Prominent urbanist Gil Penalosa joins Toronto mayoral race

Gil Penalosa knows cities. And he’s hoping he knows this one well enough to become its next mayor.

The prominent urbanist who has advised municipal leaders from Bogota to Bangalore is set enter Toronto’s mayoral race, the Star has learned. And while he’s far from a household name, with the Oct. 24 election fast approaching and the city’s progressive establishment yet to put forward its own candidate, Penalosa will arguably become two-term incumbent John Tory’s most prominent challenger when he registers at city hall on Thursday.

Penalosa, 65, says he’s running in part because no high-profile left-wing candidate has emerged, and the problems Toronto is facing around issues like housing and climate change are so urgent the city can’t afford four more years of the status quo.

“Toronto has become less affordable, less equitable, less sustainable” under eight years of Tory, he said in an interview. “I think the city is falling apart. I think we see symptoms every day.”

Penalosa, who is married with three grown children, is likely best known as the founder of 8 80 Cities, a non-profit that advocates for public spaces that are accessible to people of all ages.

A native of Colombia, before coming to the GTA two decades ago he served as parks commissioner of Bogota, where he says he led the construction of more than 200 parks. He also expanded the city’s Ciclovia initiative that allows residents on foot and on bicycles to take over city roadways every Sunday. The program has been emulated around the world, and Penalosa says he’s worked on sustainable transportation and related issues in 350 cities.

His record as a champion of parks could give him a point of attack against Tory, who has struggled to complete his legacy project, Raildeck Park. This year he’s also come under fire for the state of public amenities in the city’s green spaces. Tory has pushed staff to address the issue.

But Penalosa says those shuttered washrooms and inoperable fountains are signs of a city that’s been allowed to fall into disrepair, as are other common sights like broken escalators in subway stations and overflowing public garbage bins.

He says he would invest in public amenities by setting different priorities in the city’s budget, starting by cancelling the rebuild of the Gardiner Expressway, which is expected to cost $2 billion over ten years.

To get more housing built, he would permit buildings between five and eight storeys tall on all major corridors served by transit, like Dundas St., Queen St., and Davenport St.

In an effort to reduce traffic injuries he would also lower speed limits on all streets within 500 metres of schools, libraries, community centres, and parks to 30 km/h, and would boost transit by installing more dedicated streetcar lanes.

Penalosa has never run for public office and concedes he will be a long-shot to unseat Tory, who is broadly popular and will have greater resources at his disposal. Penalosa predicts his own campaign won’t be able to afford lawn signs, and will instead give supporters instructions on how to make their own.

“I’m going to give it my best,” he said. “It’s not about the polls. I do think that we need to have new ideas.”

He’s putting together a team made up of volunteers, including Andrew Athanasiu, who is helping Penalosa with policy. Community worker Diana Chan McNally, a vocal advocate on homelessness issues, will also be on the team.

Athanasiu is chief of staff to Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s). The councillor says he has not endorsed any candidate for mayor and any staffers campaigning are doing so on their own time.

Penalosa isn’t the only one running against Tory. As of Wednesday afternoon, 11 people had signed up for the mayoral race, the registration for which closes Aug. 19.

A familiar name on the ballot is Sarah Climenhaga, who came sixth in the 2018 mayoral election with almost 4,800 votes, compared with Tory’s 480,000.

The environmental advocate agrees housing, transit and road safety are top issues facing the city, and promises to work with people across the political spectrum to address them.

She’s less willing than Penalosa to criticize the mayor’s record, saying Tory’s had an unenviable job steering Toronto through the pandemic. But she believes she could do a better job, in part by accelerating initiatives the mayor has pursued. She says projects like the King St. transit pilot, CaféTO, and zoning reform to allow more housing have shown results, but the city needs more of them.

“I don’t think we need to be so fearful of change,” she said. “Why not faster?”

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr


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