Toronto is blunting its creative edge

City Special Projects

There was a time when Toronto was developing a vision of what it wanted to be. It was a time before the phrase « world class city’’ became a substitute for imagination. Before the Olympic bid, and other megaprojects, came to be the solitary definition of progress.

It was a time when the city remembered iy  history, began preserving its neighbourhoods, stopped the Spadina Expressway, started celebrating diversity, created the Toronto Atmospheric Fund to combat global warming, began to embrace social justice, strove to make its schools comfortable for all races, all ages, all levels of ability, and was learning to network with its citizens.

In short, it was a time when Toronto was feeling its way toward becoming a sustainable community. It had a strong economy, an increasingly vibrant entertainment sector, a solid infrastructure, and it was putting in place the social characteristics that would make its quality of life something to sing about.

One of the things that made this possible was its ability to brainstorm outside the box, to explore possibilities across bureaucratic boundaries. There was a mid-level management board made up of 40 senior directors, and its job was to integrate and coordinate. Because it was so interdisciplinary, it often came up with new perspectives, new ideas. There was an institutional capacity to be creative built into the system.

However, none of the suburban municipalities that amalgamated with the city had a similar board, and when amalgamation took place, there was no such board created for the new city. Instead, the integrating and coordinating functions take place at a higher level — among the six top commissioners and the chief administrative officer. It was a switch to a more top-down system of governing.

Since amalgamation, the city has been so preoccupied with meshing services, and in coping with funding cuts and responsibilities downloaded from the province, that it’s hard to tell if an institutional capacity for creativity exists in the new bureaucratic structure. But there’s at least one worrisome sign that it may not.

When amalgamation occurred, there was a number of projects that didn’t fit into pigeonholes, so they were grouped into a special projects unit, and placed under the directorship of Susan Richardson in Parks and Recreation.

There, the unit thrived — mapping Toronto’s lost creeks that have been channelled into storm sewers and paved over, creating a 259-page guide for introducing children to the nooks and crannies of Toronto’s natural environment, creating designs for magnificent parks at Yorkville, at the old Woodbine race track on Queen St. East, and at the roundhouse in the old railway yards, facilitating an  agreement with the federal government over management of Harbourfront lands, seeking ways to uncover portions of Taddle Creek and Garrison Creek.

In all of these efforts, the unit has focused on linking the culture of the city to its natural environment. And in the process, it has been improving the quality of life for residents. The unit has succeeded in large part because it fit no pigeonhole, and so has been free to innovate. And also because Richardson is a seasoned bureaucrat with a distinguished record in planning and problem solving.

But now she is retiring, and the unit is being dissolved. And this is happening at a time when there is an enormous need for innovation within the Parks and Recreation Department.

The old city had a little more than 200 parks, amounting to a little over 162 hectares of land. In the amalgamated city there are about 2,000 parks, and if you count golf courses and land held by the regional conservation authority, there are about 8,000 hectares in parkland.

What a tremendous reservoir this is for improving Toronto’s quality of life. If the special projects unit is going to be disbanded, I hope the city will at least learn from what it has done, and from how it did it. There’s no substitute for creativity, and the best way to get it is to keep people out of boxes.

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