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City halls need to match the fast pace of city life: Matt Elliott

Brian Kelcey, left, with Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki. Kelcey says urban planning needs to factor in the value of speed.
Brian Kelcey, left, with Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki. Kelcey says urban planning needs to factor in the value of speed.

As I get older, I’ve started to think about the municipal projects under debate in terms of how old I’ll be when they’re finally completed.

I’ll probably be past 35 by the time Toronto finally approves a comprehensive plan for laneway housing, for example. I’ll be in my 40s before the next major phase of waterfront development is complete. And when the first train rolls down the tracks of the city’s long-planned downtown relief subway line, the odds say I could pay the seniors’ fare.

Thinking about city building probably shouldn’t make me contemplate my own mortality, but such is the nature of city government in Canada. Things move slowly at city halls.

But slowness doesn’t need to be the status quo. Recently, some Canadian cities have shown a desire to streamline their processes, all in the service of moving a little faster.

Last week, the City of Vancouver announced a pilot project designed to speed up the approval process for low-density development.

In Toronto, a city report released last spring showed that permitting round-the-clock construction can halve completion time and reduces costs by 10 to 20 per cent.

And in Montreal, a new 67-stop LRT plan backed by the province’s pension fund has moved from announcement to environmental review in less than a year. That’s furiously fast for a transit project.

Brian Kelcey, an urban planning consultant with experience working in the mayor’s office in Winnipeg, highlights these kinds of things as examples of what he calls “fast government.” He wants to see more of it.

“We have these decision-making processes that worry about cost and they worry about consultation – and those are all important things – but we haven’t really built any of our systems to factor in the value of speed,” he tells me.

Kelcey points to a bunch of things that tend to gum up the gears of government. Local politicians too often fall prey to a “desperate urge to accommodate everyone – no matter how impractical.” Cities hold endless public consultation meetings even on issues where the outcome is inevitable.

And there’s still a reluctance to adopt the tested solutions of other cities. “We often use pilot projects to re-learn the lessons that other cities have already piloted,” Kelcey adds.

There’s no single lever for speeding up government, but Kelcey believes a part of it is a pretty simple shift in thinking.

“It needs to be a cultural change of managers, of councillors, of mayors, of citizens actually acknowledging out loud that there’s a virtue to speed,” he says.

Makes sense to me. I’ll start. I’m Matt, I live in a city I want to see grow and improve — and I’ve got a need for speed.

This post was originally published at on 2017-03-14T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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