Gil Penalosa is eager to share his ideas about how to fix Toronto with anyone who’s ready to listen. And even with those who aren’t.
As the 65-year-old first-time mayoral candidate canvassed the shops on Roncesvalles Avenue on a rainy morning recently, he popped into a bakery to pitch his vision for a “Toronto for everybody.”
When a woman pushing a stroller replied that she was American and can’t vote in the municipal election, Penalosa, undeterred, followed her out the door, calling down the street about his plans to make the city better for citizens of all ages, including young kids like hers.
“It’s the most important age,” he explained.
The exchange was typical of Penalosa, an internationally respected advocate for sustainable urbanism who built his reputation, and sometimes faced controversy, while advancing forward-thinking park initiatives as a city official in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia more than two decades ago. His excitement for talking municipal policy is such that once he gets started, he’s likely to unleash a flurry of ideas that quickly becomes an avalanche.
As he strolled down Roncesvalles handing out campaign flyers and chatting to residents, it was often hard for anyone else to get a word in edgewise as he launched into detailed explanations of his plans to reduce transit fares, build more cycling infrastructure and expand Toronto’s tree canopy.
Even his supporters concede Penalosa’s enthusiasm can sometimes be exhausting. But they say it’s exactly what Toronto needs. In the past two months he’s released a steady drumbeat of campaign proposals and, in a field thin on high-profile challengers, has emerged as Mayor John Tory’s biggest rival. While he remains a long-shot in the Oct. 24 contest, Penalosa and his backers are hoping the power of his ideas will attract a critical mass of voters eager for a change after eight years of Tory’s centre-right leadership.
“Gil’s energy is infectious and it can be overwhelming. But he’s got so much passion for city building,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, the NDP MPP for Toronto Centre and a “huge fan” of Penalosa’s.
There are signs his message is gaining traction. As of Sept. 22, his campaign said it had raised almost $170,000, more than halfway to its goal. His team now has a half-dozen paid staffers and claims hundreds of volunteers.
He’s still likely to be badly financially outmuscled by Tory, however, who netted $2.7 million in campaign contributions in the 2018 election. The mayor’s closest competitor that year, Jennifer Keesmaat, raised almost $600,000.
The thread running through Penalosa’s campaign is that Toronto is a good place to live, but its timid leadership has held it back. To join the ranks of great global cities like Paris, London or New York, he argues, Toronto needs a bold mayor.
Tory has shown a “lack of vision and action” on pressing issues like the housing crisis that is “almost shameful,” Penalosa said in an interview. “He’s been there for eight years, and you cannot even think of one significant project he has done.”
Penalosa’s view of Toronto’s place in the world is informed by his extensive international career. He was born into a prominent middle-class family in Bogota, Colombia, and earned a master of business administration from UCLA in 1984. From 1995 to 1998 he served as parks commissioner of Bogota, where he led the development of more than 200 public parks, and helped expand the city’s Ciclovía car-free streets program into an event that’s since been emulated around the world.
He relocated to Canada about 20 years ago and founded the advocacy group 8 80 Cities, based around the idea that streets and other infrastructure should be designed to accommodate citizens from eight to 80 years old, not just able-bodied adults.
In 2013 he founded a consultancy firm, and has travelled the world advising policymakers on how to create walkable, bikeable, livable cities, with ideas implemented by himself and his brother Enrique, who served two terms as Bogota mayor, as a model.
Sergio Montero, associate professor of urban planning at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, said Penalosa’s belief in the transformative power of public parks, a major theme of his mayoral campaign and advocacy, is attributable to the role the facilities played in addressing the social crises facing Colombia in the 1990s.
At the time, Bogota and other cities in the country had become synonymous with violence and instability. The creation of safe, high quality public spaces “became a very important instrument” for municipalities to foster a “citizenship culture” that helped restore faith in government, Montero said.
According to Colombian media reports, more than 20 years ago authorities there investigated a contract the city awarded to a company linked to him and his family shortly before he became parks commissioner. The Star has not independently confirmed details of the investigation, which is no longer active.
Penalosa says the allegations about the contract are part of a vendetta waged by opponents of his brother, a prominent figure in Colombian politics. Gil said the investigation, which he cooperated with, found no evidence of wrongdoing, and the allegations are “absolutely false.”
After registering for the mayor’s race on July 14, Penalosa, an avid runner, kicked off his campaign with a weeklong walk through Toronto’s parks, from Etobicoke to Scarborough.
Among the raft of campaign planks released so far, he has pledged to install food kiosks and legalize alcohol consumption in city parks, and to winterize public washrooms and fountains so residents can enjoy outdoor recreation all year.
He’s proposed addressing Toronto’s housing crisis by scrapping zoning rules that prohibit anything but single-family homes in much of the city, enabling a “renovation revolution” that would make it easier to subdivide homes into rental units, and legalizing rooming houses citywide.
To reduce traffic collisions he would lower speed limits on neighbourhood streets to 30 km/h and ban right turns on red lights, and has pledged to redesign the city’s 100 most dangerous intersections and build 300 km of protected bike lanes within four years.
On Sundays during the summer, he would bar car traffic on long stretches of Bloor and Yonge Streets from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and give them over to pedestrians and cyclists.
Unlike Tory, who has vowed to keep property tax hikes below the rate of inflation next term, Penalosa won’t rule out raising taxes further.
“I would love to have the lowest tax rate if the city was working properly,” but municipal services are deteriorating due to a lack of funding, he said, citing dirty streets, litter-filled green spaces and broken subway escalators.
Penalosa’s campaign has links to Toronto’s progressive establishment — in addition to having Wong-Tam’s praise, his staff includes Andrew Pulsifer, who is on leave from his job as lead development officer for the Ontario NDP to help fund-raise.
But Penalosa says he’s “not any party’s candidate” and asserts that his policies about safe streets and good parks have appeal across political lines.
His campaign policy director is Andrew Athanasiu, who is chief of staff to Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s). Matlow hasn’t endorsed Penalosa and Athanasiu says he’s working on the campaign on his own time.
So far, Tory has refused to give Penalosa’s campaign any oxygen by acknowledging him as a serious challenger. A total of 31 candidates are running for mayor.
“The mayor is focused entirely on his own campaign,” which includes promises to keep the economy strong and follow through on the “$28 billion transit plan he secured for the city,” Tory campaign spokesperson Jenessa Crognali said in a statement. Last month, Tory released his own five-point plan to address the housing crunch, which included a proposal to allow more density on major roads and transit lines, and permit more “missing middle” housing.
David Crombie, who was mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978, said he’s impressed with some proposals Penalosa has put forward, like his plan to save Ontario Place from planned provincial redevelopment. Although he’s backing Tory to win, he said it’s important for Toronto’s democracy that somebody is pushing the mayor.
“Gil deserves our applause,” Crombie said.
In addition to John Tory and Gil Penalosa, there are 29 other people running for mayor. Here are just a few of the lesser-known candidates who, according to the Star’s research, are running active, unique or otherwise noteworthy campaigns:
- retired Toronto police officer
- has criticized Mayor John Tory’s support for a handgun ban and likened the city’s bike lanes to “a war on cars”
- first act as mayor would be to commission an audit of city spending
- environmental advocate and second-time candidate for mayor
- wants to deploy “park ambassadors” instead of police to prevent homeless encampments
- has called for an end to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees
- government policy analyst and former member of the Toronto Youth Cabinet
- at 31 years old, is among the younger candidates
- says her policies would “create fairness for the working class”
- tech entrepreneur and “free market proponent”
- would eliminate TTC fares to make transit free, and deploy more police to “high-crime areas”
- would pay for promises by defunding the shelter system, recreation programs and other services
- co-founder of real estate news site Better Dwelling
- proponent of an “Open Source City” program that would enable municipalities to develop and share technological solutions to urban challenges
- claims Canadian municipalities are afflicted by corruption, would institute more transparent procurement processes
- artist and activist who founded advocacy group for Ontarians on social assistance
- wants better financial supports for vulnerable residents and more affordable housing
The full list of registered candidates includes:
Avraham Arrobas, Darren Atkinson, Drew Buckingham, Elvira Caputolan, Kevin Clarke, Phillip D’Cruze, Cory Deville, Alexey Efimovskikh, Arjun Gupta, Peter Handjis, Robert Hatton, Monowar Hossain, Soaad Hossain, Khadijah Jamal, Kris Lagenfeld, John Letonja, Tony Luk, Ferin Malek, D!ONNE Renée, Kyle Schwartz, Knia Singh, Sandeep Srivastava, and Reginald Tull.
With files from Manuela Vega.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr