Spacing is pleased to present this joint column by internationally renowned urban designer Ken Greenberg and New York-based urban economist John Alschuler.
THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM
why gutting Toronto’s services will lead to a downward economic spiral
Toronto City Council’s imminent vote on the City’s budget is among the most significant in our recent history. Meeting Mayor Ford’s goal of cutting $744 million dollars requires deep cuts ranging from less plowing and cleaning of streets to sending more trash to landfills, to cutting public health programs, school breakfasts, crossing guards, grants to arts and culture, parks maintenance, planning, public art, drug prevention programs, eliminating bus routes, closing library branches among many many other things. When combined with core service cuts, user fees, staff reductions and dismantling and sell-offs, what is being proposed is an unprecedented assault on municipal government’s ability to invest in our future.
Aggressive action is needed to restore fiscal balance. Those policies need to bring greater efficiency to government, eliminate work rules that bloat costs for no reason, and, when necessary, reduce some services we can no longer afford. And, Toronto should also make more use of what powers it does have to tax itself plus use other financial tools recommended by such diverse groups as the Board of Trade and the CivicAlliance. What we do not need is a blunt assault that will leave us neither fiscally stable nor competitive for the future.
The critical balance between the public and private is at the heart of what makes cities tick; a city with a competent city government attracts and retains entrepreneurial energy not the cheapest city. Providing resources, services and a ‘helping hand’ to those in need and incentives to local enterprises or activities, especially in an city of immigration, is good economics and an essential investment in the future, and the failure to do this produces vastly larger expenditures when serious problems arise. Quality of Life, the key asset in the contemporary global economy, takes a serious hit as public space, cleanliness, public health, public transit, housing, the integration of new arrivals and arts and culture are starved. The future of our City and the stability of its budget, rests on exploiting our competitive advantages, not squandering them.
Toronto is not alone in facing severe fiscal challenges. It takes extraordinary efforts, ingenuity and vision to mobilize resources and forces both inside and outside government to turn things around. The clearest example of the courage to make the hard choice to choose the promise of the future over the fears of the present is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership of New York City. Bloomberg has brought a businessman’s commitment to strategic investment to municipal management. The days after the 9-11 attacks were terrifying for the nation, and particularly for New Yorkers. The city had lost thousands of citizens to horrific violence as one of its majestic icons was reduced to rubble. Then, this tragedy magnified the effects of a national recession to cripple New York’s economy.
The Mayor’s response was to choose a deep faith in the future over the fears of the present. As a citizen, and an entrepreneur, he viscerally understood that if services were allowed to decline, faith in city government would be shattered leading to the inevitable outflow of more talent and more jobs, not to mention the nicks and gashes inflicted on those most vulnerable. Mayor Bloomberg also understood the need to invest in the future infrastructure of New York.
His response was to enact the largest property tax increase in the modern history of the City and to launch efforts to make government more efficient. That expansion of the city’s fiscal base provided a long term base for revenue needed to weather the effects of the recession. It also gave him the time needed to allow government to make changes that reduce costs while improving service levels. The returns have been remarkable. The world can see them in tangible forms as they experience the most substantial expansion of parkland since the New Deal as projects like the High Line park fuel New York’s tourism industry and, anchor the revitalization of neighborhoods . The world will soon see the emergence of the Hudson Yards, comprising 12 million square feet made possible by the City’s bold commitment to the expansion of the subway system. And the world can see the improvement in New York’s public school system which provides a ladder of opportunity for the city’s children.
Toronto’s 44 city councillors were not elected to diminish the city but to use this budget watershed to forge a more enlightened made in Toronto solution. Managing any major enterprise requires leadership that refuses to overextend fiscal resources beyond the enterprise’s inherent capacity. That discipline sets priorities which can be helpful over time, but wrenching at the outset. But managing such an enterprise also requires the courage to invest in the future. This affirmation that resources appropriately expended today yield valuable returns over time is the foundation upon which innovation, growth, and expansion rest.
Now is a time when the stewards of the great urban centres of North America, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, need to strike that balance with particular care. This new century promises to be one of urban growth. As the overarching requirement to manage our environment inexorably leads to greater density in our cities, as the immigrant populations that are source of such dynamism in our workforce and cultural life, and as the talent that corporations need flock to urbanity, the opportunities for growth for are before us. In that respect, our anchor cities join London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Investing wisely, they will capture the private sector investment that will create jobs and reinforce the tax base, while creating a more livable environment for current residents.
If Toronto now takes the drastic path of slash and burn only, diverging from common sense, sound economic practices, the wounds would be deep and largely and unnecessarily self-inflicted. Our quality of life is our most important asset and the only key to a prosperous future! Torontonians cannot afford to squander it on the altar of a deeply flawed ideology
Ken Greenberg is an Urban Designer based in Toronto and author of Walking Home published by Random House. John Alschuler is the Chairman of HR&A Advisors in New York; he has 25 years of experience advising the City of New York.
photo by Accozzaglia