Toronto is not a world-class city. To think otherwise is delusional and un-Canadian. We are a humble, beta-city that knows our place in the world. If you don’t believe me, ask any self-respecting local urbanist. But can we at least allow that we are a global city? It may be semantics, but as North America’s fastest growing city region — recently passing Chicago in population and tracking to surpass Los Angeles by mid-century —is it untoward to acknowledge our international ascendency?
We accept that we are the world’s most diverse urban population, with more than 50 per cent of us born outside of Canada. And we celebrate the relative harmony of our fascinating international experiment knowing that Toronto has important lessons for a world of increasingly fractured geopolitics.
We agree that we are an economic powerhouse that blew through last decade’s global economic downturn stronger than we entered it, the result of being one of the most economically diverse and technologically advanced economies in the world.
We know that while we are behind in building transit (and suffer some of the worst traffic gridlock conditions on the continent), we have built a metropolis that has achieved more transit-oriented urban density than any city in North America outside of New York. And we have North America’s largest, funded, transit expansion plan as we try to catch up.
We celebrate our Greenbelt, the world’s largest urban containment boundary, and the progressive development policies that ensure we build “in” more than “out.” Amazingly, the GTHA has about the same urban density as Copenhagen. We have long exceeded all North American cities in high-rise development, and are leaders in the construction of mid-rise and denser townhomes — the so called “missing middle.” Our suburban centres of Markham, Vaughan, Mississauga, Brampton, and Burlington have no continental parallels for achieving transit oriented urban density.
Our central business district is almost entirely connected by the world’s largest commercial underground tunnel network (also one of the world’s largest retail malls) moving a quarter of a million people a day. Add to this our globally leading district energy infrastructure of our deep-water cooling system that services the entire financial district and beyond. We have arguably built the most diverse (and greenest) economic and innovation centres in the world. And as large as it is, we need to keep growing it to meet unprecedented demand.
Pearson Airport now connects to 66 per cent of the world’s economy by daily non-stop flights, growing to over 80 per cent in the coming decade. Its passenger volumes are poised to surpass
Heathrow within 20 years. The airport is also at the centre of Canada’s second largest employment hub, in the middle of North America’s fastest growing technology corridor.
We leverage social and civic infrastructure better than any city. Our public library system as no international parallel, serving as much to provide access to books and digital information as it does to help integrate new Canadians into our city. Our failed social housing projects are being transformed into some of the most coveted mixed-income communities in the city, at a scale not seen anywhere else in North America.
International urbanists envy that two of its most famous made Toronto their home: Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida. Can we be proud about that?
Indeed, as we forge ever more deeply into the century that belongs to us, it is time we take stock of the city we have become and the city we are becoming. We may not want the Olympic Games or a World Expo, but how well is humbleness serving us?
Perhaps it’s time that Toronto shed its self-inflicted denial that we are emerging into a great alpha-city. Maybe it is time we embraced it. Success begets success and Toronto stands ready to further benefit from what it has already achieved.
If this means calling our city “world class” I am ready to do so.
Re-posted with permission from Building Magazine