What to do when your city breaks

toronto First: for the love of God, don't panic. It has been three and a half days and people have gone bonkers. When the streets run thick with garbage and we bow before the gilded throne of a new Rat King, by all means go bat-shazbot insane. But in the meantime, perhaps we should just suck it up. After all, it could be worse. You could've had this guy's week.

There are lots of other things you can do to mitigate the effects of what promises to be a long and highly irritating strike. Reduce the amount of garbage you produce. Organize neighbourhood trash trips to the nearest transfer station, complete with themed snacks (Mmm. Barbecue flavoured detritus mix!) and obnoxious road games. Pay an exhorbitant fee to grey market profiteers to haul your stinkables away. Or, dedicate a week's worth of writing on your slightly popular blog to the vagaries of trash removal in this fine city.

But, as a wise man once said, "leave no crisis unused." Perhaps the best way to survive this crisis is to clear a small patch of open ground of banana peels and coffee grounds and used tissues, and consider what has led us to this unfortunate juncture. In a rare insightful and clear-headed column, Christie Blatchford provides some helpful advice: "you have to know who to be mad at."

In no particular order, then:

  1. The Mayor. Look, there's no questions David Miller is a good guy. But with every passing day, you've got to wonder if he's a good mayor. The man has been in power since 2003, and for someone who campaigned with the timeless "a new broom sweeps clean" imagery, precious little has changed. The city is still broke. The waterfront remains undeveloped. The bike plan languishes.  And Miller has been singularly ineffective in lobbying for a "new deal" for Toronto. The city is still abused and neglected by the Federal government, and when Miller tries to pressure Ottawa into coughing up some cash - as he did with the $1.2 billion streetcar deal - the results are often catastrophic. And people are getting fed up with Miller's bent political calculus. An Ipsos-Reid poll released today shows a veritable collapse in the Mayor's support. True, the survey was commissioned by The National Post for glaringly obvious political reasons, and the article announcing is almost embarassingly partisan. But the numbers are still there.
  2. City Council. If ever there was a case study in how self-interest and narrow-thinking can corrupt the public service motivation, it's Toronto's City Council. Kissinger once said that student politics was so savage precisely because the stakes were so small. Our 44 councillors somehow manage to retain the petulance of a student union despite being the administrative body of city of 4.5 million. These folks play a penny-ante game, despite the fact they're in charge of frontline services for North Americ's fifth largest metropolis. High stakes, indeed.
  3. 19th Century Political Structures. It has often been said that municipalities in Canada "are children of the provinces." That kind of folksy epithet made a lot of sense in 1867, when even the largest cities were relatively small in size and regional in reach. But today, Toronto is a global behemoth, with cultural and economic links that stretch around the world. Toronto is not the child of Ontario. Toronto is a hulking longshoreman that carries Ontario - and Canada, to some extent - on its back. And yet, we're forced to labour under a political financial arrangement that is woefully out-of-date. Why are we perpetually broke? Because Queen's Park and Ottawa pillage the proceeds of our economy to feed less dynamic regions, and give us too little back. The modern iterations of cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary are unprecedented in the history of Canada, and require unprecedented revenue and political control to be successful. We desperately need a new kind of political status for our super-cities, something that allows us to maintain a high level of municipal services and infrastructure while simultaneously investing in our social, cultural and economic vitality.
  4. A Distinct Lack of Imagination. To some extent, these problems - a mediocre mayor, an inept council, and a raw political deal - are our own fault. We don't demand better, so we're forced to settle for less. This city is chockablock with innovators. So why does so little of that innovation find its way into our municipal government? A city - even a large city - is an ideal place for piloting "open governance", "e-governance", and other forms of technology-driven direct democracy. Where are the innovative public-private partnerships? The out-of-the-box public works projects? Toronto can be a truly world-class leader in commerce and creativity. But we've got to work for it, and not leave this project in the hands of ineffectual leaders.

Anyways, that's what I've been thinking about in the first days of the Strike. I find the excitement of possibilities a worthy distraction from slow-building piles of trash.

What have you been thinking about?

Photo by KateDW.