Interest Groups and Municipal Government in Toronto

Interest groups can affect planning policy, and can have positive and negative influences on the city

Update: As of November 2017, New Toronto Good Neighbours seems to be no longer active. Manse Valley Community Association disbanded in 2010

New Toronto Good Neighbours (NTGN) is an organization set up by the residents of New Toronto in order to “foster a strong community of diverse ideas, talents, people and property”.[i] It was founded in 2004 by Toronto resident, Jem Cain. New Toronto is located in South Etobicoke and is a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial properties, that was primarily a blue-collar neighbourhood up until the past decade. When heavily industrialized companies began to move out in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the area suffered a mild economic depression, which only began to subside with the recent building boom. As a result, large portions of industrial lands that were vacant became available for re-development.

New Toronto Good Neighbours is active in the local community

New Toronto Good Neighbours has fought several proposed developments that would have detracted from the local community. One of these developments was a concrete mixing and batching plant that was to be built near a residential area. After several complaints from local residents living close to the proposed plant location, NTGN decided to try to get the city to relocate the facility.

Through its website and e-mail newsletters, the organization was able to inform local residents on news of the proposal. Slowly residents started to notify the local councillors and city hall, voicing their displeasure. Through several months of negotiations with the city and the owner of the plant, Ward 6 councillor Mark Grimes along with NTGN was able to secure a land swap that would see the concrete plant move several blocks north into a primarily industrial area.

Colonel Samuel Smith Park Skateboard Park

Another more recent issue that NTGN took on was the creation of a skateboard facility in Colonel Samuel Smith Park. The park is located at the foot of Lakeshore Road and Kipling Avenue, and is home to Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus, a water filtration plant, a new secondary school and port facilities for yachts and boats.

The park also has several hectares of natural parkland that is home to various animal and migrating bird species of Southern Ontario. The local councillor, Mark Grimes obtained $500,000 in funding for the creation of a skateboard facility for the area. The Sam Smith location was his first choice. After several e-mails against the skateboard park from local residents, NTGN started to raise awareness of the issue through its website, flyers, and numerous community meetings.

This forced councillor Grimes to hold several community consultation sessions regarding the location of the Skateboard Park. He even invited another councillor, Glenn De Baeremaeker of Scarborough that had a strong background when dealing with the environment to attend some of these meetings.[ii]

Councillor Grimes eventually saw how large the opposition was against the project, and decided to abandon and seek re-location of the proposed skateboard facility to another area.[iii] Although the councillor’s intentions were good – to provide local youth with a skateboard park, ultimately the location chosen faced very stiff opposition.

Manse Valley Community Association & Affordable Housing

When the environment and residential development clash, you know that it will involve some very passionate organizations and the individuals who run them. When the residential development is affordable housing, it becomes even more heated. Such is the case of one Toronto neighbourhood which has been at odds with a proposed development to build affordable housing on an existing woodlot.

In the 1950’s, the municipal government of Metro Toronto proposed a series of expressways to criss-cross the city. When public sentiment turned against the development of these highways in the 1970’s, a lot of land expropriated for these projects was left over. The Manse Valley in east Scarborough was located on such plot of land which served as a right-of-way for the Scarborough Expressway. Left untouched for over 50 years, the land grew to become a natural green space that is used by area residents and is home to many species of wildlife.

In 1999 the city began talks with Women’s Religious Projects (WRP) Neighbourhood Housing and Habitat for Humanity to develop the surplus Manse Valley land for over 50 homes for low income families. WRP Neighbourhood Housing is a religious organization that is run by 40 Orders (about 750 nuns). WRP was to donate $2.3 million in order to fund this affordable housing initiative. Habitat for Humanity Toronto is a well recognized non-profit, non-denominational Christian housing organization[iv]. Habitat for Humanity erects new homes for low income families that are often built with the help of the families that will live in the houses, local volunteers from the community and various other contractors. The organization also will provide interest-free mortgages to all families who move into their homes, using this money to fund additional future projects.

A local residents association, created just to fight this issue

Enter the local residents association, the Manse Valley Community Association (MVCA) which was established solely to fight the proposal to build the affordable housing. MVCA’s stance on the issue is that the land in question is covered by a large amount of mature trees that enhance the beauty of the local neighbourhood and allow local residents to enjoy the open green space, and therefore should not be cleared for development.

The MVCA also claims that the area, which is attached to a ravine, is also home to animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, rabbits and squirrels. Ever since local residents received a letter of intent of development from the city in 2004, the MVCA has been organizing community meetings and obtaining petitions from over 1,200 local area residents in order to try to designate the land as parkland, and prevent any type of development.

When the issue went to the local community council, they deferred it to the Toronto city council, who ruled in favour of the WRP & HHT proposal[v]. The affordable housing would go ahead, despite the efforts of the MVCA and the local area residents. The WRP & HHT alliance also had support from the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association (ONPHA), who in a June 2004 newsletter applauded the project.[vi]  Two very sensitive issues, three interest groups with two very different viewpoints, and both had tried to influence the local municipal government in order to progress their causes.

Toronto Environmental Alliance

When Etobicoke’s Ward 6 was rated amongst the poorest in air quality several years ago by the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), it got people talking[vii]. The ward, home to several large industries contains a mixture of large industries that contribute heavily to Toronto’s pollution problem.

The Toronto Environmental Alliance is an organization that according to their website promotes a greener Toronto and works with concerned individuals, community groups, professionals and workers on local issues. Of most concern to TEA are the various environmental issues the city is facing, such as the pollution, water, toxics and transit.

The organization relies on a number of volunteers and donations that help to progress TEA’s cause. TEA issues a monthly e-bulletin (e-mail) that it sends out to anyone who signs up on their website. It also publishes CouncilWatch, which is a monthly publication devoted the environmental issues being talked about at City Hall and in Toronto.

TEA has been in the headlines in the past few months. One of their biggest initiatives is to make industry accountable for the types and amount of pollutants they release in Toronto. TEA has on a number of occasions lobbied the municipal government to enact by-laws that will force every company to release pollution data[viii]. Currently only large industries are required by-law to release such data.

On a number of occasions TEA has also relied on the support of David Suzuki, one of Canada’s most famous environmentalists. By using such a well known public figure, it raises the public’s awareness of the organization. TEA also recently gave the Toronto Mayor, David Miller a C- for his environmental record. This was a grade down from a year before, when Miller and the Toronto City council received a B+[ix]. The reason for this TEA argued, is that the mayor and the council are all talk, but no action.

Interest groups can have both positive and negative influences on local government.

In the case of New Toronto Good Neighbours, the community group was able to persuade the city to move a concrete batching plant, and the local councillor not to locate a proposed skateboard facility in an environmentally sensitive area. The Manse Valley Community Association tried to stop a development of affordable housing. The organization was solely created to stop the development, and while their intent was to protect a woodlot, the Toronto city council thought otherwise.

The MVCA could be perceived as a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) organization because of the nature and location of the development. It could be argued that the only reason that the MVCA was set up was to protect the property values of the homes in the area. Affordable and low income housing carries a negative stigma with it. Residents fear that if such developments are built in their areas, the value of their homes will decrease. Affordable housing is definitely needed in this city as Toronto needs the proper mix of housing to cater to all income groups.

On the other hand, woodlots in Toronto are becoming rarer and rarer, and the recent announcement by the city to plant millions of trees in Toronto, contradicts the city council decision of allowing the WRP & Habitat for Humanity affordable housing development.

In the case of TEA, the influences are all positive. We live in a world with a heightened concern regarding the state of the environment, and all for a good reason. If Canada is to make its Kyoto emission targets, or if we are to reduce our greenhouse gasses by any level, it has to start from the ground up. The municipalities must get involved, and TEA is on the right track in persuading our local politicians to do something about the state of the environment in our cities.

References

  1. [i] New Toronto Good Neighbours: <<http://www.newtoronto.ca/about.html>>
  2. [ii] Councillor can’t endorse Sam Smith for skateboard park TAMARA SHEPHARD
  3. Sep. 21, 2006 <<http://www.insidetoronto.com/to/etobicoke/story/3693816p-4270114c.html?loc=etobicoke>>
  4. [iii] Sam Smith skateboard park plans officially dead, TAMARA SHEPHARD Sep. 26, 2006, Etobicoke Guardian  <<http://www.insidetoronto.com/to/etobicoke/story/3700966p-4278196c.html?loc=etobicoke>>
  5. [iv] Habitat for Humanity Website http://www.torontohabitat.on.ca
  6. [v] Manse Valley trees on chopping block Friday LISA QUEEN Mar. 22, 2007 http://www.insidetoronto.com/to/scarborough/story/3919980p-4531442c.html?loc=scarborough
  7. [vi] ONHPA Quick Connect, Manse Road project wins its first battle, Joy Connelly, June 2004, http://www.onpha.on.ca/news/quick_connections/doc/qc0604.pdf
  8. [vii] TEA Toronto Pollution Map – http://www.torontoenvironment.org/files/toxicmap.jpg
  9. [viii] Jeff Grey, Globe and Mail, “Toronto urged to guilt city polluters”, February 15, 2007 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070215.wsuzuki0215/BNStory
  10. [ix] Jim Byers “Miller touts green vision”, Feb 04, 2007, Toronto Star City Hall Bureau http://www.thestar.com/News/article/178090