Thursday, 12 April 2012

Musing Urbanist on Tour: Toronto

Vancouverites are not meant to like Toronto.  Putting ice hockey obsession aside, there is plenty to differentiate the two cities.  Toronto is home to big finance and media; Vancouver home to the 'good life' of mountains and beaches.  In my short introduction to Candian life I've been told on more than one occasion that in Toronto you "live to work", but in Vancouver you very much "work to live".  What I didn't expect was for this generalization to become so clearly obvious on my short visit to Toronto recently.

Having lived in Vancouver for 8 months I was caught unaware of how different a 'big city' can make one feel.  The difference between rural and urban life is obvious, but the changes that occur when comparing a mid-size city like Vancouver to a truly big city like Toronto are unexpected (at least for me on this occasion).  Vancouver punches above its weight no doubt and has built a successful brand of sustainable urbanism that is now internationally recognized.  But do not be fooled into thinking that Vancouver is a big city - it isn't.  Being in Toronto made me realize this more than ever.  Jumping from London to Vancouver last year led me to think that many of the differences I noticed in city life were because of the change of country.  This still holds true, but a lot of the changes also stem from departing a global city of 13 million to a city of approximately 2 million. 

OK - this is an odd time to be singing the praises of Toronto.  The Mayor is trying his best to fracture City Council by advocating additional, but unfunded, subways despite losing a vote in Council last week (see here).  Not only this, the city's library workers have recently been on strike and the Provincial government has just passed a belt-tightening budget.  Oh, and The Walrus magazine recently ran a lead article on how Toronto has lost it's groove and is now characterized more by crumbling infrastructure and growing inequality than the world city it aspires to be. 

Yet despite all this I couldn't help feel that Toronto has an edge over not just Vancouver, but all other Canadian cities. A lot of this boils down to critical mass and the fact that Greater Toronto is home to 6 million people.  Plainly put, there are some things a city can do with 6 million people which it cannot with 2 or 3 million.  Toronto currently has War Horse whereas Vancouver is struggling with the recent closure of the Vancouver Playhouse due to bankruptcy.  Toronto can also sustain five major professional sport teams with: ice hockey (Maple Leafs); basketball (Raptors); baseball (Blue Jays); soccer (Toronto FC); and Canadian football (Argonauts).  And during my visit to the city I witnessed a St Patrick's Day parade that managed to have local representatives from nearly all the Irish counties.  Impressive stuff.

But besides the diverse range of entertainment and services, walking around the city I felt in a truly urban place at all times of the day.  Downtown Toronto may be dominated by the banks of Bay Street, but there are still plenty of tourists and locals to keep the streets alive.  For all the growth in Downtown Vancouver in the last twenty years it can still feel a little like a ghost town at 6pm on a Friday night.  It's called 'No Fun City' for a reason.  I also felt more connected to the outside world when in Toronto.  Not only is it in the same time zone as the US eastern seaboard, including cities such as New York and Boston, but it is also close enough to Europe to feel as though you are sharing the same day as them.  Sometimes the west coast of Canada can feel a little isolated from the hubbub of Europe and east coast America.  I know it sounds strange, but it was comforting to see the most recent European newspapers and magazines in Toronto newsagents as opposed to having a delay of sometimes a week in Vancouver.

This article is not intended to be a slight on Vancouver and I could easily write a longer piece on why Vancouver is rightfully celebrated for quality of life and sustainable urbanism.  Instead, I just want to state the obvious.  Big cities can offer the dirty, loud, huge experience that mid-size cities cannot.  Toronto may be in the dumps currently, but it has one strength it can always fall back on.  Big sometimes is best. 


  1. Thanks for putting this up there. I hope this response doesn't come across as rude or vindictive: if I'm bad at nicities, it's to save time and get quicker to truth. I welcome all rebuttals of course.

    IMO it is not a useful diagnosis to say Vancouver's problem is its small population. The population of the planet will go to where there is the space, resources and work for it. Vancouver has ample supply of the first two of those, they're just really badly organized (which, not coincidentally, diminishes the third).

    The diagnosis is poor urban planning.

    The two million population stretches out to the US border and yet there are places near the centre that look like this instead of like this This is due to laws that the people of Vancouver, via their public servants, have put in place. Vancouver is boring by statute.

    The prescription (assuming we agree there's a problem with high property prices and an undynamic economy - has been known since at least Jacobs in the 50s: smaller lots, narrower or complete streets, commercial below 3/4-storey residential at least at intersections. Reconfiguring intersections as Krier corner places would be nice too.

    If all - or a lot more - of Metro Vancouver was arranged at Kitsilano density, use-mix and street width you'd have a much more interesting place, with a population able to support theatre, sport, European magazines, transit etc. You'd easily fit Toronto's population into the footprint of Metro Vancouver, with ample space for families, parks and industry.

    Also, blaming geographic isolation is putting the cart before the horse. Geographic isolation is only relative to the large population concentrations of the world. Instead, Vancouver should become the large population against which others are isolated. Ensure your planning laws result in dynamic, healthy places and (if you have the temparate weather, the water, food and energy resources, and passable governance that BC has) you won't be isolated for long.

  2. Also, have we met? If not, might we at Yuri's on the Drive this Sunday?

  3. Also2, having looked around your blog a bit more, I can see a lot of my comment was grandmother egg-ucation for you. Might be of interest to your readers though, and I'm still surprised you didn't mention urban form or zoning regs over brute population as explanations for your sense of a more lively urbanism in the East.

  4. Thanks for your comments Neil. You are right that a lot of the outcomes i mention in the article can be traced back to urban planning. Without knowing too much about the Toronto planning system, is there a big discrepancy in the bylaws and negotiations between there and Vancouver? The laws you refer to are influential no doubt, but pre-1950 planning was more a case of working around the urban structure that was created by the transportation system i believe. Vancouver had the streetcar system in parts of the city which has played a large part in the relatively higher densities found in the West End etc. Toronto, by nature of greater size and longer history, had a more comprehensive public transport system (including commuter rail) which has strongly influenced the current form. Zoning and bylaws have definitely shaped the cities since this time, but a lot of the 'urban bones' were already in place and cannot be explained by the more recent urban planning decisions.

    I would still maintain that population size, at whatever density or urban form it is arranged, is a key ingredient to the character of the city. I can only draw comparisons from where I have lived and worked, but Leeds in the UK provides a good comparator. The Leeds City Region is approaching 3 mill and the central area and surrounding neighbourhoods are built at a healthy density - by nature of the tram and other socio-economic factors. Yet the city is still an outsider when compared to Greater London, in particular the level of entertainment available, diversity of population, and general 24-hour city life. Both cities have exactly the same planning regulations and laws (by nature of the centralized system in the UK) but are very different cities. This can be explained by economic history, different migration dynamics and geography on top of the fact that London is just a bigger city and can support more diversity than Leeds.

    My article did not set out to deny the differing urban structures and forms in the respective cities, but to bring a more personal perspective to how the urban experience can differ by nature of size of population. I would actually say that the urban planning laws you refer to are more an outcome of certain governance structures. The mantra of mixed and walkable communities has been heard since the 1950s as you state, but unfortunately certain political structures have not allowed this to gain universal support. Metro Vancouver is a case in point where we have too many Municipalities in the region; all of them feeling as though they deserve a 'present' from the Province or the regional agencies. Having to gain consensus amongst all these Municipalities has created a barrier to efforts where people should live closer to where they work, shop and play.

    Thanks again for your comments Neil; it's always good to have healthy debate on Musings of an Urbanist.

  5. Curious about why you use Metro Vancouver's population (2mil) instead of the City of Vancouver's population (~600,000). Do people in Maple Ridge & PoCo really contribute to the vitality of street life in downtown Vancouver in a way that is significant enough to include the entire population of all the surrounding suburbs?

  6. Thanks for putting this up there. I hope this response doesn't come across as rude or vindictive: if I'm bad at nicities, it's to save time and get quicker to truth. I ll welcome all rebuttals of course.

    Marina Palms Yacht Club and Residence Miami