The Future Is Now?
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The Future Is Now?

Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.

David Miller is breaking the hearts of Toronto’s progressives. He genuinely appears to care as they do and to want what they do, yet at every turn he seems to let the measures they hope for slip between his fingers. This frustration was evident last night as Miller drew lukewarm reactions from a thousand person–strong crowd at Convocation Hall, there to attend a public lecture on the state of progressive urban politics.
“Cities of Tomorrow: Is Progressive Politics Alive?” brought Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, England, and Denise Simmons, recently elected mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, together with Miller to discuss cities’ roles in advancing environmental and social causes. The mayors are all known for endorsing centre-left or left agendas and agreed on all their major points: the increasing significance of cities as the world becomes more urbanized, the need to reduce our environmental footprint, the centrality of health care and social services to a city’s vitality, the importance of Barack Obama’s movement for renewed political engagement. But as is so often the case when politicians preach to the converted, there was an anticlimactic undertone to the evening, a feeling that the opportunity to speak frankly was, if not quite wasted, not fully realized either.

Photo of London City Hall by .kol tregaskes from the Londonist Flickr Pool.

Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000-2008, was clearly the darling of the evening—at one point Miller laughingly implored moderator David Crombie to have Livingstone answer questions last, so that the rest of them might get a shot at saying something memorable before he stole their thunder. Livingstone did an excellent job, painting a vivid picture of what urban life should be and making that picture seem eminently attainable. He began with a bit of a history lesson, tracing the rise and fall of the progressive agenda since the aftermath of World War II, and concluded that “there isn’t a neo-liberal way out” of our current challenges—only progressive politics can offer solutions. Livingstone, who garnered international attention for introducing a traffic congestion charge in downtown London, thinks that sustainability must be at the very top of our agenda, though he is certainly not in the austere, fear-mongering camp of environmentalists. “We don’t have to have a diminished quality of life,” he suggested, we “just need to do things differently.” This includes a “complete, massive drive towards all the forms of renewable energy” and—in a suggestion sure to raise some NIMBY hackles—he advocated that we move away from a grid-based system of electricity and make our energy production as local as possible. (According to Livingstone, 65 per cent of the energy we currently produce is wasted, the vast majority during distribution over the long distances between power plants and power users.) Government, crucially, is the only agent that can bring this about, as unregulated markets are simply insensitive to concerns of social welfare. As he put it, when it comes to education, for instance: “The market won’t train the workforce; it’ll steal [workers] from someone else’s firm.”

Photo of Harvard Square in Cambridge by afagen from the Bostonist Flickr Pool.

Cambridge mayor Denise Simmons was less concerned with assigning political labels; in the afterglow of Obama’s inauguration she took a pragmatic approach to the subject of progressive politics, saying that “everyday Americans don’t care as much about the labels as the solutions.” Her focus was health care, and while her remarks about the need for universal coverage drew the expected applause, they were also too broad to be particularly thought provoking.
Many in the audience were waiting, of course, to hear Miller’s thoughts. They were just as we expected to find them: “Progressive politics is alive and well, but we have to fight for them.” Translation: the federal and provincial governments have been screwing us royally for years, and we’d like them to start making up for it. Immediately, if not sooner. Our national government must “seize the opportunity to invest in the future of Canada by investing in the environment, investing in cities, investing in people.” This is the point, we suspect, at which many people’s frustration kicked into high gear—not because they disagreed with what Miller was saying but because it wasn’t sufficient to account for the disappointments of his tenure. We too agree that other levels of government have been woefully neglectful of our cities and of Toronto in particular. But repeating that ceaselessly does little to obscure the fact that far fewer of Mayor Miller’s good intentions have been realized in action than many had once hoped. With the spectre of next year’s municipal election hovering in the background (Miller made at least one self-deprecating campaign joke), this frustration will, more than anything, become the subject for debate.