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Downtown Versus the Suburbs?

Franz Hartmann is the executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. In a series of posts leading up to the municipal election this fall, he’ll be discussing environmental priorities for the city and assessing the leading candidates’ environmental policies.

The upcoming municipal election is now being characterized as suburban voters being angry with an outgoing mayor and council who they think have a bias in favour of downtown. Leading this charge is mayoral hopeful Rob Ford, who wants voters to believe that a wasteful, corrupt City Hall is harming the suburbs to the benefit of a small downtown elite.
Fundamental to this belief is the assumption that the interests of those who live downtown are not just different, but in opposition to those who live in the suburbs. While this notion that Toronto is a battleground between the suburbs and the urban core may appeal to some, it ignores an important reality that is fundamental to the survival of this city: we all need a healthy environment to survive and thrive.
Dirty air harms the lungs of everyone, regardless of whether they live at Yonge and Bloor or near Scarborough Town Centre. Severe thunderstorms and other extreme weather events, increasingly attributed to global warming, don’t discriminate between the suburbs and downtown. Toxic pollutants that foul the air, water, and land affect all Torontonians.
That means the solutions to dirty air, global warming, and toxic pollutants don’t just help one part of the city—they help all parts of the city. To illustrate this, we need look no further than the environmental policies City Hall has adopted over the last ten years.

For example, the city’s sustainable energy strategy promotes energy conservation and renewable power. Everyone in Toronto benefits from energy conservation through lower energy bills and a reduced reliance on polluting power sources. At a time of rising electricity rates, City Hall actually has a plan in place that will help everyone save money and help the environment. Likewise, we all share in the benefits that come from the development of renewable power (wind, solar, geothermal): less polluting coal and less radioactive nuclear power is good for everyone
Better waste diversion will also benefit every Torontonian. Getting green bins into highrise apartments and condos will help both suburban and urban residents. Better still, expanded public transit will mean less pollution as more people can keep their cars at home.

Photo by Ste&We from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Ironically, the one environmental policy that does give preference to one part of the city is Transit City. The biggest beneficiaries of rapid light rail transit (LRT) are suburban residents who currently have a choice between a long, crowded bus trip or driving on congested roads. Ironically, Ford has been one of the harshest critics of Transit City, even though it will help the very people Ford claims are being ignored by City Hall.
If anything, the last ten years of positive environmental initiatives from City Hall are a textbook example of how the suburbs and the downtown have common interests. In other words, environmental policies have helped unify Toronto.
Toronto is going through challenging economic times that are putting a lot of pressure on us all; mishandled, these pressures can end up dividing us along ethnic, financial, and geographical lines. A bright ray of hope that can bring us all together is the fact that acting to improve Toronto’s environment helps everyone, and City Hall has actually done fairly well on dealing with key environmental problems over the past decade.
Toronto needs a mayor who both acknowledges the environmental challenges facing the city and promises to act to improve the environment as a way of unifying us. Thankfully, Torontonians intuitively understand this: that’s why we’ve come so far in the past decade. Now we need all mayoral candidates to reflect this reality and begin talking about building one green Toronto.
Get more municipal election coverage from Torontoist here.


  • accozzaglia

    As an intern with Evergreen in 2007–08, one of their primary functions is in community-focussed stewardship planting events — bringing together the local participation of local volunteers with the resources to plant trees donated by major organizations and even corporations.
    Every one of those stewardship events with which I assisted was not in the “old Toronto” — but in East York, Scarborough, Mississauga, Oakville, Richmond Hill, and other points around the 905 (they did have some in the city, but many were further out). Even so, Evergreen’s offices were partly in the entertainment district and partly at the Brick Works in the Don Valley. And yet, those central locations in the “old Toronto” have little bearing on Evergreen’s mandate and mission to bring nature to the city. If you live in a suburb, you live in an urbanity and, thus, you also live in a city.
    I think the point Franz stressed here about how the environment knows no political boundaries is an important one to never lose sight of. Although as a Torontonian in the “old Toronto” I helped with these stewardship events, it never really crossed my mind that I was helping out in places well out into the 905 and outer 416, and it really doesn’t matter to me still. It’s all part of a bigger picture to get localities involved in their most familiar spaces and a great way to inform citizens of their impact — positive or negative — on our integrated regional ecosystem.

  • http://undefined Jordan

    The other bit about the suburban vs. core debate is the whole idea that the core is receiving more money and attention. The reality is suburbs cost the city far more to maintain on a per person basis compared to the city centre. One stretch of road in the core could service up to a few hundred people, where as one stretch of road in the suburbs might service 5 people. When you start taking into consideration how many more street lights, extended lengths of sewers, extended lengths of electrical wires, sidewalks, etc. that suburbs require to exist, you also need to double/quadruple the amount you spend on maintenance.

  • accozzaglia

    The problem is this not the calculus many people use when leveraging their arguments against the older parts of the city. They simply don’t see it that way. It’s not that they’re “dumb” or “simple” as some people argue. It’s that they’ve probably never really sat down to think about it on these terms. Whether they agree or not is another matter, but more often than not, I don’t think this gets the due consideration it should by all Torontonians of the six former boroughs.
    I’m right there with you.