Happy Birthday Megacity
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Happy Birthday Megacity

2008-01-01-city-hall.jpgPhoto by matthewfromtoronto from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Ten years ago today, Premier Harris forced us all to play. On January 1, 1998, Metropolitan Toronto‘s six constituent municipalities were merged into one, creating Canada’s largest city and a strangely powerless political behemoth. The popular view at the time was that the so-called Megacity was born largely of political vengeance. It’s conveniently forgotten that many advocated for amalgamation before the fact, only to predict death, destruction, and general inconvenience after the Conservative government of the day finally came around and imposed a new governance structure on the city.
In a November 12, 1995 editorial titled “A new vision for a city-state,” the Toronto Star wrote that “Premier Mike Harris must seize the moment and set us on course toward a competitive, prosperous supercity.” The Star wasn’t just pushing for the five cities and one borough of Metropolitan Toronto to be merged, but for a super-Metro that would consume Peel, Durham, Halton, and York Regions. The editorial included the rather un-Star-like claim that doing so would result in “[o]ne marketing voice for the region,” among other benefits. In fact, the Star was one of the leading voices for municipal reform through amalgamation, actively campaigning for various forms of municipal mergers since at least 1994.

2008-01-01-lets-all-come-together.jpgIt’s difficult to argue that amalgamation as a concept was flawed; by the final years of the twentieth century, there was no reason for homes and businesses lining the length of Eglinton Avenue to be serviced by and subject to the by-laws of one or more of seven different municipalities: Scarborough, Toronto, East York, North York, York, Etobicoke, and Metro. Many services throughout Metro were already amalgamated, including police and the TTC, the two biggest budget items. Combined with the simultaneous downloading of formerly provincially-funded programs, this also meant that the enormous savings promised by proponents of amalgamation would never materialize. Still, some kind of merger made sense, whether at the municipal or regional level.
It’s considerably easier to argue that although the concept wasn’t flawed, the implementation certainly was. Given barely half a year to prepare for the merger in 1997, the new city’s bureaucracy still struggles with internal issues ten years later. By-laws remain a patchwork across the city. And the continuing effort to harmonize services still raises hackles in many neighbourhoods.
The original 1998 City government was unwieldy at best, with an unmanageable 57 councillors (including the Mayor) split into six community councils. A by-election was held in September 1998 to add another member of council for East York, whose Community Council initially had just two members—political opposites Michael Prue and Case Ootes—leading to the distinct possibility of ongoing deadlock in the former borough. Intriguingly, the Star endorsed Jane Pitfield for the new position, calling her “articulate and pragmatic.” Eight years later, the Star dismissed Pitfield’s mayoral aspirations, writing that she “lacks […] depth” in the same editorial that endorsed David Miller for his “discouraging lack of boldness.”
In 2003, the tiny East York Community Council was rolled into Toronto’s as the number of Community Councils was reduced from six to four in further tinkering with the city’s political structure, which had previously seen City Council’s numbers reduced from 58 to 45. Although governance continues to improve bit by bit it’s been a difficult decade. Council is often criticized for being less accessible than the governments of the former municipalities. Council’s size is alternately considered too small to provide effective local representation and too large to provide effective, efficient government. With opponents on both sides unhappy, the current size is probably the best compromise.
2008-01-01-park-bench.jpgMany opponents of amalgamation still hold dear the hope of returning to the good old days of six distinct municipalities within a larger regional government. Buy why stop there? Why not go all the way back to the original 13 cities, towns, villages, and townships that made up the original Metropolitan Toronto? For that matter, why not expunge the Annex, release East Toronto, and free Leslieville from the clutches of big bad Toronto? But the fact is that cities, by their very nature, grow. There is no substantive difference between the neighbourhoods north and south of The Danforth, or east and west of Victoria Park Avenue, and the case for maintaining separate governments in these areas makes little sense. Besides, the three or four 18-year-olds who voted for the first time in the 2006 municipal elections have no real memory of Toronto as anything other than a single entity; good luck convincing them that Toronto should revert to a form that’s alien to them.
The most dire predictions of amalgamation opponents—that neighbourhoods would lose their distinctiveness and disappear—remain so much unfulfilled FUD. If anything, many neighbourhoods have arisen and become more distinctive in the last ten years. Leslieville broke free of south Riverdale and Liberty Village calved itself from Parkdale, to name just two. Community leaders and activists should know that a neighbourhood consists of more than street signs and park benches, yet many still refuse to move beyond such superficial matters. If a neighbourhood is so fragile that it won’t survive a change of street signs, it was never really a community to begin with. Dozens of former towns and villages that haven’t existed as legal entities in the lifetimes of many Torontonians continue to exist as vibrant communities known by all: Mimico, Leaside, Riverdale, Weston, North Toronto, The Annex, Willowdale, East Toronto, and many more have long survived consumption by larger neighbours, and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t continue to exist and thrive under the latest round of amalgamation.
Whatever the political motivation, there was a good deal to be said in favour of bringing all of Metro Toronto under a single umbrella. It was the next logical step in the city’s evolution. Tumultuous years at the beginning are to be expected following any change of that scale. The main problem today may be that amalgamation didn’t go far enough: if the putative super-Metro Greater Toronto Services Board had been given any teeth and money—say, the same level of responsibility and taxing power as the old Metro—we may have had a decade of progress and service integration throughout the GTA. Or not. Of course it’s impossible to tell what would have been. But ten years after the GTSB’s formation and seven years after its demise, its sole surviving legacy is still trying to define a role for itself and get any kind of funding for still-modest goals.
So happy birthday Toronto. You’re not perfect, and there’s still a lot of work to do as you embark on your tween years. Soon enough, you’ll be all grown up and able to make your own decisions. We can only hope that you don’t fall in with bad company along the way.
Top photo by matthewfromtoronto; middle photo by Bitpicture; bottom photo by BokehMonster; all from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.