According to the September issue of Toronto Life, the city is – or ought to be – in the throes of an “exodus to the burbs” where, as the headline informs the magazine’s soon-to-be-former readers, “The houses are bigger [and] the people are nicer [and] the commute doesn’t suck.” Inside, the display copy for the article — written by freelancer Philip Preville – starts with this little chestnut:
“Screw Jane Jacobs. We’re outta here.”
Long before I became a magazine writer, and certainly well before I spent a decade as Toronto Life’s politics columnist, I used to work part-time for Book City, in the Annex. The remainder tables always used to be piled high with copies of a paperback called “The Death and Life of the Great American Cities,” about which I knew nothing.
Fairly regularly, a tall but stooped older woman, always wearing a shapeless brown wrap, would come in to browse. Eventually, one of my co-workers told me she was the author of said remainder. Jane Jacobs.
Only later did I become aware of her accomplishments — here and elsewhere — and her truly remarkable celebrity among urban thinkers. But when I think of Jane Jacobs, I often imagine her in person, among the stacks at Book City.
Now, courtesy of Toronto Life’s inexcusably coarse choice of words, I must summon up a different image.
The article itself offers up a re-telling of a very old story, which is that some people, especially those who are economically comfortable and have young children, tend to move away from the downtown core. Sorry, but nothing new there. This has been going on, in one form or another, since the industrial revolution and the advent of the Garden City movement in Britain and the United States.
But Preville’s story includes this intriguing spin on a Stats Can finding that for every individual who moved from a neighbouring municipality into Toronto, 3.5 moved out. “Were it not for the constant arrival of people from other regions, provinces and countries into Toronto’s city limits…the downtown would be emptying out in a hurry.”
This is kind of like saying, were it not for the dark and white meat, grilled chicken would taste awfully bony. What are all those newcomers? Hot dog filler?
The thrust of both Preville’s feature and editor Sarah Fulford’s set-up is that Jane Jacobs’ vision of urban living – i.e., relatively dense, mixed-income, ethnically diverse neighbourhoods that aren’t partitioned by highways — is utterly out-dated. Not to mention that the places the article’s subjects moved to (Dundas, Creemore, Cobourg) are not suburbs of Toronto but other cities and towns.
But the argument is a complete non-sequitur. When Jacobs was writing in the early 1960s, she was responding to the centrifugal conditions created by post-war suburban sprawl and automobile dependency (not to mention white flight). Municipal planners thought that the best way to connect the new subdivisions to the existing urban commercial cores was with highways that, as it happened, would cut through working class neighbourhoods whose residents didn’t really count.
Fulford somehow manages to blame Jacobs for Toronto’s congestion problems, because, as she argues, Jacobs gave us a legacy of opposing “big plans.” This is a woefully simplistic argument, of course, and one that overlooks a lot of intervening history, but has the virtue of fitting well with a sensational headline.
I am not denying that Toronto has nasty traffic congestion – worse in the 905, by the way, than in the core, where transit is a viable alternative – and certainly Jane Jacobs wasn’t right about everything. But the city’s most wicked problems are a legacy of a long-standing cheapness that runs deep in our politics, and is currently expressing itself, so to speak, as a complete unwillingness on the part of the region’s residents to pay for the sorts of things a big city needs.
Incidentally, I noticed that nowhere in Ms. Fulford’s editorial does she call on local politicians to suck it up and approve a local sales tax or road tolls, the proceeds of which can be used to alleviate the problems that are apparently causing all the nice (read: Toronto Life subscribers) people to pull up stakes. After all, Toronto Life’s well-heeled readers don’t want to pay for a grown-up city, either.