An open letter to my city:
Toronto, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.
Perched on the shore of a sparkling blue lake and lined with ravines and parks, your place in this world promises so much.
Your greatness as a city doesn’t quite live up to the greatness of your place. You—we—could be so much more.
In the local paper recently, a prominent columnist called you out. “Toronto’s relationship with mediocrity has been internalized by the public, politicians and pundits alike,” he writes. “With the last remaining jot of ambition now carefully squeezed from city hall, Toronto has reached a point where few seem bothered about the city’s march toward self-induced irrelevance.”
I agree with the complaint. But also, I do not agree. I am bothered by the march toward irrelevance. I am very much bothered.
You could be one of the most vibrant, prosperous places in the entire world to live. The only thing holding you back is your all-consuming unwillingness to dream. To aim higher. To speak of excellence. I’m sorry if that’s harsh. But you need to hear it.
You, Toronto, are beautiful. You are also a city where blobs of sewage float in your harbour on an all-too-regular-basis. My friends’ kids play “pick up the plastic” when they visit your beaches. The fish swimming in your lake carry toxins and microfibres in their flesh. Is this what you want for yourself? It’s not what I want for you. I think you have more potential than this.
You must choose the future you want, Toronto. But you are running out of time.
We are in an era of “shifting baselines”. What was wild and natural is fading from your residents’ collective memory. We can look closely and find echoes of the maritime life that created you. Your name and the names of the streets that pre-date the arrivals of Europeans remind us of our connection to water. But the connection is fractured. The St. Lawrence Fish Market opens onto a parking lot, not a dock. The Ports building opens onto an expressway, not a wharf. My beloved Black Creek is more concrete than dirt. You are not what you once were. Your place is not what it once was.
There are people trying to restore the connection. Some love water and life by the water. Some have traditional knowledge to hold. Some are practical and simply want to ensure that the next deluge of rain that falls has somewhere safe to flow.
But there are people here who also insist, wrongly but emphatically, that water can be managed. So-called experts speak of “working rivers” and “urban waters”. They apply these labels to your nooks and crannies, as if nature stays away from such places. As if the people who live on the Harbour and in Etobicoke are less deserving of clean air, clean water, health, and opportunity. They aren’t.
You, Toronto, should shrug off these labels. Don’t let them stick. Don’t let them confine you. Your rivers are rivers. Your water is water. Your beaches are beaches. No caveats. No restrictions.
At the risk of contradicting myself, there is one dirty label I’d like to you to keep, Toronto. Just for a few more years. It’s not a nice one, and I’m sorry. But it’s for the best.
I’d like you to keep calling your waters “Impaired” for a while, to recognize the aesthetic problems on your waterfront. It’s a formal designation that government sets to indicate that we aren’t happy with the state of your waters. It’s a public pledge to do more to protect your waters. And it’s the public’s only chance to hold government to that pledge.
“Aesthetics” sounds like a superficial issue, so let me explain. I want your waters to be free of unnatural colours and odours. I want to see fish and birds in the harbour, not plastics and condoms. I want these things because I know that means public health is protected and aquatic life can thrive. I want these things because I know that one good day on the water can inspire someone to dedicate a lifetime to protecting it.
I know you’re eager to be free of a designation that shone a spotlight on your water quality problems for the last thirty years. You want to be able to declare victory and celebrate. We all do.
But it isn’t time yet, Toronto.
If you are willing to keep the label, uncomfortable as it is, we will rally around you. We will help you sort out those persistent problems that make people fear your waters (mostly raw sewage). We can raise a new generation of Torontonians who know what clean water really looks like. Who will speak up when they see problems. Who will solve the problems from the past. Who will expect more and demand more. Who will sever your ties to mediocrity and set you free.