Established in 1914, the Toronto-based Bureau of Municipal Research was an independent, non-partisan citizens organization dedicated to producing “Better Government through Research.”
The organization published nearly 800 research bulletins and reports on urban issues in Canada, covering nearly every area of public policy, from budgeting to housing, welfare to city planning, policing to parks.
The Bureau was forced to close in 1983, its files buried in the city archives — until now.
Led by Prof. Gabriel Eidelman, a team of students at the University of Toronto has digitized and catalogued the Bureau’s entire document library for the benefit of researchers and the general public.
Learn more about the Bureau’s history, explore some of its work, and search the complete catalogue below.
In 1913, a group of prominent Toronto businessmen, known as the “Committee of One Hundred Citizens,” commissioned the New York Bureau of Municipal Research to conduct a comprehensive survey of Toronto’s municipal departments, services, and administrative methods.
The goal, in the words of Frederick Cleveland, one of the New York Bureau’s co-directors, was “to find out what the city is trying to do for its citizens, what machinery exists for doing it, how it is doing it, how it fails, and why it fails.”
Once published in January 1914, the Toronto Daily Star hailed the report as “the most important ever submitted on the municipal affairs of this city,” and welcomed the establishment of a permanent local bureau to serve as a “centre of general municipal intelligence.”
The Toronto Bureau of Municipal Research was born two weeks later.
Across seven decades, the Bureau produced over eight hundred publications covering more than a hundred different topics. Many issues that currently make headlines in Toronto were in fact studied by the Bureau many years ago — in some cases almost a century ago.
“Today many Metro [Toronto] families in both city and suburb live in substandard or overcrowded accommodation. Their numbers will continue to grow if construction of public housing proceeds at present pace.”
“Construction of grade-separated transit lines, whether below ground or otherwise, is obviously highly expensive. The question which is now being asked is: ‘Should the TTC be expected to finance rapid transit developments solely through revenues from fares?’”
“It is high time that politicians stop playing games with our environment and get on with the real job of setting targets to which citizens can commit their efforts.”
“Since its inception, the Bureau has taken great interest in all phases of public education, not only because education calls for huge expenditures of public funds, but because the efficiency of the schools is basic to the well-being of the community.”
The Bureau produced research and analysis across six thematic areas in a variety of formats, including bulletins, white papers, news briefs, radiogrammes, letters, commentaries, and research reports.
Click below to browse the collection by theme.
This project was made possible through the hard work of several University of Toronto students, past and present. Thanks to Jackie James, Naama Baumgarten-Sharon, Hannah Johnston, Lindsay Grant, and Maya Hoke for their dedication and meticulous investigative work, and Sophie Wang and Luana Cimpean for their technical expertise. Image credits are available here.
For more information about the project, contact:
Director, Urban Policy Lab
School of Public Policy and Governance
University of Toronto
In November, 1912, a small group of prominent Toronto businessmen, including John Macdonald, a director at the Bank of Toronto, John Firstbrook, a director at The Metropolitan Bank, and John I. Sutcliffe, a chartered accountant, met to discuss ways to improve city government. By meeting’s end, Mr. Sutcliffe was selected to undertake a special mission: travel to New York and investigate the work of a civic organization known as the New York Bureau of Municipal Research.
The New York Bureau was established in 1907 as part of the emerging municipal reform movement during the so-called Progressive Era. Its founders — William Allen, Henry Bruere, and Frederick Cleveland — conceived of the Bureau as means to expose incompetence and mismanagement within city government, at a time when New York, and many other American cities, were dominated by machine politics and neighbourhood bosses. “The Bureau men,” recounts Jane Dahlberg, “were essentially reformers with the idea that a citizen organization could help to improve its government by applying principles of good management to public affairs.”1 The group’s emphasis on “municipal research” conveyed its faith in objective truth, empirical measurement, and expert analysis — in essence, the pursuit of a science of government.
Backed by some of New York’s wealthiest philanthropists, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, the Bureau’s first study, How Manhattan is Governed, documented waste and negligence within the office of Manhattan Borough President John Ahearn, a member of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine. Bureau researchers carefully scrutinized municipal maintenance records to find that, in many instances, streets, sewers, and public baths that had been officially reported as repaired were still in poor condition. The Bureau’s findings led to a series of official inquiries and public hearings, and eventually, Ahearn’s removal from office — the first time an American elected official was dismissed due to incompetence, rather than dishonesty or corruption. The scandal earned the Bureau considerable notoriety, and similar bureaus were soon opened in over a dozen cities across the United States, including Philadelphia (1908), Cincinnati (1909), Chicago (1910), and Milwaukee (1913).2
Sutcliffe returned to Toronto thoroughly impressed. With the support of Alderman S. Morley Wickett, the group invited Henry Bruere to speak at the National Club. Bruere urged members to commission a comprehensive survey of Toronto’s municipal departments, services, and administrative methods. According to local reports, Bruere’s address drew “frequent and hearty applause from his hearers.”3
A “Committee of One Hundred Citizens” was soon struck to raise funds under the auspices of a Civic Survey Committee. Members pledged at least $50 toward the endeavour, raising a total of $6,000 (approx. $128,000 in current dollars). The Committee commissioned staff from the New York Bureau to carry out the study in late 1913. After two months of investigation, the researchers returned with their findings, spanning nearly 300 pages. The study concluded that Toronto’s “administrative defects are primarily those of methods and not of men.”4 By establishing a permanent bureau in Toronto to improve financial reporting practices, reorganize the municipal workforce, and employ principles of scientific management, the city could achieve cost savings of approximately five to ten percent.
Once published in January 1914 (view PDF), the Toronto Daily Star hailed the report as “the most important ever submitted on the municipal affairs of this city,” and welcomed the establishment of a permanent local bureau to serve as a “centre of general municipal intelligence.”4 The Toronto Bureau of Municipal Research was born two weeks later.
Consistent with the guiding philosophy of its parent organization, the Toronto Bureau was premised on four founding principles:
1. A commitment to scientific inquiry. Scientific methods were expected to produce factual knowledge that would identify the most efficient and economical means of providing public services.
2. Civic responsibility. Bureau members believed that public officials, whether elected or appointed, had a responsibility to respect the division between politics and administration. Administrative matters should be led by trained professionals and experts, not politicians; citizens, in turn, had a responsibility to be aware of and informed about how government works, and to keep governments accountable.6
3. Publicity. Reform requires political support and public pressure. By publicizing its findings, the Bureau hoped to mobilize citizens, and thus drive change.
4. Non-partisanship. The Bureau’s political approach was pragmatic, not personal. As founding chairman John Sutcliffe put it, “It is a cardinal principle [of all bureaus of municipal research] never to advocate or oppose the election or appointment of any man to any office.”7 Reports rarely, if ever, included accusations of personal wrongdoing or forms of “muckraking” found in the tabloids.
The Bureau was originally funded by prominent members of Toronto’s business establishment, including the Gooderham family of distillers. Its emphasis on professionalism and efficient management appealed to civic elites who valued political stability in a period of social and economic change, when high rates of immigration and unionization posed a potential risk to upper and middle class interests. The early Bureau thus had little trouble attracting patrons from prestigious private clubs, such as The Toronto Club and the National Club, to serve as trustees, executives, and elected “council” members.
As the Bureau evolved, it eventually sought donations from corporations and business groups, in addition to individual donations. For decades, the Bureau publicized its financial independence as proof of its impartiality.
1924: “The Toronto Bureau of Municipal Research derives its financial support from voluntary contributions of public-spirited citizens. As provided in its charter it receives no government or municipal grants. It has no axe to grind other than effective citizenship. It has no strings on it save its attachment to the interests of Toronto.”
1936: “The Bureau of Municipal Research is an independent, non-partisan agency, carried on in the interests of all taxpayers and citizens by voluntary contributions of some citizens. Naturally it receives, and can receive, no support from governmental or municipal sources. It ascertains facts as to municipal government, analyzes these facts, and presents the results to the general public, along with constructive suggestions based on the facts. It backs no candidates, recommends no one for civic appointment, and has no axe to grind other than that of those who use and directly or indirectly pay for the cost of municipal services.”
1960: “The Bureau of Municipal Research is... Enterprising — the only research organization concerned exclusively with improving local government operations and practices throughout Greater Toronto. Public spirited — a non-profit agency backed by business concerns, associations and individuals who want honest, efficient government. Independent — by its provincial charter, barred from accepting government subsidy and committed to a continuing and impartial survey of civic affairs.”
But as corporate and individual donations started to decline in the early 1960s, the Bureau was forced to expand its membership. Initially, it raised funds from academic institutions (mainly university libraries) and labour groups, such as the Ontario Federation of Labour. Later, it started to receive contributions from the City of Toronto, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. By the early 1980s, the Bureau relied on financial support from at least 27 government bodies. The financial lifeline provided by government grants, however, proved to be short-lived.
In 1983, the Ontario government decided not to renew a $25,000 annual grant. The Bureau had little choice but to close shop. The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto agreed to provide the Bureau a final grant of $35,000 to pay off its creditors and provide severance pay to staff. In exchange, the Bureau transferred over its complete research library to the Metro Toronto Public Library.
1. Jane S. Dahlberg, The New York Bureau of Municipal Research: Pioneer in Government Administration (New York: New York University Press, 1966), 231.
2. Bureaus were often established under slightly different names, such as the Bureau of Public Efficiency, in Chicago, or the Citizens’ Bureau of Municipal Efficiency, in Milwaukee.
3. “Civic Pride Is First Need for Efficiency,” The Globe, July 11, 1913.
4. New York Bureau of Municipal Research, City of Toronto Report on a Survey of the Treasury, Assessment, Works, Fire, and Property Departments (New York: New York Bureau of Municipal Research, 1913), 5.
5. “Survey Experts Plan to Remedy Defects Found,” Toronto Daily Star, January 8, 2014.
6. These two goals may appear contradictory. But not to members of the Bureau, who believed that scientific knowledge (if properly communicated) was fundamentally democratic. Knowledge, in short, enabled public scrutiny.
7. John I. Sutcliffe, “Municipal Research Work,” The Globe, December 25, 1914.
8. Bureau of Municipal Research, Open Letter to the Citizens and Taxpayers of Toronto, White Paper no. 78 (1924).
9. Bureau of Municipal Research, Open Letter, Bulletin no. 94 (1936).
10. Bureau of Municipal Research, The Study of the Economic Impact of Urban Expressway Upon Adjacent Areas (1960).
In the 1910s, the Bureau drew attention to the city’s slum living conditions, overcrowded lodging houses, and general lack of new housing stock. In a 1918 publication on the city’s most notorious slum, The Ward, the Bureau noted that skyrocketing rents and a lack of decent housing forced more and more people into rundown dwellings. The Bureau suggested that the city expropriate land, remove dangerous buildings, and establish a city planning commission to advise municipal government on how best to assure good living and working conditions for Toronto residents.
In the mid-1940s, the Bureau noted that the city had made progress in its slum clearance programs to relocate low income residents, but it had done little to build decent housing for citizens of other income levels. As soldiers returned to the city from WWII, the Bureau published a pamphlet stressing the need for a master housing plan and financial subsidy program. When the Bureau followed up on the topic, in an open letter published in 1955, it found that many of the emergency housing units built as temporary accommodations on municipal park lands were still in use a decade later.
In the 1960s, the Bureau began investigating social housing projects, including the development of Moss Park, Alexandra Park, and Regent Park. In a 1963 report entitled “New Hope For Public Housing”, the Bureau found that many of Toronto’s low-income residents still lived in substandard and overcrowded dwellings, and thus encouraged politicians at all levels to take action to continue to increase the supply of public housing.
Later, in the 1970s, the Bureau highlighted the lack of affordable rental housing, and raised concerns that a large of proportion of renters’ incomes went to paying rent. In one 1977 report, the Bureau cautioned that “if there is not enough housing of the right size, condition, cost or tenure in the City, then effectively there are controls on who can and cannot live in the City” -- a conclusion which still resonates in Toronto’s increasingly unaffordable housing market.
To learn more, search the catalogue for “housing” or “public housing”, or the reports listed below.
In 1919, the Bureau published a research pamphlet, entitled “The Civic Car Lines,” investigating the financial sustainability of five streetcar lines run by Toronto Street Railway. The Bureau found that the lines were operating at a significant deficit, with fares barely covering maintenance costs. To remedy this, it suggested raising fares and running transit on a “service-at-cost” model in order to shift the financial burden of transit from taxpayers to riders, as well as creating a new body to efficiently administer and set fares for the expanding transit system. The Toronto Transportation Commission was established in 1921 to do just that, and operated Toronto's transit system entirely out of the fare box until the 1950s.
In 1945, during the leadup to that year’s municipal election, the Bureau published an open letter lamenting the “piecemeal” nature of transit construction in Toronto and the lack of a rapid transit master plan. The Bureau argued that even if federal funds were not forthcoming, “something drastic needs to be done about rapid transit,” echoing the modern-day frustration of many Torontonians. Later, in the 1950s, the Bureau published a series of “bulletins” commenting on separate proposals for new diagonal subway routes at Queen and Yonge Sts., and an East-West subway along Bloor St., and the governance conflicts between TTC planners and the Metro Planning Board. “The more important issue,” concluded the Bureau, “is not the route for a subway but the proper method of conducting public business under our particular structure of local government.”
By the 1970s, Metro had gained control of strategic planning, while the TTC concentrated on operations. But the Bureau argued that this had not fixed deeper funding issues, presaging some of today’s most controversial transit debates. In a 1970 report entitled “Transportation Who Plans Who Pays?”, the Bureau recommended that motorists be charged a “significant toll” on badly congested routes to subsidize the TTC, including free off-peak transit use for all. Later, in a 1979 report entitled “Understanding Metro’s Transit Problems”, the Bureau cautioned that the planned Scarborough RT was virtually guaranteed to run at a deficit due to a lack of density along the route.
To learn more, search the catalogue for “transit”, or the reports listed below.
The Bureau began paying close attention to air quality in the 1940s. In a 1946 white paper entitled The Smoke Evil, the Bureau called attention to the harmful effects of coal smoke “belching forth” from the city’s smokestacks, and urged Toronto’s mayor at the time, Robert Hood Saunders, to introduce a smoke control by-law. Three years later, in 1949, after Pennsylvania’s deadly “Donora Smog” incident, city council passed a smoke abatement bylaw.
As public awareness of environmental issues grew in the 50s and 60s, the Bureau took a closer look at pesticides. In 1969, ten dead ducks were pulled from the water near Ward’s Island. Initially, it was alleged that the ducks had been poisoned by exposure to a pesticide called diazinon. Two local environmental groups -- Pollution Probe, and Group Action to Stop Pollution -- launched a citizens inquiry into pesticide use by the Metro Toronto Parks Department to investigate the matter. 1
The Commissioner of the Parks Department, Tommy Thompson, initially reported that his staff had indeed used diazinon. But at the inquiry, Thompson changed his story, insisting that the pesticide used on the island was not diazinon, but rather a safer substance known as methoxychlor. Thompson then refused to disclose any further information regarding how the Parks Department used pesticides. The Bureau considered the Commissioner’s secretiveness as a breach of public trust contrary to the principles of transparency and accountability, and raised these concerns in a 1969 news brief entitled The Public’s Right to Know. It found that the release of information by municipal governments in Ontario was entirely at the discretion of local authorities, and called for a review of policies related to the release of government information -- some twenty years before the passing of Ontario’s Municipal Freedom of Information Act.
In the 1970s, the Bureau became sensitive to the need to reduce, re-use, and recycle. In a 1975 study entitled The Politics of Waste Management, the Bureau tackled Toronto’s growing garbage problem. Not only was landfill space running out, there was a growing awareness that waste disposal contributed to land and water pollution, and that trash incinerators contributed to air pollution. Something needed to be done.
In the report, the Bureau concluded that Toronto’s efforts at waste prevention and recycling were mixed, but showed promise. It recommended that even more be done to incentivize participation in recycling programs, and that the city should set clear goals and timelines for waste diversion. Today, the City of Toronto has an official waste reduction target of 70%, with more than half its waste currently diverted via recycling and composting programs.
To learn more, search the catalogue for “pollution”, “parks”, and “waste”, or the reports listed below.
In a 1914 bulletin, the Bureau noted that roughly one-third of Toronto annual tax revenues was spent on education and schools. Yet it expressed concerns that these funds were largely being mismanaged.
At the time, many immigrant children and children with special needs were struggling to keep up. Hunger and malnutrition, ill health, and poor dental hygiene were rampant. Worse, school facilities seemed to exacerbate these issues; dark, poorly-ventilated classrooms made learning more difficult.
Rooted in Progressive Era ideals, the Bureau’s early leaders believed that more efficient school administration -- the elimination of “preventable school waste,” as one 1920 report put it -- would lead to better student performance and lower dropout rates.
Many of the Bureau’s recommendations during this era would be familiar to modern-day education observers: implementing standardized testing to monitor student progress; conducting surveys of school facilities to ensure a state of good repair; streaming classes into “slow” and “rapid progress” groups; creating “open air” classrooms, or “forest schools”, to help children with respiratory illnesses; introducing dental health and school nutrition programs; and providing after-school programming, such as drama, dance, and sport, for children as well as their adult relatives to better integrate (read: assimilate) into their local communities.
Not all the Bureau’s suggestions, however, would today be seen in positive light. In one report, entitled “Are All Children Alike?”, the Bureau proposed that children with special needs be completely removed from the general student population, segregated either into special classes and training schools, or in some cases, sent to “industrial farm colonies.”
To learn more, search the catalogue for “education” or “schools”, or the reports listed below.
The first was a short white paper, published in 1922, on Toronto’s new Union Station. Construction of the new station commenced in 1914, and was largely complete by 1920. But the station was not officially opened to the public until 1927. The Bureau expressed concern at the “strangulation” of the waterfront due to railway development, specifically the waterfront viaduct, and lamented the fact that Union Station had become “a source of exasperation to the travelling public who can see it but who can’t use it.”
In the 1930s and 1950s, the Bureau’s attention turned to industrial development and the role of the Toronto Harbour Commission. Its 1932 annual report declared that Toronto’s port operations had “turned the corner,” buoyed by the prospective completion of the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence seaway. Yet several years later, as Metro council debated the merits of the lakefront Gardiner Expressway, the Bureau raised concerns about the Toronto Harbour Commission’s land reclamation activities in areas we now call the Port Lands and the Leslie St. Spit. In an open letter, the Bureau suggested that “an increasing case” could be made to transfer the Commission’s responsibilities to Metro as a matter of economic necessity.
In the 1970s, the Bureau began to reconsider the most appropriate use of waterfront lands in light of new plans to build housing and park spaces in the area, such as the federal government’s proposed Harbourfront development. In a 1977 report entitled Should the Island be an Airport?, the Bureau questioned the suitability of aviation uses in an area used increasingly for recreation and residential uses, and reviewed various non-aviation alternatives for the site. Ultimately, the Bureau recommended that the airport should continue operating for general aviation purposes, despite the allure of new housing and recreational opportunities.
To learn more, search the catalogue for “waterfront”, or the reports listed below.