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David Miller’s Shame

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I’ve begun to suspect that Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, who just a couple of years ago appeared to be presenting a new kind of civic politics to the city, has a fair amount of clay inside his shoes, and is more bluster and bullshit than anything of substance. But until very recently I’ve found it hard to track the source of the trails he’s been leaving, and harder to determine if what we’re seeing is political slime or just mud from the longstanding mess that is Toronto politics. Either might source out at Miller, but it might also be senior government downloading, the city’s deeply-flawed charter after Mike Harris’ forced amalgamation, or the many intractable dim bulbs on his council. But now the City of Toronto’s recycling program, which is keyed by a Miller-inspired policy target of getting 70 percent of the garbage “diverted” to recycling, seems to lead straight to the real source. And that source, unfortunately, is David Miller.

Miller’s increasingly apparent fatal flaw, it seems to me, is that he talks a big and great game, but then doesn’t play it very well, if at all. His heart, which once seemed large and inclusive, still looks to be in the right place on most issues, even if it shows an alarming preference for the downtown grandstand. But when the time for the practical applications arrives, nothing much seems to happen on his watch—or what does happen is demoralizingly inapt.

Not long ago, for instance, Miller’s unofficial Department of Good Intentions came out with a tree policy for Metropolitan Toronto that proposed upping the urban tree canopy from 17 to 30 percent. This is typical of the kinds of notions that 21st century urbanism specializes in—ones that have a peculiarly distant sort of practicality and predictably high-flying abstraction mixed together. Toronto’s urban trees, everyone to the left of Neanderthal agrees, are the lungs of the city, transforming CO2 into oxygen and pulling pollutants out of the air and soil so we can breathe more easily and healthfully. Upping the tree canopy, ergo, is the cheapest available answer to air and ground-water runoff pollution, and pretty well every other ill this side of the Taliban. The City of Toronto policy document trumpets the asset value of a single mature tree at a whopping $130k, part of which supposedly accrues to the public, but some of which comes from reducing summer air-conditioning costs for homeowners and/or enhancing house prices when its time to sell. We just have to convince everyone to plant trees in their front yards, and we’ll be urban problem-solvers, rich ones to boot. The City just needs to do its part by planting trees along all the commercial streets, and wham/bam it’s Urban Forests Uber Alles.

And sure enough, the City of Toronto has had enabling programs up and running for years. Any homeowner in the city can have a city crew come out and plant a tree in their front yard, free of charge, and it’s a fairly common sight to see a city crew installing trees along our commercial streets.

But it’s right here where things fall apart in David Miller’s Toronto. Right around the time the city started ramping up its tree planting offer, it also began installing water meters in residential neighbourhoods in order to replace the flat fee people used to pay for city water with pay-per-use. Now, all those wasteful people who like to hose off their sidewalks every morning or wash their cars are going to pay for the privilege.

As far as I can see the wastrels haven’t stopped washing their cars or hosing off the sidewalks, but judging from the increased number of dead and dying trees in the downtown neighbourhoods, they’ve stopped watering their trees, which, during a hot summer, can need 450 gallons a day. Admittedly, a seven year drought has lowered ground water to dangerously low levels, but the disconnect between the tree policy and the practical means of sustaining the policy is an equal contributor to the dead and dying trees. Yet Miller’s policy people haven’t responded, not even to promulgate a tree-care advisory or to propose a water-rate reduction to homeowners who’ve put a tree in their yard, let alone drafting and then adopting a tree bylaw that supports the canopy-increase goal in a meaningful way.

A tree-care advisory, incidentally, is something that the city needs even more urgently for its commercial boulevard trees, which are often planted in ludricrously inadequate containers and/or without protection from winter salt, and in both cases without any legal requirement that the businesses they adorn water them during the summer months. I’d imagine that the cost of planting a commercial boulevard tree runs somewhere between $2000 and $5000 by the time the installation crew pensions and Timbits are paid for, and that there’s no difference in cost between a planting and a replanting. These days, we’re mostly seeing replantings because the inadequate planting standards and zero maintenance has the 5 year mortality rate somewhere above 50%.

Getting the tree planting programs to work properly isn’t impossible. It would require some innovative lateral thinking by city hall staff, and some bureaucratic heads would probably have to be cracked together—or sent rolling. But it’s right here where David Miller characteristically fails to deliver. He doesn’t seem to have the will to get anything he was elected to get done implemented or working right. In this instance, he’s satisfied, seemingly, with having a “nice” policy for the trees even though it’s clear to anyone with an IQ higher than a chimpanzee’s that in 10 years we’re going to be closer to 10 percent tree cover than the 30 percent the nice policy asks for.

Perhaps more revealing of where David Miller’s regime does its heavy lifting lies in the changes it plans to make to get our recycling program to the 70 percent diversion point Miller wants in 2010. The key issues in recycling are, it seems to me, of two sorts. One is getting everyone to recycle instead of just single-family dwellers and non-messy corporations, and the other is getting the recycling materials it does collect actually recycled.

Most of the recycling done in Toronto is done either by commercial businesses—the larger the better since effective compliance seems directly tied to economies-of-scale—and by single family residents, the more upper middle class the better. The screwups are the small businesses, who flush whatever pollutant recyclables they can (or dump them on public property or the business next door), and apartment dwellers, for whom separating recycling from garbage is a pain in the ass that is easy to avoid or pass on to the apartment owners, who aren’t exactly famous for their collective civic spirit when it gets in the way of profit-taking. The other screwup area is that a depressing percentage of the recyclables the City does pick up eventually ends up in landfill anyway, sometimes because of collection contamination but more often because of poor market understanding by the city—and again—that not-so-subtle lack of determination. Basically, when recycling something becomes too hard, they just dump it in the garbage and cart it off to Michigan.

So what does David Miller’s regime do to address all this? It imposes hulking collector-convenient bins on those who already recycle, and a pay-by-volume policy on the non-recyclables. Never mind that the oversized recycling and garbage bins will be convenient solely to the city garbage pickup crews that will now be able to load everything onto the trucks without soiling their pinkies or risking their backs, and will be a huge inconvenience to downtown homeowners without sideyards or spacious storage areas. The spring 2008 “Waste Watch” circular that was sent out in early March informs us that the each homeowner will be restricted to filling only the new blue bins, and then provides some ridiculously stringent regulations for placing the bins so the automated equipment can pick them up without the crews needing to wrangle them or otherwise risk their nail-polish.

If these regulations are taken seriously, they’ll necessitate the removal of most of the boulevard trees in the downtown neighbourhoods just to get the automated bin-loading equipment working efficiently, and will probably need the construction of little tiny driveways for the bins at each residence—never mind the eyesores we’ll have when most of the downtown bins are stored in people’s front yards. This is silly enough by itself, but the pricing-by-volume system for garbage and the instruction that we should save our “overflow recycling for the next collection, or ask neighbours if they have extra room in their Blue Bin” is just plain stupid. If you want citizens to recycle more, you make it more convenient for them to do it. What’s happened instead, as far as I can is, is that all the energy and money is spent on making recycling easy for the gang of civil servant princesses who pick up the recycling.

What Miller’s program is also inviting, in the real world where most people have to live, is mass public dumping of both recycling and garbage. That’s because a sizeable percentage of fiscally-restrained Torontonians are going to buy the smallest bin they can and dump their excess on their neighbours—or on the boulevards and in the back alleys and parks. These are all things that David Miller, who used to represent Parkdale, which is a downtown neighbourhood, should have picked up on. He didn’t, maybe because he’s not a fine-detail guy, but more likely because he’s got his eye on grandstanding policy issues that involve embarrassing the Federal and Provincial governments and not the cultural subtleties of Toronto’s landscape and citizens. And maybe he’s just become a broad-brush leader who enjoys the backrooms and banquet halls too much, along with the illusions of grandeur and order that urban planning so often serves up—and so rarely delivers on.

What’s equally revealing is that the recycling program appears to have been created solely to make the jobs of the collection crews less physically arduous, even when that goal runs counter to the more important issues of compliance, productivity and practical reality. One gets the sense that the nitwits who created the program (and then wrote the circular) live in some nice suburban neighbourhood with driveways, spacious sideyards and surveillance cameras to catch dumpers. They’re likely high-income self-celebrating urban professionals who don’t even know you’re supposed to get along with their neighbours, don’t have neighbours who live in high-rise apartments or detached housing, and so don’t have the kind of street-level common sense people without driveways and surveillance cameras tend to practice out of necessity.

One also gets the sense that David Miller is a man who’s listening to his professional staff, not to the people who elected him. At one point a few years ago I believed that David Miller’s loyalties were at least partially to this kind of Torontonian, who’ve always been treated like second class citizens by whatever regime held power in this city. Now I’m reduced to trying to figure out if Miller’s markers are held by fast-talking urbanists like Richard Florida or those well-intentioned but joyless middle class busybodies bent on refitting the world to suit the Workers Compensation Board and other like-minded social democrats who’ve given up on a just or free world and just want everyone to be safe from the hazards they fear are bearing down on them.

All of this is depressing enough, but perhaps more important than the emotions it evokes is that it makes one begin to examine under a harsher light other things one previously took for granted. It’s made me look at the energies that make today’s Toronto go, and what I see isn’t uplifting.

Toronto, like any great city, has its governing “spirit” that can be tested in the day-to-day behaviors of its civic apparatus. I’m not talking about the stupid boosterism of Mel Lastman’s moose of a few years back, which I’ve come to like to the precise degree that they’ve ceased to be public tourism icons and become reflections of individual civil irreverence. A city’s civic “spirit” is much more subtle, even if it is no less metaphoric than those moose. It’s about how we see and treat one another, and where, in both the streets and in private imagination, that takes expression. In Miller’s Toronto, that spirit is exemplified, it seems to me, by three things.

One is the abject reluctance—or inability—of the regime to protect the city’s unique downtown neighbourhoods from the onslaught of retail monoculture. In the two neighbourhoods I know best, the Annex around Bloor and Bathurst, and Little Italy on College, the decline is highly visible and is accelerating. The Annex neighbourhood has recently seen much of its particularity obliterated by franchise outlets that could be found anywhere in North America, while College has been transformed into a restaurant and bar zone for drunken suburbanites and, as Toronto Life recently had it, ought to be renamed “Entertainment District North”.

The second elements of the spirit of Miller’s Toronto are less overtly destructive but no less pernicious in the long term. They are his quota-driven parking enforcement officers, a lazy and officious group that thinks nothing of cherry-picking public schools while parents are dropping off and picking up their kids or ticketing sticker-holders who can’t park legally because outsiders are parking in the legal spots all day without being tagged. Since these hardlining jackasses are the public officials most downtowners find themselves nose-to-nose with more frequently than any others, they’re creating a miasma of incivility in the relations between City and citizens that is far more confrontational and rancorous than it needs—or is wise—to be.

The third element of Miller Toronto’s spirit might be the most demoralizing. It’s the continued and progressively more aggressive presence of panhandlers and squeegee brandishers (calling them “kids” is like calling barracudas “fishies’) on the streets, along with the growing and utterly unpoliced density of graffiti cover. These are, each in their own way, unpleasant side-effects of the Triumph of Capitalism: the impoverishment of the poor and disaffected in the first two instances, and the retribalization that is the rarely acknowledged dark side of working class-level multiculturalism in the third.

They’re unpleasant phenomena, yes, but they’re not unsolvable, as New York City and many European jurisdictions have spectacularly demonstrated. Yet David Miller’s Toronto has studiously avoided dealing with any of them. It’s as if his nominal social democratic values have devolved to protecting the right to beg, bullyrag and vandalize. Together with the uncivil parking enforcement officers, they’ve made Toronto’s streets uglier, nastier, and—worst of the three—more mean-spirited than they need to be.

Added together with the tree program and the recycling mess, it’s enough to make anyone look for a new mayor. And that’s a shame.

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Toronto, Apr. 29, 2008

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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