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.