The City of Toronto has undertaken a study to review the boundaries of Toronto's 44 municipal wards, seeking to ensure that all Toronto residents are equally represented by City Councillors. The city's recent growth, punctuated by gluts of high-rise construction in select areas, has seen the population of some wards swell disproportionally to as much as 45 percent larger than the city average.
An uneven distribution of population growth means that the weight of votes throughout the city is becoming unbalanced, with larger—and more quickly growing—wards receiving less political representation per capita compared to their smaller counterparts. For example, while Ward 23 (Willowdale) now reports a population of over 88,000 residents, Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) has maintained a population of roughly 45,000.
As Ward 23 grew an astounding 11.9% percent in the years between 2006 and 2011, Ward 29 maintained a relatively static population growth rate of 0.2% over the same period. This comparison reflects the unbalanced rates of population growth throughout the city, which, in this case exacerbate what was already a stark population difference between the two wards. In terms of political representation, the imbalance means that each vote in the more populous ward can effectively be worth half as much political capital as a vote in the much smaller constituency.
The need to periodically re-align political boundaries is normal for most cities, as rates of population change are never universally even across a municipal area. Now, 15 years after the current Ward structure was implemented, the City of Toronto has recognized the imbalance within the system, appointing an independent commission to propose and study a range of solutions. Known as 'Draw the Lines,' the ongoing study has combined expert opinion with ongoing public consultations to draft the recently released 'Option Report,' which outlines five possible solutions to the current situation:
- Minimal Change: Maintains the current boundaries of most wards, while select ward boundaries are re-drawn, creating three new wards (for a total of 47) and an average of 61,000 residents per ward. This option leaves most borders intact, preserving the current institutional framework, but providing relatively little balance to existing population disparities. However, the proposal is minimally disruptive to councilors and constituents, largely maintaining the relationships that exist now.
The 'Minimal Change' option, image courtesy of 'Drawing the Lines'
- Maintain: Keeps the current structure of 44 wards, re-drawing the boundaries of in order to balance population, bringing the average ward size up to 70,000 residents. Despite the number of councilors remaining the same, each ward would represent a larger average number of residents. The new boundaries would also potentially disrupt existing relationships between councilors and constituents.
- Small Wards: Increases the total number of wards to 58, with an average population of approximately 50,000. Under this proposal, wards throughout the city would fluctuate in size between 45,000 and 55,000 residents. Despite involving a significant reconfiguration of boundaries (which entails a loss of institutional knowledge), this option presents the best ratio of councillors to residents, improving people's contact with "city hall".
- Large Wards: Shrinks the total number of wards to 38, with an average population of 75,000. This option would entail significant variance in ward size, with populations ranging from approximately 68,000 to 83,000. Saves money, but dilutes votes while hampering contact between individual constituents and their councilor.
- Natural Boundaries: A complete re-conceptualization of the ward system, reducing the number of wards to 41 and re-drawing boundaries based on topography and physical barriers. Rivers, highways, and hydro corridors would determine constituency boundaries, creating (comparatively) unequally populated wards with an average size of 70,000 residents. While the natural and infrastructural boundaries serve to keep existing communities in the same ward, this proposal is not particularly fine-tuned to address current population imbalances and future growth. A significant departure from both the current structure and other proposals.
All of the proposed approaches have their respective strengths and weaknesses. Pivotal differences between many of the proposals include a wide range of average population sizes, a variably firm commitment to equally balanced wards, and a diverse set of paradigms outlining what factors—whether socio-economic, physical, and/or cultural—should influence where boundaries are drawn.
In terms of the differences in average ward population between the five proposals, which range from 50,000 to 75,000, the pivotal compromise comes between cost and representation. Smaller wards mean that resident voices are more thoroughly represented on City Council, while the lower populations also facilitate more contact between a councilor and her constituents. Larger wards would forgo these benefits in favour of lower costs, with a smaller bureaucracy equating lower municipal expenses and a marginally decreased tax burden.
Beyond a considerable degree of variability in average population size, balancing the size of wards also entails some contentious issues. While it is generally agreed that a growing imbalance in ward sizes is problematic, a perfect equilibrium is almost impossible to reach, especially in the longer term, given the inevitable variability in rates of population growth. This leaves us with difficult questions. Should the boundaries be drawn to approach balanced sizes now, or should they take into account projections of population growth in order to achieve a longer-term equilibrium? And, given that no perfect balance is possible, how much variability in is acceptable?
What makes these questions even more complex is the social harms that potentially arise in creating balanced wards. If the City were to strongly commit to making populations as balanced as possible, the new boundaries would likely not be particularly sensitive to the social and physical boundaries that exist between Toronto's many communities. If a close-knit community were politically cut in half—effectively diluting its voice on City Council—in order to balance ward populations across Toronto, would the trade-off be worth it? Perhaps not. On the other hand, keeping such a community intact as a voting bloc can come at the cost of (somewhat) more imbalanced political representation across city wards.
Due to the complex nature of these issues, 'Draw the Lines' is strongly committed to drawing on public input to guide the recommendations. In drafting the current report, significant public engagement was sought, with a comprehensive series of consultations informing the current proposals. Now that options for ward boundaries have been developed, a second series of public consultations is underway, designed to determine which of the options best meets the needs of Toronto residents, as well as the scope of further adjustments to the proposals.
Public engagement forms a crucial part of determining policy. Since wards—and their City Councillors—ultimately exist to serve Toronto residents, the process that shapes them should also be publicly directed. Following the second round of public consultations, 'Draw the Lines' is expected to submit a final report to City Council outlining their recommendations in the Spring of 2016. More information, including an online ward boundary survey, is available on the 'Draw the Lines' website here.