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Shaping a city that has reached a crossroads

By Jim Coyle

WELL, AS A wise man said, the reach must exceed the grasp or what’s a city plan for.The initial step in shaping the new unified Toronto’s first official plan was taken this week with release of a broad-strokes blueprint called Shaping Our Future. And it’s a big reach, indeed, that promises the city a strategic vision for the next 30 years and aims to express our “collective wishes and dreams for the future.”

Still, in a hyperactive age of fleeting fads and passing fancies, there’s something comforting about anything measured in decades.

Not that there’s much controversial in this one’s general goals. Beautiful public places, better transportation, more housing, more green space and a dynamic downtown are motherhood. It’s the getting there that’s tricky.

It would be easy to say at this point that if anyone had a loonie for every grand plan unveiled to front-page huzzahs that ended up mouldering on a dusty shelf, they’d have no need of lottery tickets.

Easy to say that in a system of four-year federal and provincial electoral cycles - leaving alone the whims of the governments they produce or inevitable economic vicissitudes - that long-term municipal strategies are a dicey investment.

But the authors of this report know that.

“A great vision can’t, by itself, create great cities,” it says. “Visions are only as good as the day-to-day actions that energize and reflect them.”

A strategic vision, it says, must stand as more than a compendium of good intentions. It must mobilize citizens, government and the private sector in a co-operative effort, must transform laws and policies into action.

In that sense, release of this report, and the next stages of developing the official plan, could hardly be more timely - and not just because it offers the mayor a handy campaign platform (as if he needed one) on which to run this November.

Indeed, there’s a whiff of something pivotal in the report, recognition of an unavoidable crossroads in the evolution not just of the city but the entire region.

In some ways, in fact, the report reads like a counterpoint to the provincial government’s Common Sense Revolution - speaks less about what individuals deserve, more about what a healthy city-region requires. Above all, it asks that we get past the destructive area-code wars of city vs. suburb.

Ecosystems don’t recognize municipal boundaries, the report says. Water and air quality, the availability and price of food, all depend on how “regional neighbours manage growth.

“The fates of the city, the suburbs and the countryside are inextricably bound together.”

So with municipal and federal elections coming soon, there’s an opportunity to oblige would-be leaders to speak to Greater Toronto’s future, a chance to persuade both sides of the 416-905 divide that their interests are mutual, not mutually exclusive.

It might even be - given that the plan will be Toronto’s first, given that provincial downloading has changed municipal roles and responsibilities - that the old constraints have changed.

It might be a good time to consider what tools are needed to actually build something from such blueprints, time perhaps to further develop the idea of self-government for Toronto.

As Jane Jacobs wrote this year, Canadian cities are creatures of the provinces, but “to shed old dependencies in order to take on increased responsibilities and more self-reliance is not a sign of failure of either parents or children.

“Rather, it is the most vital sign of success.”

On reflection, 30 years do seem to pass quickly.

It’s more than that already since Toronto’s “new” city hall was opened - an event called the beginning of a physical and spiritual transformation of Toronto.

More than that already since Jacobs wrote that “vital cities have marvellous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties.”

Jim Coyle’s column usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.