in encampments — we can use that money to improve shelters instead.

A lot of what I’m proposing is also not very expensive. I want to leverage the assets we have — from land to public amenities and buildings. We have libraries, parks, schools and community centres. Let’s start by keeping them open longer, giving children and youth access to safe spaces after school.

Of course, we also have to work with the provincial and federal governments. For example, David Miller lobbied the federal government for one percent of GST funds when he was mayor. I’m not advocating for that necessarily, but I think these are strategies to look at.

You’ve mentioned your disappointment with Toronto’s political system. We’re a remarkably diverse city — but it’s not reflected in our politics. It’s a city of immigrants, but it’s run by people who are away at the cottage… What do you think of our civic and political culture? Why is it so easy for the same people to keep getting elected?

Rob Ford told people that the city didn’t work for them. And he was right — the city wasn’t working. So his solution was to get rid of the city. Less government. Unfortunately. he was wrong about the second part, and it made him maybe the worst mayor we’ve ever had. But he had a message, and it reached people in the suburbs, it reached immigrants. We need more government, not less.

Calgary had a great mayor in Naheed Nenshi. You look at him and think “he’d be perfect for Toronto.” But we didn’t get mayors and councillors that represent the diversity of the city – we got Ford and Tory. I think term limits should be part of the solution. It would be great to get some new blood — I’d love to see an immigrant mayor, even if it’s not me.

It’s a hard question to answer: Why is Toronto like this? What can I do to change it? I guess you have to do the small things: I walk around. I go to parks. I talk to people. Maybe they’ll vote for me.

The interview with Gil Peñalosa has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Man on the Street: Gil Peñalosa’s Vision for Toronto

The mayoral candidate talks to AZURE about building a more equitable city.

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