David Miller's New Mandate
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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.”