No matter the issue, the glaring question in next week’s mayoral by-election, though unspoken, couldn’t be simpler: are Torontonians ready to embrace the big city they inhabit? Or will they continue to insist that Toronto is a patchwork of disconnected suburbs grown large?

Whether candidates are addressing housing, transit, crime or congestion, their solutions depend on their answer to this question. The more urban-minded contenders are comfortable with the complexity and contradictions of cosmopolitan life. They understand the need for compromise in high-density communities and are willing, for example, to open city streets to various forms of mobility, everything from cars and trucks to bicycles, scooters, public transit and, yes, pedestrians.

By contrast, more suburban-minded candidates are less enthusiastic about the big city, to them a dank, dirty and dangerous place. They believe that streets are for cars and trucks, houses for single families and taxes too high. These are supporters of former mayors Mel Lastman, Rob Ford and John Tory. 

But after a succession of right-wing leaders, however, residents are waking up to the fact that years of conservative parsimony have left Toronto an under-serviced pot-holed mess. You get what you pay for, of course, and now we can see -- unsurprisingly -- that the promises of civic austerity leading to prosperity are bunk.

Regardless, candidates such as former police chief Mark Saunders and right-wing proselytizer Andrew Furey peddle the usual conservative tropes – cutting taxes, removing bike lanes and stopping crime. Their message is aimed squarely at the people who enabled Ford to win every ward in the former inner-suburbs of Etobicoke (where Saunders leads the polls), Scarborough, North York and York in 2010. Like Ford, Saunders is dead set against bike lanes and though less enthusiastic about building “subways, subways, subways,” agrees that, “roads are built for buses, cars and trucks.”

Only in communities where life is impossible without at least one set of wheels in the driveway do arguments like these carry the day. To be fair, the proliferation of parking pads in the Old City’s sacrosanct neighbourhoods show how many downtowners are quietly but embarrassingly auto-dependent. 

Meanwhile, big cities around the world -- Paris and London to New York and Copenhagen -- are busy implementing measures such as congestion fees, pedestrianized streets and exorbitant vehicle taxes to lure people out of their cars. Despite initial resistance, these changes have been hugely popular.

These cities have recognized not just that mobility encompasses more than the automobile, but also that reducing traffic, and the noise, pollution and danger it brings, means a higher quality of life. In these very transient times, when cities must compete with one another to attract investment and a skilled work force, this approach, though counterintuitive to conservatives, makes more sense than ever. 

Received political wisdom says that when things are good, people vote out of greed and out of fear when they’re bad. How that will play out in the by-election remains to be seen. The infantilizing platforms of conservative candidates, which focus on fear, might appear to be most appropriate for the times. Their bottom-line pledge of lower taxes, more cops and less regulation sounds desirable, but is it? We shouldn’t forget that the backdrop to the by-election is a city in decline. 

On the progressive side, candidates from front-runner Olivia Chow to veteran North Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow espouse a more mature, nuanced and demanding approach to urban life. Most controversially, perhaps, they contend that the city belongs to all its residents, not just homeowners, landlords, developers, business interests and drivers. This is not a message that resonates with those who want the people next door to look, act and think like them. The city may be a collection of neighbourhoods, but it’s not a series of subdivisions or gated communities, each disconnected from its surroundings. 

Above all, urbanist candidates value the public realm in its many forms as a critical force for community building and creating connectivity, physical, social, cultural and economic. To them, the CafeTO program, for example, is a means to achieve these goals. 

While other Canadian cities – most notably Montreal and Vancouver – embrace urbanity, Toronto, the Accidental City, remains uncertain. Though it is an economic and cultural hub, in many ways it’s a small town at heart. It doesn’t help it’s in a province run by a party of good old boys.

Twenty-five years after amalgamation, Toronto is still in denial that its days as a disparate collection of suburbs are over. The fear of growing up has turned Toronto into Peter Pan City, fleeing responsibility whenever possible and electing leaders who reassure residents that the future will be fine -- just as long as it’s lower than the rate of inflation.

Hume With a View