In my column yesterday, I took timid steps toward an argument that puts me at odds with many on the left: Toronto should consider bidding for the Summer Olympic Games again.
I’m sympathetic to the counter-arguments. In a perfect world, Canadian cities would simply have the funds they need to build and improve infrastructure. They wouldn’t need to rely on irregular hand-outs from other levels of government. And the money that currently gets spent on nationalistic competition could instead go to things like social services, healthcare and education. Things that aren’t designed to sell us patriotic soft drinks and power tools.
But that’s an idealistic notion. The Olympics are an enormously popular institution that will continue to thrive and make money, even as opponents try to will the whole thing out of existence. In that light, it’s not too pragmatic to suggest that Toronto, a city on the cusp of international status with a massive infrastructure deficit, might be able to find ways to benefit from a turn as host. The same goes for a World Expo or similar event—for better or worse, these things foster investment that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
There’s a lot about this city and its politics that would need to change before we should even consider stepping up to the world stage, however. Let’s take a look at three of the big ones:
1. Fix the police
People across Toronto have good reason to be wary of their cops these days. That desperately needs to change if this city ever wants to get serious about hosting an Olympics or other world event.
Even if you can somehow will yourself to set aside the civil rights abuses, the G20 weekend in 2010 was still a security clown show of the highest order. The Toronto Police—”aided” by the OPP and the RCMP—essentially spent two days looking menacing as they harassed and arrested people who hadn’t broken the law. Meanwhile, the small number that actually did break the law seemed to get away. Logistically, it was a mess.
There were mitigating circumstances that weekend—a short timeline, a federal government that didn’t really care about Toronto—but the precedent was set. We’re still waiting for an apology and, more importantly, a sign that things will get better. As it stands, a major event would only invite well-founded concerns of a G20 rerun.
2. Define a real, city-wide plan for transportation & infrastructure
If Toronto City Council was to suddenly inherit a few billion dollars meant for capital expansion, councillors would immediately launch into a fractious political debate invoking made-up ideology, NIMBYism and divisive attitudes. It would last months. Mayor Rob Ford would yell about socialism.
Despite how it ended, TTC chair Karen Stintz’s OneCity plan was a positive step forward. Toronto does need an approved, consensus long-term plan for city building to ensure that money can be spent efficiently and to maximum benefit. What does the long-term picture for Toronto’s waterfront look like? Which subway and LRT lines are the priority? Which neighbourhoods are most in need of redevelopment? What is the long-term plan for public housing? How much green space should this city have? What’s our traffic management strategy? How many bike lanes are we planning to build?
We’ve got answers for some of these questions, but too often this city is working off ad-hoc decisions that are too vulnerable to election cycle change. Decisions and plans feel fragile. Toronto needs a better sense of its own long-term direction.
A good first step: elect a mayor that believes in city building.
3. Focus on improved customer service
Despite campaigning on a customer service platform, the Ford administration has busied itself almost exclusively with prolonged debates about capital spending and blind cuts to the overall operating budget. Front-line service quality has been ignored.
There’s a huge need to make improvements in these areas. Toronto’s transit priorities aren’t limited to system expansion—we also need to make sure our existing trains and buses are providing good service. In the same vein, let’s do more to keep our parks green and free of litter. Let’s look at ways we can keep the streets cleaner. Let’s make sure on-the-ground city workers have the support and training they need to effectively do their jobs.
Before we set our designs on the world stage, Toronto needs to look like a municipality that functions: a city that actually works.