This is a crucial passage for Toronto, one that will call upon all of our collective ingenuity and reserves of good will to get beyond the debilitating and unhelpful myth that we are somehow stymied as a divided and ungovernable city.
Much of this is expressed in terms of a presumed urban/suburban fault line as if these were fixed categories with defined borders. The mistake that we make is a failure to grasp the fourth dimension, the play of time; as if what we see now is an immutable end state. All urban places (city and suburb) are perpetually unfinished and go through waves of change and as layers accumulate. In the coming decades, we will get denser, more diverse and less car dependent in all our parts. The exagerated overemphasis on accommodating the private automobile as the major form of movement in cities across North America both has now been acknowledged but it is not irredeemable and we too will modify as we invest in transit, and make a shift to active transportation, walking and cycling.
Polarization around this inevitable and desirable process of transformation, exaggerating differences, describing areas of our city in mutually exclusive terms, creating and fostering a ‘them and us’ for the purposes of wedge politics is all too easy. It rallies a ‘base’ and appeals to our tribal instincts. Like caricatures of east/west difference and ethnic and religious divides it can be used to demonize opponents and delegitimize and vilify the ‘other’. The media unfortunately relishes controversy and all too eagerly jumps on this bandwagon, sometimes even conjuring up and promoting this sense of division with leading questions and provocative taunts.
In the end, however, it is destructive and unhelpful when describing our city. It gives rise to false dichotomies and distorts our collective understanding of the real challenges that need thoughtful responses. It gets in the way of problem solving and the kind of lateral thinking that thrives on creative tension and respectful disagreements. We freeze up and lose our ability to see the bigger picture and appreciate the commonalities that bind us together in the evolving urban space we share.
That dysfunctional description does not really fit who we are in Toronto but the mythological characterization of a city divided against itself has unfortunately taken hold in many quarters. It is being perpetuated daily in the press and risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t challenge it. To get over this hump we need good listeners not dogmatic shouters, generous empathetic leaders not mean-spirited ones, healers that bring us together across the perceived divides not demagogues that drive wedges and poke the sores. The city, the big city, is not a zero sum game. We need to get beyond the culture of winners and losers, of gloating triumphalism and resentful victimhood.
Where are the voices who will speak firmly and confidently for us all?