John Sewell, Mayor of Toronto from 1978 to 1980, recalls a time when citizen-led groups had real political sway on matters that shaped the way the city developed. Now, he says, a dysfunctional Council and a lack of proper public engagement is crippling Toronto land use planning. Sewell outlines his battles against uncontrolled urban renewal, sprawl and the demolition of heritage structures in his new book titled How We Changed Toronto: The Inside Story of Twelve Creative, Tumultuous Years In Civic Life, 1968-1980

As Toronto grew in importance, overtaking Montreal as Canada's most populous city, an array of housing and infrastructure projects promised to change the cityscape forever. City Council generally saw this as a positive, often supporting the demolition of entire neighbourhoods in favour of new structures. Sewell sought to change Council's mindset in the 1960s by bringing together a strong group of concerned residents. He joined the Trefann Court Urban Renewal Area in a bid to stop the demolition of the east downtown neighbourhood. Proposed to be replaced by a series of high-rise housing projects, the Trefann Court fight was a sign of the times. After an intense wrangling, the City cancelled its plans to demolish the neighbourhood. It was the first major win for the reform movement that swept Toronto in the 1970's.

The front cover of 'How We Changed Toronto', image courtesy of John Sewell

Sewell's law degree from the University of Toronto prepared him for a long road of battles against the redevelopment of several other established city neighbourhoods, including St. James Town and Cabbagetown, areas he would go on to represent as a City Council alderman following the 1969 election. 

Sewell became the face of the reform movement and was elected mayor in 1978. During his two-year term, he introduced a monthly transit pass and froze fares, fought for police accountability and gay rights at a time when these topics were more or less taboo, and called for increased police accountability following a series of bathhouse raids and the shooting of a mentally-ill man named Albert Johnson. 

His mayoralty ended in 1980 with the election of Art Eggleton, but Sewell continued to serve on Council until 1984. He currently serves as Coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, a group which promotes the reform of police policies. How We Changed Toronto joins a vast collection of successful books written by Sewell, including Up Against City Hall (1972) and The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning (1993)

UrbanToronto had the privilege of interviewing John Sewell, who spoke about the successes of the past, the state of current city affairs, and how his book can act as a blueprint for the future. 

This image of John Sewell standing in front of a demolished home was used as a 1969 campaign poster, image courtesy of John Sewell

UrbanToronto: Reading this book, you begin to understand how much things have changed and how much has stayed the same. How has development evolved in the city from where it was in the 1960s and 1970s? 

John Sewell: What strikes me as interesting about the period now, 40 years later, is that we actually put in place a really brilliant way of addressing major city issues, which was to get a group of people together and maybe developers, environmentalists and social service people, and have them meet so that they can understand the issue and talk about it with staff and politicians. That's the way you can get really good outcomes.

When you look at how we created the Central Area Plan, that's exactly what we did. Until the early 1970's, we had a plan for the downtown that said it's all going to be office space. Well, people said no, we want more than that. The plan that we got was drafted by a core area task force of residents and developers and so forth, sitting down with the politicians and City staff saying let's work out some new principles and figure out how to proceed. That was the first time in North America that anybody had rethought their downtown. In the case of Toronto, it was pretty spectacular.

But of course now we're in the position where we again have to rethink the downtown. We're being overwhelmed with condo applications. Parts of the city are just being swamped with people that we can't accommodate for various reasons in terms of either transportation or parks or education. How do we rethink the downtown? I think we use the model we used for the Central Area Plan. Get a strong group of people together who begin to understand the issue, and meet with the politicians and the staff to figure out new directions to go in.

The other place we did that in the 70s was in creating a brand new downtown neighbourhood that we now call the St. Lawrence community, which was 45 acres of vacant, derelict land very close to the downtown. The question was: how do you develop it? Well, we did not say "oh staff, tell us what to do", we again set up a working committee, they met with staff and politicians and that's how we created what I think you can call a brilliant plan. The thing about the St. Lawrence community is forty years later it still works. One of the reasons it worked was because people said "you have to make it like the rest of the city, don't try and do anything special." Those are two examples of how you can make really smart long term decisions. I would argue, if you don't do that, you end up making messes. 

Looking north on Jarvis Street in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, image by Marcus Mitanis

The point is it's taken forever to get anywhere. Waterfront Toronto has been meeting for what, 20 years? When it came to St. Lawrence, our first meetings were in 1974. The first building was under construction in 1976. Two years. We didn't fool around. The reason we didn't fool around was because we had a group of citizens driving it. Unless we make that link, we're not going to get things done. The way the City tries to make that link now is through public meetings. Sorry, public meetings are not the way to go. You really need a serious committee where people get to know each other, know the issue, and get to control the politicians and City staff. The role we played in both the St. Lawrence and the Central Area Plan was to say "hey, wait a minute, you have to think about this and this, there's a whole bunch of issues." But public hearings, where everyone gets to spout off what they think, is a way of not taking people seriously.

UT: You don't think it's a proper dialogue. 

JS: No, and what you need is a dialogue over a period of time. The thing about having a committee is that at its first meeting everybody says what they think. At the second meeting, what usually happens is everybody says what they think but they modify it based on what they heard at the first meeting. Then at the third meeting, people actually start talking and say "what can we agree on?" That's the kind of process you have to set up. If there's any lesson whatsoever from this book, that's the lesson.

If you look at the chapter that tells the tale about failure, it was my fight against sprawl. Since the early 70s, I said low density, separated uses in the suburbs is the wrong way to go. I was never able to get a group together that would try and control that issue, and of course no developers ever wanted that, so I didn't get anywhere on that issue. Today, we've still got the same old sprawl. The problem is all the local people around the development area of a new subdivision want to sell their land. They're farmers and they're finally going to get retirement money. So it's very difficult.

That's the lesson of the book I think. If you can get a really strong group of people you can do some really amazing things. There's no question, the city we created back then is so much better than it was. As a lot of people say, in terms of what's in North America, it's really good. In spite of the problems that you and I know are around here. My wife was telling me that she was talking to somebody who had run into a whole bunch of planners who had come here from Portland. They were asked about their impressions of Toronto and they said, "what we can't get over is there's people on all the streets, the streets are really vibrant." We take that for granted.

New towers rise in the King-Spadina area, image by Marcus Mitanis

UT: You've talked about development in the city. What's the state of heritage preservation currently? The two are closely related. 

JS: It's not terrific, it could be a lot better. The City has always believed in the future and they've never really believed in the past, and that's a problem. We've made some attempts to save a few buildings here and there, the 'gems', but in terms of the 'ordinary' stuff, we junk it pretty quickly. I think that the City could have a really vibrant program that makes sure you're building in with a lot of the past rather than trying to get rid of it and start over again.

One of the ways of doing that I think is by making intensification really easy as opposed to replacement. We tried to put good, easy zoning controls into place in King-Spadina in the mid 90's and they're a mess as you can see with these giant towers which are not what we ever said should happen. But I think the other thing we have to do is we have to make sure that we're allowing development opportunity in areas where there aren't heritage buildings that you're trying to retain. For example, along Eglinton, Lawrence and St. Clair. Minor stuff of four to six storey buildings as-of-right. So you have to do a lot of things to be serious about heritage but you cannot just save the superstars of the past.

UT: You touch on heritage preservation quite a lot in your book.

JS: I tell the story about how we got started with heritage through the notion of listing buildings. It was a pretty interesting device we created where you didn't have to spend a lot of money. We had 400 buildings on that list, that's what we started with. We don't want to just have the stars, we want to have that stuff that's on Queen Street, that's 'ordinary' from the past.

UT: What about Heritage Conservation Districts? Are they a more appropriate way of saving heritage by doing it in bulk? 

JS: You want to allow for intensification. One of the really interesting things we did was in Cabbagetown where we put in a lot of assistive housing. It's now a heritage district and we wouldn't be able to do that today. That's the problem with the heritage districts because you don't want to freeze anything. You always want to allow change. But it's got to be appropriate change. This idea that stable residential neighbourhoods will not be changed, no, they should be changed with slow, gradual, small intensification.

A St. James Town apartment tower overlooks Cabbagetown homes, image by Marcus Mitanis

UT: What do you think is the number one issue facing Toronto today?

JS: The number one issue for City Hall is money. It doesn't have the money it needs to do things and it refuses to raise property taxes to a level that would help it. Property taxes are the lowest in the Greater Toronto Area. If we raised it to about the middle of the GTA that would be an extra $500 million a year. We could really use that money. Secondly, the City should be asking for more taxing power. We should be able to levy a sales tax so that we can actually generate the money we need. This idea that we're going to beg other levels of government for money… no level of government wants to raise money to turn it over to Toronto.

This is a dysfunctional Council. The megacity was meant to be dysfunctional. I don't think we're going to get anywhere with this Council because the politicians representing the suburbs generally don't believe in government spending money. The former City of Toronto that I was mayor of never had a problem with spending money. As long as you're spending it wisely, people will support you.

UT: Mayor Miller did introduce the Vehicle Registration Tax and Land Transfer Tax, which were both fairly unpopular.

JS: I believe they're unpopular in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke. In downtown Toronto, I don't think they're all that unpopular. There's a difference in culture between people who live in mixed use, dense communities and people who live in single use communities that are sprawling. If you live in the middle of the city where you're surrounded by all sorts of people, some of who are poor or homeless, you end up caring about them a lot more and you're willing to spend money on them.

As I say in the book, the City of Toronto in 1905 adopted this brilliant policy that said recreation is really good for kids, so it's going to be free. It was free until the megacity came along. What kind of city do we want?

UT: Free recreation programs was something Rob Ford rallied against. What's your opinion on Rob Ford? 

JS: He's a very scary guy and this is an age that produces scary politicians. He's not the only one, I think Stephen Harper is exactly the same. They appeal to people's worst instincts rather than people's best instincts. I see that as a problem. I want a politician who is going to ask me to be the best kind of person I can be. This idea of wedge issues is absolutely dangerous in terms of what it does to the commonwealth of people working together. There's no question that various things feed into the popularity of those kinds of politicians and I think it's absolutely shocking and absolutely awful.

UT: On the planning side of things, do you think Jennifer Keesmaat has been doing a good job so far? 

JS: I think if we have a good Chief Planner we'll have some really good plans. I haven't seen them yet. As I say, I think the way to get them is by forming this reference group together and re-plan the downtown. We're not going to be overwhelmed by condos, we need to find just the right balance. Just as 40 years ago we said we weren't going to be overwhelmed by office towers. I don't see her doing that.

Old City Hall, now a heritage building, has been threatened with demolition in the past, image by Marcus Mitanis

UT: Old City Hall was threatened with demolition in the past, which you fought against. You've probably heard the news about the building possibly becoming a shopping mall. When the courts leave the space, what would you like to see occupy the building?

JS: I think we need to do the same thing and bring a group together. Maybe it's not one use, maybe it's five or six uses. I certainly think the uses should be more public than private. But what those are, I'm not quite sure at the moment.

UT: On less serious notes—are you following any particular Toronto sports teams lately?

JS: I'm a Blue Jays fan at the moment. I like them when they win. I've always had an interest in baseball. I find it a very nice game to watch.

UT: Do you have a favourite restaurant in the city?

JS: The old favourite is Le Paradis on Bedford Road. It's old, standard and we know what we're going to get.

UT: What do you like doing for fun in the city?

JS: I go to a lot of theatre. I'm quite a fan of Soulpepper. Theatre's something I like a lot.

UT: People have often felt disengaged from politics. They feel they can't make a difference. How would you advise somebody who is striving to achieve change? 

JS: Start looking at an issue you're concerned about and figure out who else you can talk to about it. That's something I often do. As an example I had lunch with a friend last week and we began talking about the next municipal election. You have to create a group that's going to meet a whole bunch of times so they get to know each other and share useful information and learn from each other.

UT: Has social media helped connect people in ways that weren't necessarily possible in the past?

JS: The problem with social media is that it talks about instant results. It's like talk radio, which I think makes for a worse world, not a better world.

UT: There were a lot of big battles you were involved in, from stopping the Spadina Expressway to saving the homes on the Toronto Island. What would you say was your toughest fight?

JS: The toughest fight by far was with the Toronto Police. After they killed Albert Johnson, my speech was a simple one: we have to have a change in police policies so they don't act this way anymore. They have to be trained better, get rid of height and weight restrictions and have a complaints commission. Of course the minute I said that, the world collapsed on me. Paul Godfrey, the Metro Chairman, attacked me. He went to a meeting of the police association and said, "Sewell wants to go after the cop on the beat", and then they really went after me.

It resurfaced at the election. I know the issue was a big one because after I lost, they took their revenge. They did bathhouse raids two months after the election and the officers were quoted as saying "now that we got rid of Sewell, we can run the city the way we want to." That was the toughest fight and not much has changed with the police in the last 40 years. 

UT: Your support for gay rights was a brave position to take considering the time. 

JS: The world has changed. The province came in and made it so you can't discriminate against a person on the basis of their sexuality anymore. Now we're so relaxed we have a Premier who is happily married and the world says this is fine. I was speaking out early on and you pay a cost for that. But in my opinion, the cost was certainly worth it. I think I did exactly the right thing at the right time and the fact it had bad consequences for me, ho hum, that's life.

UT: You're a significant part of the team at the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition. What inspires you to keep working? 

JS: I enjoy public policy issues. Do I see it as a chore? Some days, but most days no.

John Sewell and his latest book: 'How We Changed Toronto', image by Marcus Mitanis

UT: Finally, what message are you hoping your book really drives home? 

JS: I think the book provides a bit of a blueprint as to how we can move forward and deal with the problems we've got today. What's amazing is it really worked back then and people of all political stripes fit in with it. There were 23 members of Council and we were all over the map. Some were Conservative, Liberal, NDP, or independent like me. We had to put our ideas on the table and figure out how to work together. Council is much too large now. I don't believe you can have a reasonable discussion if you've got more than 25 people around the table. So we're going to have to have a smaller Council before we get anywhere.

I happen to think the megacity is bad because it forces these two different cultures to try and mix issues together and I don't like that. I want to get back to the metropolitan style of government. I think that's the rational and reasonable way to go. I think if Council asked for it, the province would probably agree. Kathleen Wynne and I worked on fighting the megacity. We were the head of Citizens for Local Democracy.

UT: We had a referendum that rejected the idea of amalgamation by a significant margin. 

JS: We had a referendum and 76% said no. Mike Harris and his gang said there was a silent majority in favour of it. But the problem is the city won't ask. The province can't go around saying they're going to dismember Toronto, they have to wait for the request.

UT: There has been talk about de-amalgamation before. It would be interesting to see what would happen if it were put to a binding vote. It's been a pleasure, thank you for your time. 

John Sewell's book is particularly interesting given the intense development pressure the city is facing. Toronto's increasing international presence is not unlike the growth it experienced as it overtook Montreal, and the same questions regarding heritage preservation and infrastructure keeping pace with development are just as relevant today. Toronto, often called a city of neighbourhoods, may look to this book as a guide to a future that balances the need for development with the desire to protect what has made it the vibrant metropolis it is today. How We Changed Toronto: The Inside Story of Twelve Creative, Tumultuous Years In Civic Life, 1968-1980, is on store shelves now and can be ordered directly from James Lorimer and Company