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No one from Toronto who visits Chicago's spectacular waterfront can come away without feeling a pang of envy. City councillors who took it in from a tour boat during a trip to Chicago with Mayor Rob Ford last week were wide-eyed at what they saw.

Toronto turned its back on the water, blocking it off from the rest of the city with an elevated expressway and a curtain of apartment towers. Only now, after decades of disappointment and delay, are we reclaiming our "blue edge."

Chicago, by contrast, embraces its setting on the shore of Lake Michigan. Thanks to the foresight of city fathers and years of struggle by civic champions, the waterfront is lined with a glorious string of public parks. You can ride a bike from one end to the other without stopping, passing marinas, gardens, bird sanctuaries, museums and sports fields, with nothing to stand in the way of the view to the watery horizon.

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All this would be hard to replicate in Toronto. There just isn't the land available any more for a such a complex of big parks. Nor would we want to ape Chicago's waterfront. As lovely as it may be, it is a product of an earlier era when planners designed green open spaces with broad lawns as an escape from the polluted, chaotic city streets.

Toronto's waterfront architects have a different vision. They want to knit the blue edge into the fabric of the city, bringing people down to work and live as well as play. "I would not want a waterfront that is simply all green," says Paul Bedford, Toronto's former chief planner. "It should be busy and working and alive."

All the same, Toronto can take a few lessons from Chicago's waterfront success. The first is to think big. Chicago has been doing it for more than a century. Daniel Burnham, the great architect and city planner who directed the building of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition on the southern lakefront, drew up plans to create a series of linked islands all along the Lake Michigan shore that would be open for the enjoyment of the public. Only one was ever built, but the spirit of the plan – making the shore into a magnificent front yard for Chicagoans – lived on.

The think-big ethos reached its peak in Millennium Park, the grand new open space in the centre of downtown just back from the waterfront. Early plans called for a conventional Beaux Arts design to match adjacent Grant Park, with its formal gardens and fountains. It evolved instead into a showcase of modernism, with a Frank Gehry bandshell, Renzo Piano footbridge and Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate – a reflecting pod, known by locals as "the bean," that Mr. Ford admired on his tour. The park went way over budget and four years past deadline, but when it finally opened in 2004, Chicago gained a world-beating attraction.

The second lesson is to bring in the private sector. Companies and wealthy citizens gave $235-million to Millennium Park, nearly half the final cost. In return, they demanded excellence and the mediocre original design was dropped. When Waterfront Toronto announced revised plans for the Port Lands this month, I have to admit I sneered at its proposal to tap philanthropists for funds. But if Chicago is an example, it's not such a bad idea. If rich Torontonians donate to city museums and charities, why not to waterfront parks, fountains or artworks?

The third is to create focal points. Chicago has attractions like the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium at one end of the downtown waterfront; at the other stands Navy Pier, which draws throngs of tourists and locals to eat, shop or ride the Ferris wheel. The pier is a little tacky now, but its governors have hired the creator of New York's High Line park to do a $85-million makeover.

Toronto's waterfront is coming along nicely, with great new features like Underpass Park, Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, and – under way now – do-overs of York Quay and Queens Quay Boulevard on the central waterfront. But where is the magnet like Vancouver's Granville Island, Seattle's Pike Place market or Navy Pier?

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Even if we don't want to imitate Chicago, its waterfront success has a lot to teach us.

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