The Greenbelt Act needs to grow up, but not the way one real estate policy professional thinks.


I was looking to find the source of a couple of Jennifer Keesmaat’s tweets on the Greenbelt:

I found this article: Has Toronto’s Greenbelt done more good than harm? Written by Tom Curtis who calls himself a “Toronto-based real-estate policy professional.”  

In doing some investigation through LinkedIn and piecing parts of the article, I found that “Thomas Curtis”, was a Senior Policy Advisor with the Realty Management Branch at the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure until May of this year.  Like me, he is unemployed so I am not going after him on that.  Also his education and experience is London-based, so he referenced his experiences from there.  Curtis touches on how the Greenbelt Act is currently under its 10 year review. So is Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, better known as Places to Grow. You cannot address one without the other.  He failed to mention the precursor to this legislation, the Provincial Policy Statement, which was updated this past Spring.  These are the critical flaws to Curtis’ article.

Flaws aside, he is highly critical of the Greenbelt Act.

Meanwhile, Greenbelt legislation has been introduced, premised on controlling the GTA’s urban growth boundaries. This, along with municipally-enforced density and height restrictions, heritage building protections and NIMBYism, impedes any effort to balance the supply of housing stock with demand. The result of this imbalance has been extreme and it is highly visible: hyper-development and Manhattanization of the downtown core, rapid gentrification of neighbourhoods, severe overcrowding of the transit system, and skyrocketing rents and property values.

There is a balancing act that must take place when any policy is developed. Development, transportation, community development and environmental issues are all taken into account.  While the legislations, with the adherence of Toronto’s Official Plan to directs the city to build up instead of out, there are other factors that should be addressed.

In 2005, the Neptis Foundation wrote about the Greenbelt’s shortcomings in its report on the draft of the Greenbelt Plan.  In it of note with respect to addressing urban sprawl, not much has changed.  We are still speaking of such issues as traffic congestion, the environment and development pressures.

I have been critical of the maintenance of heritage buildings and NIMBYism in the past.  But Curtis totally makes some intriguing points in the latter half of that paragraph.

I have been critical in how we have developed our tower neighbourhoods. The housing market is skewed towards young single adults who are part of the creative class.   Families who want to live downtown need to make rational economic choices and sacrifices.  Condos are smaller in size.  Newer developments either have limited or no parking spaces, so does one sacrifice closet size or having a vehicle at all.  Even decisions about how many children to have come into play.

Second, gentrification may not be a bad thing at all. it is inevitable that neighbourhoods cannot stay intact without necessary change.  But when it comes to social justice issues, therein lies the problem.  New immigrants maybe attracted to the city, but can they afford living in these revitalized neighbourhoods.  Black communities tend to remain stable and are pushed out of necessity.  Do planners, urbanists, developers and policy makers have an understanding of cultural issues?

Third, overcrowding of the transit system has absolutely nothing to do with the Greenbelt plan and everything to do with the underinvestment into our transit infrastructure.  The City and the region have simply not kept up.

While Curtis clearly doesn’t understand planning legislation, let alone theory, both the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow need some growing up to do.  I have proposed three areas that need to be reviewed in addition to planning legislation.

  1. Regionalization. I will continue to say this until I am blue in the face.  in order to address planning, health, transportation and infrastructure issues, the Province must establish a regional governance structure for the Greater Toronto Area to tackle these issues. It is not solely a Toronto issue.  Professionals and policy makers must come together as a starting point to discuss how to make this region resilient.  Official establishment of a regional government should also be a discussion point.  There are pros and cons to regional government, but it is worth raising if we are going to move forward as a region.
  2. Social Justice. Many in the Greater Toronto Area are very familiar with Hulchanski’s Three Cities with Toronto report.  Policies like the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow, ignore what happens when cities become more dense.  As I mentioned earlier, we need a greater understanding of mobility patterns of new immigrants and specifically of Caribbean, African, and Latin American communities.  Is there a difference in how different ethnicities live and why aren’t planners addressing these when developing newer or revitalizing communities?    Are we measuring these relative to the intended goals of the Greenbelt Act?
  3. National attention to urban issues. In order for those two policies to work, there needs to be attention paid to cities, namely in the form of national housing and transportation policies. Housing affordability is a major factor in the decisions of home owners and condo dwellers.  Part of the onus is on the homebuyer as mentioned, but something must give.  Land use transportation connections are the premise behind Places to Grow, Greenbelt, PPS and Official Plans.  Proper transportation infrastructure is sorely needed for this region. The federal government needs to play its part. Brent Toderian and RIchard Florida called for a department for cities at the federal level.  The NDP released their Urban Agenda earlier this month calling for better governance, social and built infrastructure.  Mind you, I believe it lacked teeth compared to what the Federal Liberals released in 2002.

Tom, I think you need to brush up on your planning and politics before criticizing legislation.  Or is he just angry at his former employers?

Toronto, We Have an Über-Problem

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

Über is the only game in town when it comes to ridesharing applications.  Hailo left town several weeks ago. Now that the City of Toronto wants to take Über to court over its operation, I wonder if closing its operations based on financial difficulties was the real reason.  It seems very timely.

This is not the first time Über run into trouble with other cities.  Administrative courts in Hamburg and Berlin decided to uphold the ban on the company because its drivers “lacked commercial licences to charge passengers for rides.”  The Toronto court challenge is based on safety concerns, which the German courts also mention.  Other cities like Paris, Seattle and Chicago are also taking the taxi app company to court.  Also taxi companies are protesting against Uber

We are at a crossroads between innovation and regulations.

I was at an Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) event on Social Innovation with Paul MacMillan presenting points from his book “The Solution Revolution.”  In his presentation, a graph was shown where consumer demand was increasing more than government action creating an ever increasing gap.  Social enterprise companies like Kiva, Hailo, Über and more recently, Line Six or Bridj in Boston are filling the void.  Social enterprise applies commercial strategies to improve the well being of consumers instead of profit maximization.

Ian Black from Über Toronto was at #innov8TO, an event discussion the latest in tech innovation.   Black was on CBC’s Metro Morning on November 10 explaining what UberX is and the regulation of ridesharing. Black responded to Toronto’s court injunction last night on CP24:

In this Forbes article from last month, Über might have precedent on its side.  Christian Sammito, who teaches legal history at Boston University, referred to a Supreme Court case from 1837 where a private company wanted to build a toll bridge which went against a Charter for another bridge located several hundred metres away.  Economic development was the reason the operators of the original toll bridge lost its case.  While the Divisional Court may not use this as an example for Uber’s existence, it is relevant.  Innovations causes disruptions.  Quoting Sammito:

The lawsuits and demonstrations against Uber remind us of the strains innovation can create for some people. The technology that creates a new job opportunity – driving a car through Uber – also challenges the monopoly of taxicab medallions and stands to transform that industry.

We are in a challenging time.  Consumers are frustrated at the pace governments are delivering services.  All levels of government must look to innovate to drive improvements to our infrastructure, transportation network and other services.  Cities are becoming the hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship says Bob Graves from Governing Magazine.  These are the creative cities that Richard Florida has spoke of for almost two decades.

Mayor-elect John Tory supports the continued operation of Über.  It is a complete waste of time and money to have to go through the court system to regulate the taxi app company. Über has already self regulated itself with personal vehicle owners who use ÜberX.  Reading several tweets from some Toronto councillors who don’t support Über are fearful of change and I would go so far as to equate them with climate change deniers.  Let’s all think about that for a moment.

Canada used to be at the forefront of innovation and now we have fallen severely behind.  These innovators are loudly knocking at the door.  Consumers are desperate for change.  Let’s settle this debate at Council and set some policy standards as well as be leaders in tech and innovation instead of being the dinosaurs.

My Own Conundrum: Does the planning profession in Canada reflect my interests?

For the last few months, I have been deliberating on renewing my planning membership.  Although I already visited the OPPI website several weeks ago to check how much it would cost, I received the e-mail reminder to renew.  Being a full member costs $727.40 and a non-practicing member is $270.87 with insurance and $233.85 without insurance. Considering that I am currently not working in the profession, the latter would apply.  Compare that with maintaining a professional engineering licence,  it costs $248.60.

Over the years, I staunchly defended the planning profession within my blog posts.  My confidence has waned considerably.  planningjournos

I looked to a recent post by Charles Marohn titled The AICP Renewal Conundrum.  I reposted it in various social media platforms with minimal.  His post mentioned several “rewards” of being a member of the American Planning Association.  Some of those points mentioned are relevant being a Canadian planner.

  1. Publications.  The CIP and OPPI Planning Journals are only sent to me as part of my membership.  I always wondered why members need both an online and printed version.  Kinda redundant huh?
  2. Certification.  I’ve already mentioned about the cost.  But as a fellow professional member pointed out, the only benefit would be if a professional planner had to appear before a board, like the Ontario Municipal Board.  Having worked in the United States, several coworkers were not certified planners.  Having reviewed many of the job postings, certification is not mandatory.  Just an undergraduate or graduate degree sufficed.  I agree with Charles that there isn’t much prestige in being a professional planner.  It kind of reminds me of this survey done by the Ted Rogers School of Management where politicians are the least trustworthy.
  3. Membership Directory There is no value in an excel spreadsheet of listed planners when all I need is to visit LinkedIn or Twitter.  You have to be a member to see this list as well as the job postings.  At APPI and other provincial chapters, you do not.  I don’t see the benefit of a paywall for either.
  4. Education Opportunities.  Other than the occasional event where planners can obtain professional credits, the same courses are offered in rotation.

But there is one area of interest that Charles mentioned – Divisions.  The American Planning Association offers its members an opportunity to join a division. OPPI has chapters based on jurisdictional boundaries. The Canadian Institute of Planning does not offer divisions and I believe they should.  Hear me out.

CIP is going through a major revamp starting with its name changing it from Canadian Institute of Planners to Canadian Institute of Planning.  I also looked at their Strategic Plan 2012-15.  Nowhere does it mention the social challenges the planning profession must address.  flemingdonpark___Content

During this last municipal election, voters continued the trend of voting for familiar incumbents rather than those contenders who best represented their communities.  Ryerson Professor Myer Siemiatycki called this the Diversity Gap in a 2011 report. Race and gender are issues within the planning community, especially in our major cities.  There is a very small sample size of planners that work on project that represent their communities.  Sure planners rely on community engagement and input, but there are trust is involved.

Other than an article I wrote in the OPPI Journal on Reverse Commuting and Spatial Mismatch in 2005, there have been a handful of articles on race and gender in planning.  The most recent article was one year ago by Sandeep Agrawal, a former professor of mine from Ryerson.

I have attached a video of Rodney Harrell from the 2012 APA conference discussing race, class and age and the tools planners need to address diverse needs:

Are we having these types of discussions in the profession?

The American Planning Association has divisions that represent Black, Latino and LGBQT communities.  CIP only has an Indigenous Division.  If the planning profession is going to be inclusive and truly representative, then diverse communities should be represented.

My experience has also included policy and legislative updates from not only APA but as well as from the state chapters.  OPPI and APPI have not provided updates on their advocacy efforts with our civic, provincial and federal leaders.  If planning and politics are strange bedfellows, then we need to be sleeping in the same bed.

How is the profession representing our interests?  Has the profession been challenged enough and is it really reflecting current trends? Are planners of visible minorities or gender classifications effectively represented in the profession? Members need to ask themselves those questions.  I have over a month to decide whether I retain my membership or not based on these questions I posed.

Thoughts from the municipal elections and beyond.

It has been over two weeks since the municipal elections have been over.  It was a fun ride while it lasted.

As many of you know, I supported David Soknacki until he bowed out in September.  But I managed to take a part in several other campaigns.  During this time, I met many wonderful people from the volunteers I worked with, to the members of the mainstream media, and to the people I knocked on doors with.

This was the first time I participated in a political campaign.

Prior to that my experiences at political events were minimal. I was part of a bus trip to Montreal to help support the NO camp during the 1995 Quebec referendum and partook in a couple of Liberal party events in Edmonton and in Brampton.  I can’t also forget my experience in Los Angeles during the 2008 California Democratic Party Primaries where I was invited to celebrate with Barack Obama supporters.  That night Obama lost California to Hillary Clinton.  If you ever take part in the primaries, it is an experience like no other.

Lessons learned

After the municipal election, Royson James wrote a post-mortem on why progressive candidates lost.  Although two points resonated with me.  James said:

Name recognition is still a powerful election weapon.

Unless you are backed by a political party, have long and deep roots with a community association, and take a year off without pay to campaign while the incumbent continues the self-promotion while being paid, and, finally, are able to have almost all the challengers give up their ambitions and join your campaign — try provincial or federal politics.

Here is a third.  Promoting yourself over social media doesn’t do jack!   Social media is a powerful communication tool.  I used it to promote candidates or even debunk what other candidates have said.  It didn’t work as many progressive candidates failed to resonate with voters.  It proved Royson was right in the two aforementioned points.

And a fourth.  Torontonians are just too nice.  I provided advice to one of the challengers I was working with and to differentiate himself with the incumbent based on his voting record.  Sadly, going negative just seemed to be a no-no.

I spoke with former and current councillors after the election to get their thoughts.  One mentioned that if I am not one of two ethnicities, I should not even bother running.  He suggested I run in another ward, which leads me to a pet peeve.  I am appalled by candidates who campaign on the notion that they live in the ward.  He agreed.  You can represent the ward from wherever you are, as long as you are listening, communicating and working to represent the interests of the constituents.

The next four years and beyond…

I have plenty to think about.  While I am continuing to push forward in advocating for urban social issues and transportation,  I will be looking to volunteer within the community and serve on boards to better prepare myself for the eventuality that I may put my hat into the ring.

In the meantime, gathering with other progressive minded people with in the cities is something that should be considered. Brainstorm and develop strategies in order to think about getting elected in four years time.   Even if some do not think about becoming a candidate, it is good to have the discussion.  At first, I was leaning towards a group similar to the “Responsible Government Group” that got Karen Stintz elected in 2009.  But the person leading this group should have some financial backing alongside plenty of community support.

Although ranked ballots are well on its way for the 2018 candidates, and I am supportive of the initiative, I am wondering how many voters will look past incumbents?  Name recognition will still be a deciding factor for voters.

I am suggesting the municipal electoral system move towards a parties similar to that in Vancouver.  But some questions remain.  Can a party system work with the current ward system or does it become at-large voting for 44 candidates?  Could this type of system eliminate the downtown versus suburbs conundrum that has plagued the last two municipal elections?  Would this advocate for a strong mayor system like that of Calgary?

I hope to have an answer in three years time.

Enough is enough. SmartTrack is a big marketing flop.

It is time I addressed John Tory’s Smart Track.

John Tory may win the Toronto election based on other ideas and the ability to have a consistent message.  But with the biggest issue being transit, I don’t know how someone can make claims simply based on selling this idea as bold and finally getting to yes.  I agree that the region is far behind in transit planning.  I have been extremely frustrated myself.  Financing SmartTrack using tax increment financing, which was low on Metrolinx’s Investment Strategy and within the Transit Panel goes to show that his team will do anything to sell ideas on a tired and frustrated, yet naive public wanting transit to be built now.

The voters already know there are deep concerns with large infrastructure projects being financed by this mechanism.  San Diego and Brooklyn’s Hudson Yards have been known failures.

I will throw out another quote which stemmed from the Edmonton arena debate.  TIF, which was aptly named a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) was addressed by then Councillor (now Mayor) Don Iveson in 2013:

..the success of the CRL is contingent on the surrounding development going ahead, and I will say that if the surrounding development does go ahead, this will all work out.

But there is a bet here – because if the development doesn’t go ahead then regular taxpayers will wind up on the hook. So that billion plus dollars better be invested tomorrow.

Iveson was one of several councillors who voted against the CRL.

Edmonton isn’t exactly a hotbed for development.  So there is even a greater risk there.  The Rogers Arena will go ahead as planned and be built by 2016.  But will the financing be there?  The risk will be there.  Truth be told, this is a low risk politically but there are plenty of unknowns.

The Tory campaign has laid off showing the map because of its structural flaws, but also its references to Stapleton Airport’s TIF.  Even the right wing think tank Cato Institute has some serious concerns about TIF funding large infrastructure projects. TIF in the United States has been used to redevelop blighted neighbourhoods.  This is a known fact.  Some of the questions I would have as a concerned resident of eastern Toronto (refuse to say Scarborough) looking for immediate transit relief would be:

  • Which areas along the SmartTrack corridor are blighted?
  • Who will be displaced?
  • Will there be any upzoning and rezoning of industrial lands? Where will those jobs go?
  • What will be the financial risk to developers if this financing plan goes ahead?
  • Why haven’t other revenue tools been addressed to fund SmartTrack and where is the financing plan?

This should not be about favouring one transit mode or another nor is it about not taking risks.  GTA’ers, not just Torontonians, want a viable transit plan with the financial certainties.  This is what the Big Move and the Investment Strategy were all about.  This is the plan what we should be moving forward with.

Metrolinx is already studying the operational feasibility of a Regional Rail service. But does eastern Toronto deserve faster service over the regional GO Lakeshore Line?  Does Eastern Toronto deserve better service than the transit ghetto of Northwestern Toronto, better known as Rexdale? This is just merely playing politics where the Fords controlled the message and the Liberals won on during the by-election.

It should be the collective leadership of Toronto and the other cities and regions, as well as the province to come up with the best financing plan possible.  Not something that has low political risk that can get you easily elected.  Leadership is about taking risks.  SmartTrack is a plan that’s setting up as a leadership fail.  It is also just a big marketing flop.

The Urban Strategist Reinvented

Yes I know.  I haven’t kept up my blog posts for some time now.  The world has been reading my older posts and have been waiting on baited breath for my next post to arrive.  Ok, well not baited breath. But I’m sure you’ve all been waiting nevertheless. 

Times have changed.  So here’s the story!

I was at a crossroads in what to do with my career and this blog. I am a professional urban planner with a background in transit planning.  You were all aware of that.  But some were probably not aware of my burning desire for politics, policy and advocacy.  

You see, many urban planners are technicians.  Just like engineers, planners speak a certain language. Sometime they bicker but eventually come to a compromise.  I had proudly defended the planning profession in the work I did.  I just knew something was missing.  Something was held up inside of me.  Something just wasn’t right.  

Several months ago, I met with a friend for coffee and realized something needed to change.  I had a negative attitude, not confident, depressed, anxious and was extremely frustrated. My business was a failure. My long term relationship had ended. I was asking for advice from others who really didn’t know me. I was confused and didn’t have the answers. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do.  I hadn’t had a job interview in several months. I needed a change fast.  

I learned a lot about myself during a leadership course I completed while in Edmonton. I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. I had bought What colour Is Your Parachute, but was not fully engaged in the exercises?  I resorted to the True Colours Test as an answer to my problems within my career.  I still felt all the questions weren’t answered and my attitudes were still present.

My friend advised me to see a career coach to get back on track.  It took me several weeks to let it sink in.  After some research I found one within proximity.

I went into the coaching sessions with an open mind.  I learned about animal resemblances, stress management and HeartMath techniques.  I’m not going to elaborate on all of these to bore you.  What I learned was that I wasn’t really being me.  Which career paths suited me?  

In the midst of these sessions, I had lectured a second year geography class on transportation policy. I was in my element.  I taught a 90 minute class with ease.  So I know teaching was something I enjoyed.  

Many of my colleagues at my previous jobs knew I had a penchant and a desire to get into politics. Debates always happened at work. I even was cocky enough to say that I would defeat someone if him and I ever ran against each other for office.  I always wanted to run for office but didn’t want to do it until the time was right.  My ex-girlfriend didn’t want me to get into politics because she saw all the attention Rob Ford was receiving, albeit for the wrong reasons.   She was holding me back and I convinced myself this wasn’t the direction I should be going. I realized I let other people control my life.  I needed guidance to get me back on track. Another career path solved.  Now I am working to get myself into a government relations or public affairs career.  This has started by involving myself with the Soknacki for Mayor campaign.  Even at a recent event, another colleague of mine texted me afterwards and said she also noticed I was in my element.  

Finally, it was about regaining the confidence I once had.  Learning to think positively was critical.  Many of us always revert to the negative because it is easy to deflect attention away from yourself by putting down someone else and in turn making yourself feel good.  I have begun to train myself to think in a more positive light by re-reading written communication or taking a step back and rephrasing how I want messages to come out verbally.  

So what happens now with my planning career?  I am gracious for what I had learned and able to apply professionally.  Going through several interviews or not even receiving any, I had come to the realization that the planning profession isn’t for me. I had become really frustrated with technical work and mundane number crunching.   My interests now lie in urban affairs, advocacy, policy communications and networking.  What I will do with my professional planning designation is still unclear at this point and I don’t have to make a decision for another three months. 

I have decided to pick up where I left off by reading “If Mayors Ruled the World” and maybe I will re-read “The Element” afterwards for good measure.  I just finished reading David & Goliath and learned some valuable lessons which could be applicable in my career.  

So from now on, much of what I write in this blog will have less urban planning content and more about general policy issues. 

The only way is to go up from here.  Nothing is insurmountable.  The journey has begun and I am looking forward to seeing where I end up.