Q&A: Mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa on why he deserves John Tory’s job

Q&A: Mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa on why he deserves John Tory’s job

Plus: making the suburbs as good as downtown, overcoming an $875-million budget shortfall, and why Doug Ford’s “strong mayor” plan is a red herring

If you’re hanging out in a park this summer, you may encounter a middle-aged man in a suit who wants to talk about Toronto’s future. Gil Penalosa is the founder of 8 80 Cities, a non-profit that advocates for more-inclusive urban environments, and an ambassador for World Urban Parks. He has many thoughts on what this city is getting wrong (too much inequality, too little green space, overflowing garbage cans). Now, he’s running to dethrone John Tory in October’s election and is introducing himself to voters with a two-month walking tour of the city.  

Why have you decided to run for mayor?
We need to live differently—more equitably and more sustainably. I don’t think that Toronto has been moving in that direction over the last eight years. And I don’t think we can go another four years with the status quo. 

Is that also what you’re hearing from people on your walking tour?   
In Toronto, we have a huge divide between the haves and have-nots. When I tell people that I want a Toronto for everyone, they smile in agreement. When I say Toronto is falling apart, they agree with that too—the wealthy and the poor, those downtown and those in the suburbs. The streets are dirty, the garbage cans are full and no one is cleaning them up. You go to a park and the washrooms are closed eight months of the year. Even the mayor said almost half of the city’s water fountains were not working in June. 

You’re a political outsider trying to unseat a two-term incumbent. That seems like an uphill struggle. What do you think of your chances?
If I’m able to communicate my ideas, I have a good chance. Obviously, many people avoided entering the race because the mayor decided to run for a third time. But I’m not doing political arithmetic. I’m not focused on the polls or probabilities. I’m focused 100 per cent on the ideas. 

Let’s talk about those ideas. What would happen on day one under Mayor Penalosa?
I’m going to make a commitment to listen to Torontonians. I’ll hold Mondays with the mayor—a community meeting in a different ward every Monday. Second, in the first 100 days, we are going to pass all the measures that we need to create safe streets, such as lowering the speed limit to 30 kilometres per hour in most residential areas. I’m also going to make the suburbs a priority, on snow plowing, safety, speed limits, bike lanes—everything. The suburbs have to be as good as downtown. We cannot have a two-tier city. 

How, specifically, will you tackle the affordability crisis?
One of my key priorities is to ensure that Toronto doesn’t lose more young people because they can’t afford to live here. I will leverage city land, such as parking lots, to build more affordable housing, and I will remove the city costs to divide single family homes into multiple units. I support policies to keep renters safe from renovictions and unfair above-guideline rent increases. I also plan to lower fees for recreational programs and expand the Fair Pass Transit Discount Program.

Entire books have been written about grand plans for Toronto that died on the drawing board. A revitalized University Avenue comes to mind as a recent example. How would you make sure that stuff actually gets built?
I know what needs to be done. I have worked in more than 350 cities around the world. And I was running organizations in both the public and private sectors before immigrating to Canada from Colombia. Toronto has not built an important park in the past eight years. I built over 200 parks in Bogotá, which is a much poorer city.  

Doesn’t Toronto have an $875-million hole in its budget? Where will you find the money to pay for your plans?
Many of my ideas cost very little money. But the City of Toronto is also currently wasting billions. It’s going to cost almost $2 billion to tear down the Gardiner and rebuild it farther north. There are no civilized cities today doing elevated highways. Why are we? Some of the work has already been done, but a lot of it can be stopped, and we can still save $500 million.

Doug Ford plans to give mayors more power with a “strong mayor” system. Are you for or against?  
I think it’s a total distraction, and it’s giving the current mayor an excuse for why he has not done much. The mayor has not lost one single vote in council. The city is lacking two things: ideas and the capacity to get things done. It does not suffer from a lack of centralized power. People say Doug Ford has wanted a strong mayor for 10 years, but he’s been premier for only four. And now he wants to change the law with less than 100 days to an election? It’s totally unacceptable.

Toronto has a lot of problems. But what’s your favourite part of the city?
I love to go running in the parks, the ravines, the waterfront. That’s when I see everything that I really love. But that’s also when I see that the restrooms and water fountains don’t work. The whole city has huge potential. But City Hall, the mayor and council have failed to fulfill it. We need not only a new mayor but many new councillors as well.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.