Pass by Union Station at rush hour on a weekday morning and you will see an amazing and in some ways mystifying sight: Thousands upon thousands of people marching off to their downtown jobs. Arriving by commuter train and bus, they stream out of the grand old station in all directions. Some board buses and subways to get to their destination. Others march into the underground concourses that snake beneath the financial district. Others hop on public bicycles. Still others simply hoof it to their offices on crowded sidewalks. At the end of the day, like a great ebbing tide, they flow back out of the city core again.
The question, if you think about it, is why? What drives all those people to troop from home to office every day when they could do much of their work from anywhere? Modern work is often done on a screen. Screens function as well at a kitchen table or a café nook as an office cubicle. If communication is the issue, workers can reach their bosses, colleagues and clients by phone, e-mail, text, video conference and any number of other means. Logic would suggest that they would be dispersing as technology advances, giving up the slog of a daily commute.
Instead, just the opposite has been happening. People are gravitating to cities as never before. Union Station is in the midst of a massive renovation and expansion aimed at coping with the growing flood. Downtown Toronto's population triples every weekday as commuters come into work. That population itself is expected to double by 2041 as the vogue for downtown living continues.
Humans are social animals. The city offers unrivalled opportunity for exchange and interaction.
"Just as ant colonies do things that are far beyond the abilities of isolated insects, cities achieve much more than isolated humans," observes Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. "Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind's most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore and London."
Also, working at home is boring. Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary and former mayor of London, has remarked that sitting by yourself, paring away at that wedge of cheese in the fridge between checking e-mails, gets old very fast. Most people need to put on some pants and go out the door once in a while to feel active and productive.
About half of humanity now lives in cities, the result of a mass wave of urbanization that has swept the world in recent decades. In 1800, urban thinker Richard Florida observes, only one city, Beijing, had more than a million people. By 1950, 83 cities did. Now the number is over 500.
As giant cities have sprung up in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Western cities have made a startling comeback. In his new book, The Age of Spectacle: Adventures in Architecture and the 21st-Century City, Tom Dyckhoff writes that London's population dropped by two million in the four decades leading up to 1979. It was not alone. New York, beset by crime and decay, reached its nadir around the same time. As Dyckhoff puts it: "This was a moment when we all, almost, gave up on the very idea of the city."
Millions fled from city centres, escaping to the bland green refuge of the suburbs. Look at an aerial photograph of downtown Toronto from the sixties or seventies and you see parking lots all over. Parking cars often seemed the best way to make use of land that nobody much wanted. Today, those surface lots have all but disappeared, replaced by thickets of office and condominium towers where tens of thousands live and work cheek by jowl.
The vicious circle of urban decline has given way to a virtuous one of urban revival. People want to be in cities. So companies locate in cities to attract city-loving workers. So more workers move into the city to be near the jobs. So restaurants, bars, galleries and shops spring up to serve them. So the allure of the city grows.
Cities are enjoying a golden moment. The urbanist dream of live-work-play is coming true in Technicolour in Toronto and places like it. Residents can walk from their homes to their jobs, then frolic after work mere steps or blocks away. Successful modern cities aren't just hubs of finance, invention, innovation and creativity, they are giant playgrounds, offering every diversion under the sun.
People looking for something to do in Toronto on Saturday could choose – among a thousand other things – a bike ride for women's social justice, a Lucha Libre wrestling festival in Kensington Market, an ultimate frisbee contest at Varsity Stadium, salsa dancing on Bloor Street West or a brass band performance at David Pecaut Square. You won't find that kind of variety in Belleville, Ont.
The magnetic pull of the city isn't such a mystery in the end. Cities are where we come to earn, to learn, to compete, to succeed, to flirt, to show off, to party. Those are hard things to do by yourself. Big, teeming, modern cities are where it is all happening. People across the globe are rediscovering their attraction. The resurrection of cities is one of the marvels of the modern world.
Go down to Union Station one morning and watch that rushing throng. It is a sight to see.