How Toronto went to town in becoming a model city

Catching their first glimpse of Toronto's impressive skyline, visitors may wonder if it's not actually a modern-day Camelot.

This city of many marvels evokes nostalgia among tourists from blighted, decaying urban areas. Many remember a time when they boasted of clean, safe streets and vibrant hometowns that attracted middle-income residents instead of losing them to the suburbs.

Curious visitors who want to know why Toronto works need only visit its futuristic City Hall, on Nathan Phillips Square, and talk to Mrs. Jeanne Wayling of the city planning department. Mrs. Wayling contends that it is the many concerned citizens that have helped Toronto capture the attention of urban planners around the world.

''Two factors contributed to Toronto's present development,'' she says. ''There was the post-World War II influx of immigrants. A great mass of hardworking Italian, Greek, and Portuguese blue-collar workers gave the city a cheap labor base.

''Jews established themselves in the Spadina garment area. Hungarians brought in a great many elite architects and planners. All had European ideas about what a city should be.''

(Toronto's new City Hall was designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, whose plans won out over 530 entries in a worldwide contest.)

''The other factor,'' Mrs. Wayling says, ''is the great, conservative 'Toronto the Good' element, long-established residents who had always fought against such proposals as beer in the ballpark. Yet, paradoxically, it was these Torontonians who always saw to it that money was shoved into street cleaning and very practical things.''

Both elements joined forces in 1970 when a business-oriented Metro Council favored a proposed expressway that would cut through the city and threaten the existence of many core neighborhoods.

In the forefront of what turned out to be a notable effort were Derek Hayes, a corporate lawyer; Colin Vaughan, a city alderman; Mrs. and Mrs. Dave Nolan and Steve Clarkson of the University of Toronto; and Jane Jacobs, the expatriate American writer. They formed a Confederation of Rate Payers' Association (CORA), hired a lawyer, and waged battle with the council over the controversial expressway.

Whether there was a lack of funds, or whether the association put up too much spirited opposition, or both, the council abandoned all ideas of financing an expressway.

''The citizens took the glory unto themselves,'' Mrs. Wayling recalls.

''There was a hoedown on Yonge Street (Toronto's main thoroughfare). The apparent victory coalesced the citizens. A general feeling prevailed among everyone that we could control our own lives.''

Before the 1972 municipal elections, Mr. Hayes formed a splinter group from CORA called Community Organization '72. Its aim was to launch a citizen movement that would run a reform candidate in every city ward who would campaign on the issues of neighborhood preservation, environmental quality, and a well-planned city.

The result was an electoral sweep for the reformers.

With the help of David Crombie, mayor at the time, the newly elected liberals on the council passed an ordinance that banned construction of buildings more than 45 feet high in the downtown area. In effect, Torontonians called a halt to unbridled growth.

Mrs. Wayling says: ''We were afraid that Toronto would become another New York City. We were afraid that the downtown area would be deserted at night; that crime would increase because nobody was living there.''

During the next few years, city planners set up offices in core neighborhoods and stabilized them. The council passed zoning regulations that made it virtually impossible for developers to build polluting plants downtown.

At the same time, city planners encouraged development. Toronto's wonders include the CN Tower, one of the tallest free-standing structures in the world; Ontario Place, a recreational complex that is unrivaled as the site of one of the finest children's playgrounds to be found anywhere; and Centre Island in Toronto Harbor, where throngs of visitors each year are encouraged to walk on the grass.

Toronto has come into its own as a cosmopolitan city that offers visitors and residents alike gourmet restaurants, first-rate convention centers, elegant shopping malls, and good theater. Its streets are clean and safe; its subway and bus system serves as a model of fast, efficient urban transportation; and its residents enjoy a relaxed, easy life style.

Cold winds, however, ruffle the serenity of Camelot. In the 1980 municipal elections, conservatives regained power on the Metro Council.

Some $600 million worth of construction is under way in the downtown area, where about 2.6 million square feet of office space and more than 1,200 luxury condominiums are being built. (So much for unbridled growth?)

There is renewed talk of another expressway that will threaten core neighborhoods. The city's Caribbeans, Asians, and other minority groups are visibly discontented.

''We're turning back to a conservative way of thinking,'' Mrs. Wayling acknowledges. ''We're starting to adhere to the American idea that well-paid technocrats get paid to run things; that citizens have no right to meddle.

''There's concern now that the downtown area will be a place for the very rich and the very poor. I'm not sure that anyone has the answers. It's time for a new generation to keep the dialogue going.''

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