Joe Berridge is a partner at Urban Strategies, a Toronto-based urban planning and design firm active in Canada and around the world.
Two decades ago Toronto was not in good shape. A persistent recession, wearying amalgamation struggles and senior government cutbacks were then compounded by the SARS scare. But out of those crises sprang a remarkable series of initiatives. Half a dozen new major cultural buildings, notably the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Four Seasons Centre, arrived with great architectural enthusiasm. The MaRS Project was born, Luminato sprang onto the scene. The long awaited regeneration of the city's relationship to the lake finally got underway with the establishment of Waterfront Toronto. An unsuccessful Olympic bid was transformed into this year's hosting of the Pan-Am/Parapan Games. Pearson Airport got a magnificent makeover. And those are just the headline events; many other important educational, job training, immigrant settlement and similar ideas got started from which we are still benefiting.
Today the picture could not be more different. Toronto is now in good shape: 2015 is going to be a great year for the city. The waterfront is going to look wonderful, tied together by the new promenade along Queens Quay. Union Station is being re-born as a magnificent transportation terminal. The AirRail Link to Pearson Airport will open and Torontonians won't believe how they could have managed without it. Much of the relentless grind of downtown road construction will be over. The Games look like they will be a heck of a lot of fun. The new mayor seems competent, civil, and sober. And The Economist said Toronto is the best place in the world to live.
Yet as far as I know, no comparable set of big ambitions exists for the city's next two decades.
The grinding transit debate has sucked all the energy out of the city. Understandably, as transit, along with the daunting need to reinvent Toronto's public-housing system, are major challenges. They are, however, not all a big city is about. And make no mistake, Toronto is now a significant global city. The stakes are higher: the city's current boom was not accidental, and continued prosperity cannot be taken for granted. It depends on investing to maintain that position.
What does the city need?
1. A new convention and trade centre. Toronto is just hanging on to a position in the top half dozen trade and convention cities in North America. Its competitor cities are investing vigorously in new facilities while Toronto has a tired, disjointed offer spread across downtown and Exhibition Place. Conventions are a very important business line for cities, attracting up-scale visitation that spends serious money and creates lots of the entry-level jobs. Now's Toronto's opportunity to leap to the front by consolidating new state-of-the-art facilities at Exhibition and Ontario Place, using the freed-up development value of the Front Street site to help fund the move. Otherwise Toronto could easily drop off the list of cities able to attract the really big, sophisticated shows.
2. New tourism destinations. The great success of the Ripley's Aquarium has demonstrated the pent-up market for more tourism activities. Although tourism numbers are rising and the increasingly global mix of visitors is encouraging, Toronto is still not a North American or global draw commensurate with its potential. There simply aren't enough big things to do, and several existing attractions such as the zoo and the Science Centre are looking tired.
Toronto needs at least one more big popular family attraction like Ripley's and another significant cultural destination. Unlike global competitors, Toronto does not have a must-see contemporary art museum, typically a very popular destination. For an almost perfect precedent, check out the Institute for Contemporary Art on the Boston waterfront. That grew out of a smaller pre-existing gallery comparable to Toronto's Power Plant or MOCCA – and then expanded to global scale and vibe.
3. A new university. Toronto is growing faster than any city in the developed world. It is going to add the population of Montreal, or that of Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton combined, to the city-region in the next three decades.
Think about how many museums, galleries, performing arts centres and universities they have, and then see the opportunity, as well as the shortfall, for future Toronto. Universities are the factory of the modern urban economy. They're where we make the brains for the higher-order jobs on which the city depends. Toronto has relatively few degree-granting institutions compared to global cities its size. Is it going to accommodate growth just by expanding what it has?
What kind of new university exactly? I'll leave that for debate – but I'd vote for one international in outlook, attractive to foreign students, research-focussed, entrepreneurial, largely privately funded and utterly distinct from what Toronto has now. New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg changed the game when he initiated a very successful competition for the world's best science universities to come to his town. Many cities are following his lead; so should Toronto.
4. Expanded R&D capability. MaRS may have over-priced its research space but the worst thing for Toronto to do would be to turn away from the importance of advanced research and development activities.
Rather, Toronto should double down on its investment, enriching the existing strengths of the city. Toronto is the world capital of mining finance, yet there is no associated R&D in one of Canada's key economic sectors. Toronto is a major global banking centre, the second biggest food manufacturing city in North America and a major hub for fresh-water technology, but again without up-skilling those sectors to become a globally-recognised higher-order leader.
And unless I've missed it, Toronto is a laggard in world standing for nanotechnology and new-materials development, the breakthrough foundational sciences of the future economy. By comparison, cities from Manchester to Seoul are making huge public and private investments to establish commercialization positions in these areas. Toronto needs to get in the game.
5. Raising the ambition for the waterfront. What's happened so far on the Toronto waterfront is wonderful. Great new parks, fine new neighbourhoods, a new college, employment space and an exciting digital innovation centre, all done with a well-executed ecological and urban design sensibility.
Compared to other global cities it is, however, still a modest achievement – no dramatic new cultural building, no cutting edge new university, no high-tech corporate campus, no one-of-a-kind destination park, no form-changing architecture, no extraordinary public art. It all risks becoming a bit too domestic and cautious.
Toronto needs ideas bigger than the bike lanes and bulrushes that dominate current thinking. This is where the tourist, cultural, educational and economic initiatives of world city scale should be located. Where is the new park of an ambition to match Millennium Park in Chicago, Gardens by the Bay in Singapore or Brooklyn Bridge Park?
Toronto may not need a Ferris wheel, but what about an aerial cable car connecting Ontario Place to Cherry Beach and places in between? The three levels of government are considering spending a billion dollars on flood-proofing the Portlands; this should generate more than condo development. The waterfront is off to a great start. Time for an imaginative, economy-building leap forward.
6. Suburban Enterprise Zones. The downtown is booming, the suburbs – particularly the inner suburbs – are not. Centres such as Scarborough Town Centre and North York City Centre have failed to thrive as employment hubs, and the current city policy of simply preserving employment-zoned land and hoping jobs will come is all too passive. Spreading urban wealth to districts of high unemployment is a problem all developed world cities are wrestling with; they are generally employing much more aggressive strategies.
Toronto could learn a lot from London, which has energetically moved the dynamic of economic activity from the wealthier west to the poorer east through a mix of transit improvements, property and business tax incentives, targeted training and skills development and clever use of public land.
Three obvious locations in Toronto would benefit from designation as 'enterprise zones:' The older industrial sections of Agincourt, Rexdale and Downsview. They offer the right mix of available land, cheap, flexible space for business start-ups, current or planned transit and an available workforce.
7. Lighten up, Toronto. Toronto has peace, order and good government in its DNA. It's one of the reasons it tops world liveability rankings.
It might be fun to play against type for once and see how far this straight-laced city could lighten up. Could Toronto become the world capital of deregulation? The last time that was tried, in removing conventional zoning from the King's districts on either side of the downtown, it was a huge success.
Toronto could start with food trucks and move on to laneway housing. But a more dramatic and city-changing deregulation might be to get out in front of Uber, Lyft, Kangaride and all the other digital taxi and ride-sharing initiatives and recognize them as perhaps the greatest innovation in urban transit technology in decades. If we want to get people out of single-occupancy personal vehicles, make most efficient use of road space and connect easily to transit, this is how it's going to happen, especially in the suburbs. Let's add them to the Presto card.