Toronto's municipal election is now just 100 days away. This urbanist and public space advocate may end up being John Tory's highest profile challenger.
People walk in front of Toronto City Hall. (Chris Kitching/CP24)
Published Sunday, July 17, 2022 6:00AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, July 17, 2022 7:12AM EDT
A prominent urbanist has joined the Toronto mayoral race, telling CP24.com that the “city is falling apart” and needs a shakeup in its leadership.
Gil Penalosa, who is the founder of the non-profit organization 8 80 Cities, officially filed his paperwork to run this week.
He is the 12th candidate to throw his hat into the ring so far but becomes, arguably, the highest profile challenger to John Tory with only 100 days to go until Torontonians head to the polls on Oct. 24.
“Honestly I was waiting for someone to run and I would have worked for them. If (former mayoral candidate) Jennifer Keesmaat had run, if (former city councillor) Joe Cressy had run, if (former city councillor) Kristyn Wong-Tam had run I would have given my time to work for them,” Penalosa told CP24.com this week, “If I had seen anyone that has similar ideas as I do running, I would not have run but I don't see anyone that really is going to fight for affordability, for equity and for sustainability and I don't see anyone that is going to fight for a city for everyone.”
Penalosa has been a long-time advocate for creating better public spaces and has also spoken out frequently about road safety issues in the City of Toronto.
He has more than 25,000 followers on Twitter but is perhaps best known as the founder of 8 80 cities, which has worked behind the scenes with more than 350 communities worldwide on open streets events and other projects aimed at enhancing public spaces.
Penalosa understands the odds are stacked against him in taking on a popular incumbent with significant campaign resources like Tory, telling CP24.com that he is “not dumb.”
But he says that “win or lose,” he hopes to drive a conversation about the city that Torontonians want to live in.
For him, that is a city in which public spaces are an “absolute priority” and are funded accordingly.
To that end, he is proposing cancelling the rebuild of the Gardiner Expressway East “immediately” and redirecting the more than $2 billion budgeted for it to other initiatives, like protected bike lanes, new parks projects and streetscape improvements.
He also wants to remove red tape that would make it easier for empty-nesters to turn their existing homes into multi-unit dwellings, as part of a wider strategy to address the city’s housing crisis.
“Everyone thinks that (John) Tory is going to win easily against anyone because that's what the polls say. But I actually think that's a shame and I feel bad about Toronto with that because I think that anybody who would run if Tory was not running, I think they should also run with Tory running,” he told CP24.com. “Elections, it's about ideas, it's about actions, it’s about presenting different ideas on how to do things.”
Candidates still have one month to register
Candidates still have until Aug. 19 to register to run for mayor but with that date fast approaching it is possible that no current councillor decides to enter the race.
Several high-profile councillors, like Cressy and Wong Tam, have indeed already left city hall.
That could ultimately leave Penalosa, who has never before sought public office, as Tory’s primary challenger from the left.
“Look, I'm not in this for any political calculation. I'm not going to run four years from now, this is not to position my name. This is not about finding work with Tory. It has nothing to do with that,” Penalosa told CP24.com. “I am not playing political games and not doing political calculations. I mean, if I was doing any political calculation, then I would not run. But I'm thinking more what am I going to do with my life? Would this be a good contribution to the community that I chose? Is this a good way to give back to the city?”
Tory has said that part of his reason for seeking a third term was borne out of a desire to move ahead with some projects which had to be put on the backburner during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has spoken about a desire to see through on a commitment to build 40,000 new affordable housing unit over the next decade and continue to expand Toronto’s transit system, through projects like the Scarborough subway extension and the Ontario Line.
However, he has not yet released a platform and it is unclear when he plans to shift his attention to the campaign.
“I have a job to do it and it is a job I take very seriously. I've worked day and night on that job for years now and especially during the pandemic and I will continue to do that because I have the responsibility,” he told CP24 in May. “I also look forward to participating in a campaign because I'd like to set out some of the thoughts I have for the future but in the meantime, I'm completely occupied doing my job as mayor.”
Tory will have big name recognition advantage
Of the 11 candidates who have registered to run against Tory none, including Penalosa, have anywhere near his profile.
Most don't even have campaign websites.
There is one other somewhat familiar name on the list in Sarah Climenhaga, who finished sixth in the 2018 race with nearly 4,800 votes. Tory finished with nearly 480,000, taking about 63 per cent of the popular vote.
“I think the city needs something better. I mean, John Tory has done a great job as far as I'm concerned, but I think he could do better. So the question for me isn't am I going to be able to win or not? The question is do I have something to offer and should I bring it forward and share it with other residents of Toronto?” Climenhaga told CP24.com this week. “You know if you had an Olympics and only let the most likely to win in that would be a pretty boring Olympics.”
Climenhaga told CP24.com that she is “primarily running as a resident” who has raised three children in Toronto and doesn’t need to “go to committee meetings or Zoom conferences” to know what needs fixing.
She says that the top issues for her are the same as they are for many candidates, housing and transit in particular, but she said that the city also has to be designed in a way that makes sense for its residents.
“Streets are public space so I want all of us to be able to use them. I want people who need to drive to be able to drive in a way that's not frustrating and not stuck in gridlock, I want people who want to take transit to be able to take a fast transit route ad I want people who want to bike and who want to walk, whether it's for two blocks or the length of the city, to be able to do so without getting struck and killed by someone driving a car,” she said. “I think our streets are for our all of the people in our city. And right now they are still too focused on trying to move cars quickly and they're not even doing that.”
If Tory is re-elected and serves the entire four-year term he would become Toronto’s longest serving mayor, exceeding the 11 years that Art Eggleton spent in office.