It’s not often I find myself in complete agreement with Denzil Minnan-Wong, but the way city council has managed to unnecessarily complicate what should have been a slam-dunk, the expansion of Toronto’s street food beyond sausages, has put me in that unusual position.
I have long felt, like I’m sure most of our readers, that a diverse city like Toronto should have far more food available on the street than sausages (even if there are several kinds). So I was strongly supportive when councillor John Filion started a campaign last year to loosen the provincial regulations and enable a wider variety of food to be sold from stalls in Toronto.
It doesn’t seem that it should be complicated. The province loosened the regulations last year, so all Toronto needed to do was to start licensing carts that sold stuff other than sausages. People in Toronto have been thinking about how this might be done for years, and given the wide range of cultures and inventiveness of our citizens, no doubt Torontonians would have come up with a wide variety of interesting proposals.
But somehow Filion has managed to tangle the issue up. Instead of just letting go and seeing what happened, he is trying to micromanage the whole process. First, he tried to get the city to spend $700,000 to commission special new carts it would own and lease out. When that idea was howled down, he instead put forward a proposal that the city put out a request for proposals for a single private venture or charity to design and build 15 carts that the city would license to vendors (see the Star, Globe, Post). Originally, Filion said he wanted the city to control the process to prevent “conglomerates” from controlling the carts, but of course that’s easily avoided by only allowing individuals to have one licence per person (and doesn’t his idea make the City itself the conglomerate?). Now, apparently, the city needs to control the process because suddenly the project has to achieve a broad range of objectives — including branding, diversity of food and location, social and health objectives. Isn’t “getting different street food” enough of an objective already?
The problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee anyone will step forward to fill this request. And even if they do, it will take up staff time to manage the cumbersome process and result in only a small number of carts. So the result will be slow, complicated, and unsatisfactory, and we’ll end up not far from where we started, mostly eating sausages.
Mayor Miller also claimed that this process was necessary because the design of hygenic new carts for a wider variety of foods would be complicated. But I can think of several ethnic foods that are designed as street food, and where any meat is pre-cooked, that could easily be served out of modified hot dog carts. Jamaican patties and Indian samosas come to mind.
Back when the idea was first proposed, Denzil Minnan-Wong objected, saying “I don’t see why we have the city government trying to involve itself in business. Surely we have better things to do. We should let vendors do what they do best.” At this week’s council meeting he proposed to instead adopt a simple licencing system similar to that for hot-dog stands, but he was voted down by a large majority.
I find myself agreeing with him completely. With a simple licensing system, I expect there would be a flood of applicants within months. The city, rather than trying to negotiate its own solution, would simply have to make sure the proposals conformed to the necessary regulations. We would have diverse street foods by the summer, making our public spaces more interesting and inviting (I have often wished, as I walked around the city on an empty stomach, that I could just buy a samosa at a stand and keep walking). Why not just let our citizens work out their own solutions and see what happens? City council could always get involved later if it turned out no-one came up with practicable ideas, but I really doubt that would be the case.
I also find it amazing that city council wants to micromanage this kind of thing, when at the same time it is completely negligent in enforcing many of its current policies (e.g. outdoor advertising). Why not focus on getting the basics right? I think it’s a similar mentality to the homogeneous street furniture program — the desire to make everything “clean and beautiful” from above rather than allow diverse and potentially heterogeneous solutions to come up from below. As I’ve written elsewhere, Toronto aspires to be a “creative city” in the Richard Florida mold, but it keeps forgetting that enabling creativity requires relinquishing control.
It’s weird being out there with council’s right. Am I missing something here? It seems so obvious to me, but maybe there are actually underlying reasons for the city to get so involved? Or is this a case where Spacing’s mostly progressively-minded readership has a different take on the issue than council’s leftish majority?
Photo by Reza Vaziri.