Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, in office since October 2010

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Toronto and Calgary mayors
offer different views on cities

By Christopher Hume,
Architecture and Urban Correspondent, Toronto Star

20 February 2011: Naheed Nenshi, Calgary’s Toronto-born mayor, is now thge city's mayor. Though he has scrupulously avoided the obvious comparison during his triumphant homecoming this week, in his native city Nenshi can only be seen as everything Toronto’s current mayor Rob Ford is not, i.e. articulate, urban, informed, and best of all, optimistic.

Born in Toronto, raised in Calgary, Naheed Nenshi is the son of Ismaili Muslim immigrants from Tanzania. Much has been made of this, but in fact what sets him apart and makes him important is what he says, especially about cities. He is one of those rare city politicians who actually loves the city. By contrast, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was elected around the same time as Nenshi on a promise to wage war on the city.

In Mayor Ford’s world, the city is the enemy. It stands in the way of people and prosperity. In Nenshi’s, the city is our saviour. Its unique qualities — what he calls density, diversity and a sense of discovery — are essential to continued success, economic, social and cultural.

Despite their very considerable differences, both Nenshi and Ford represent a rejection of politics-as-usual. Clearly, then, Calgary and Toronto are not at the same point in their civic evolution.

The Ford backlash came from a population fed up with being exhorted to get out of their cars, walk, ride a bike or take transit. His supporters, who couldn’t give a toss about global warming or the urban agenda, just want the usual — lower taxes and an end to congestion.

Nenshi, on the other hand, connected with Calgarians who desire a more urban city, not endless sprawl. His talk about civic engagement and “politics in full sentences” resonated with an electorate tired of the usual left/right squabbling.

But Nenshi should be aware of how Torontonians reacted after seven years of a civic regime that demanded more of its citizens. The election was held barely three months ago, but the dismantling of the city has already begun in earnest.

And Nenshi’s line about politics in full sentences is painful in a city whose Chief Magistrate speaks not in full sentences but syllables. As long as “gravy train” is the answer, there’s no question to which Ford can’t respond.

Nenshi’s call for “a broad national debate” on urban issues falls on deaf ears at Toronto City Hall. His desire for “radical reform on how we fund cities” will find no believers among this administration. Nenshi’s notion for a municipal income tax of the sort long implemented in other countries won’t win converts in this burg.

Here, the politics of optimism have given way to the politics of fear and loathing.

Toronto’s regression into civic infantilism is a reminder of the fragility of the urban fabric. Within the context of Canada, a country in which there’s little national debate about cities, it is worrisome that the largest urban jurisdiction has withdrawn into itself. Given that the overwhelming majority of Canadians now inhabit towns and cities, our silence is deafening.

It will be up to Nenshi to advance the urban cause on Toronto’s behalf. No doubt he’s ready, willing and able, but that’s too much to ask of one person “When cities work,” Nenshi argues, “they are innovative and creative. The success of our cities is the success of our nation.”

Though the need for “a more robust urban agenda” predates both mayors, it now falls to them to fight the battle. However, with Toronto and Ford missing in action in action, the chances of victory are slim.

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