Paul Bedford’s modest proposal

Paul Bedford’s modest proposal

I had a chat yesterday with Paul Bedford, former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto and all-around civic eminence grise. I quoted him in the conclusion of my column in the June issue of Toronto Life (on newsstands now!) about the development controversies in the Queen West Triangle. Bedford points out that the quote was correct but lacked context, producing the unintended effect of making him sound confused. The confusion is mine, not his, so let’s clarify.

As I argue in my column, Toronto faces two urgent planning challenges. First, the city’s planning department is desperately short of staff and resources at a time when it is inundated with a record number of development applications. Second, the department’s relationships with developers, city councillors and the Ontario Municipal Board have all deteriorated to the point of dysfunction—there is a lack of trust between all the players. These issues are related, of course, but they are separate problems: even if city planning had more staff, it would still be at frequent loggerheads with its stakeholders.

Bedford has an idea for how to solve the second problem, that is, fixing some of the broken relationships: bring back the Toronto Planning Board. Back in the 1970s the Board, made up of a dozen politicians and prominent citizens, was responsible for vetting every development application, and it—not city council—served as the employer for planning staff. As a result, notes Bedford, “the Board provided a very thoughtful evaluation process that tended to remove pure ward politics from the equation.” It also made planning staff less subject to political pressure: whereas local councillors tend to think purely locally, a Planning Board structure gives better consideration to the big picture—not just what’s good for the neighbourhood, but also what’s good for the whole city.

It’s also worth noting that, under the Board, planners had better relationships with other city departments, which are equally crucial. When developers want to overhaul neighbourhoods, planners need help and expertise from parks and recreation, emergency services, transit, transportation, et cetera—and they need it pronto. Given the development pressures Toronto is now facing, planning’s priorities need to be everyone’s priorities.

Finally, under the Planning Board, the city had a less antagonistic relationship with the OMB. The development approvals process was thorough, thoughtful and less susceptible to political whim, and the OMB served a more limited function—namely, as an appeals body for true grievances. That would be a big improvement over the OMB’s current, distorted role as an alternative planning department where developers can go when they don’t get what they want from City Hall.

Bedford’s not pining for the good old days. It’s just that, as he puts it, “citizens and city councillors need to know that there are different ways to structure things so they can work better.” But while some sort of Board-ish reorganization could help return the planning function the prominence it deserves, it would not—as Bedford wants to make clear—fix the staffing and funding shortages that are causing it to fall further and further behind on its workload. As for how to fix that problem, tune in tomorrow.