Toronto, because of the very unfortunate reputation of one man, has been consistently on the tip of people’s tongues for weeks. Rob Ford has efficiently branded the city with his name – an international embarrassment – but judging by his approval ratings he is actually a hometown hero. Despite the recent controversy surrounding him, 42 per cent of Torontonians back Ford as mayor – better numbers than enjoyed by heads of state such as Barack Obama or David Cameron (I wonder if they are taking notes?).
One could very easily make a plea to Mr Ford that, for the sake of the city’s reputation beyond its own sprawling boundaries, he should resign. Ford most certainly wouldn’t listen, of course; he’s already confirmed himself as a candidate in the next election for October of 2014. “Let the people of Toronto decide,” Ford has said. Here’s hoping that the megacity’s suburbs – residents of which support the mayor – smarten up before then.
What is the greatest shame is that Toronto is a place of large potential. There are few examples of cities in Canada that have as many forward-looking, design-minded, entrepreneurial and internationally aware residents. Vancouver and increasingly Calgary are examples of improvement thanks to visionary majors (rather than mayors having visions). But leaders aside, Toronto’s other main challenge is a distinct rivalry between its centre and its outlying neighbourhoods.
Looking beyond Ford, a time that cannot come soon enough, there is hope and she’s already got a desk at City Hall. Jennifer Keesmaat, a native of nearby Hamilton, was named chief planner of the City of Toronto last year, and she is the light at the end of its crack-stained tunnel.
Like many of the world’s leading planners or mayors, Keesmaat has quality of life as a central focus. She has ideas about transport, density and urbanism that are not only very human-centred but most importantly are not simply torn from Jan Gehl’s notebook. Instead, they’re tailored-made for Toronto – important for a city with the challenge of a suburban-urban feud.
Metropolitan Toronto as it is known today is the result of a 1998 amalgamation – a decision made to save money on administration but one that also seriously hurt the city’s idea of itself and its common goals. Many-a-politician has capitalised on this, Rob Ford most notoriously. But Keesmaat is not so easily sucked into choosing sides.
Despite the rhetoric of Ford, maybe transport is not the only concern of Toronto’s suburbs. How about the lack of employment and diversity of housing in them? Maybe there is common ground and room for consensus among Toronto’s 44 councillors (New York, with a population nearly three times that of Toronto, has a council of only 51).
Opinionated yet concerned with building public support, Keesmaat is the kind of leader that Toronto has lacked since former mayor David Miller. And perhaps crucially, she’s ever the diplomat – a difficult task when your boss is the world’s most ridiculed mayor.
David Michon is managing editor for Monocle.