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David Miller’s New Mandate

Toronto's former mayor on how world-class cities can save the world.

In the 18 months since David Miller passed the chain of office to Rob Ford, Toronto’s 63rd mayor has been busy—something that, love him or hate him, probably doesn’t come as much of a shock.

Through two terms, from 2003 to 2010, Miller was either praised as a city builder, who shaped Toronto into a global, sustainable city, or vilified for spending the city’s tax revenue on such an amibitious—and to his detractors, socialist, elitist, leftist, out of touch, what have you—goal. Whether it was pumping millions into the TTC, or housing renewal in Regent Park, or garbage-collection and recycling initiatives, Miller made these choices with a few core principles in mind: that cities should serve the public, that cities are a public investment, and that cities can save the world, one world-class community at a time.

A private citizen once more, working with the World Bank, New York University, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Miller has taken this idea beyond Toronto’s boundaries. Today, he occupies his days thinking about the role cities play in mitigating climate change. Cities, he says, are where the majority of the world’s population is concentrated in the 21st century, and where most of its emissions are generated. As nodes of the world, so to speak, the key to reversing an unfolding global catastrophe is within cities’ purview.

“I know from my experience as mayor,” he said, addressing the Thought Leaders Forum at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church this week, “that we can reach our environmental goals and our economic goals. The reason is pretty simple: it’s because today, for the first time in the history of the world, more people live in cities than live in rural areas. And that’s only been true in the last three years.”

“Somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” he added, “happen in cities. So cities are where the people are, they’re where the greenhouse-gas emissions are, and they’re also where the economy is.”

The evolving context that makes this discussion so crucial is already full of warning signs. In a City report titled Ahead of the Storm: Toronto’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy [PDF], several data points show the ominous ways climate change is starting to hit home, literally. During a 10-year period, from 1998 to 2008, Toronto experienced eight 25-year storms: weather events so intense that, historically, they happened every quarter-century. Of those storms, a handful were of the 50-year variety, and at least one was once-in-a-century in its severity. Think back to August 2005, when thunderstorms rolled through Toronto that brought down an Air France jet and destroyed several metres of Finch Avenue west of Keele, near York University.

The increasing frequency and intensity of these storms is an accelerating global event; in the past few months, on this continent alone, we’ve seen record swarms of tornadoes cross the American Midwest in early April, the absence of a southern Ontario winter and a crop-destroying early spring, and unusually destructive winter storms lashing the West Coast in B.C..

But while the effects of an upended climate continue to hammer world populations, governments cite economic competitiveness—or the supposed lack thereof—as a reason to maintain the status quo in that respect, even when it’s brutally obvious that the status quo is doing more harm than good.

Cities can lead the charge in this void of leadership, Miller says, and lay the groundwork for a new, progressive economy.

“Most Torontonians and, I believe, most Canadians, want to achieve our climate-change goals,” Miller said, speaking with Torontoist before his talk. Striking a balance between the two—between the economy and the environment—is critical, he suggests, in reversing a trend that is starting to have frightening local and global consequences. “So, how do you address this? Most of the emissions are from how we generate our energy, how we heat and cool buildings, and how we run our transportation system.”

“Let’s use a little example: heating and cooling buildings. Phoenix Energy in Vancouver has invented a new way to drill under existing buildings to do geothermal loops,” he continued, “and those kinds of technologies create massive numbers of jobs.”

Even the way buildings are insulated, he said, can have a dramatically cascading effect in both driving up job numbers and reducing energy dependency. Citing the Tower Renewal initiative of his mayorship as another example, he said, “Concrete buildings that were built in the ’60s and ’70s are going to last 100 years. The estimate is that it’ll take 30 people a year to do one of these buildings, and there’s thousands of them in Toronto. That’s 30,000 jobs, and those are all well-paid union jobs that can’t be outsourced to China or India or anywhere else, that have to be done here.

“It’s those kinds of strategies—the combination of doing simple things to lower our reliance on fossil fuels that are labour-intensive, and new technologies—that entrepreneurs and venture capitalists can promote that create the jobs we need for the future.”

Inevitably, the discussion turned to how Toronto is doing today as a sustainable city, with debates over casinos and monorails supplanting earlier ones about garbage diversion and green infrastructure. Can we still claim to be a global leader, up there with other C40 cities? Or have we slid too far? “We’ve stopped that leadership, that’s quite obvious,” he told us, “and I think that’s wrong.”

In the absence of leadership from the city’s chief executive, however, the will of the people and of council will prevail, he says. “You can see in the battle about Transit City what Torontonians really want. Because council wouldn’t have voted for Transit City if the people didn’t want this progressive way of building rapid transit to every neighbourhood, and I think we’re going to see that on other environmental issues—that council will seize the agenda because the people want it.

“Environmental issues in Toronto have huge support,” he said. “Torontonians were proud when their city was a leader.”


  • Anonymous

    I don’t dislike David Miller because he had grand ideas. I dislike him because he had grand ideas and then failed to execute on them, mainly for reasons within his control. A bit more good management from Miller would have spared us four years (at least) of Ford.

    • Anonymous

      You dislike him because he failed to execute for reasons beyond his control? That seems rather odd to me…

      • Anonymous

        My comment says “within his control” on my screen. What does it say on yours?

        • Anonymous

          Your comment says “mainly for reasons within his control” implying that, in part, you dislike him for reasons *not* within his control.

  • Paul Kishimoto is great reading (and lots of eye candy) on the Tower Renewal program.

    The World Bank and OECD would echo the same idea the Toronto Board of Trade has been pushing for a long time: traffic congestion is bad for both the environment and economy in the GTA. Their estimate is that $6b of economic activitiy is lost each year due to congestion.

    If the city were to implement road tolls or other policies to halve congestion, it could collect $500m a year to fund capital projects and still benefit the GTA to the tune of $2.5b. Some of that benefit would be in the form of gasoline saved by drivers, and saved gas is avoided greenhouse gas emissions. The co-benefits are large and obvious.

    Miller is in the perfect position to talk about this issue. He’s already cornered the equity argument for public transit, and it’s exactly the kind of leadership he’s talking about. Because he doesn’t need to concern himself with votes, he can also act as a lightning rod for reflex criticism and open political breathing room that lets the next mayor support this kind of policy.

  • Anon11

    This is the fallacy of the broken window all over again.

    • LeeZamparo

      It’s not actually. Refitting towers to use less energy will draw down demand for energy, which will have the effect of making energy cheaper for Torontonians. In addition, the companies performing the retrofitting technology will become more specialized in its use, and may be able to sell it more cheaply to new condos that are constantly sprouting up like weeds all over the city. Then those future condo dwellers will hopefully see reduced maintenance fees as a result of less energy required to heat and cool their units.

      The fallacy of the broken window is more aptly used to describe the F-35 purchase.

  • Rupert Lloyd Thomas

    Miller does not have a new mandate for anything. This article reminds me of some of his achievements:

    * Failure to tell Police Chief Blair to stop running amok at the G20.

    * Provoking a five-week garbage strike, and losing.

    * Remaining absent after the Sunrise propane explosion.

    * Paying $35 million not to build the bridge to the island airport.

    * Failing to spot a $47m liability for the Pan-Am games.

    * Presiding over a disgraceful regime at Municipal Licensing Services to the detriment of small business.

    * Turning a blind eye when Adam Giambrone was caught with his hand in the till.

    * Spending much of his time on foreign “jollies” while the city stagnated.

    He is now a sinecurist. I am tired of his policy wonk waffle.