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Globe Essay on Toronto


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Apr 23, 2007
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New York
Schadenfreude does not apply

Despite signs of decay, the city many Canadians love to hate still has a shining future

Konrad Yakabuski

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Last updated on Friday, Jul. 31, 2009 09:37PM EDT

What makes a city great? In the past five weeks, it would have been painfully masochistic for Torontonians to have contemplated that immodest question. Great? They'd have settled for merely maggot-free.

Once the last detritus of a 39-day garbage strike is cleared from Toronto's streets and vacant lots, however, its citizens will resume the business of assuring their burg's estimable place in the hotly contested global city sweeps. Worry not. Despite all that seems to be going wrong with the place – from the city's budget crunch and leadership vacuum to its infrastructure woes and the current stalling of the Ontario economy it motors – the decay in Toronto is mostly just organic.

It is inconceivable to imagine a city, in this day and age, being great without being global. As hubs where individuals in commerce, the arts and academe meet, and where linkages between national and world economies are cemented, global cities are exciting experiments on any number of levels. According to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine: “They are the kind of cities people look to as portents of things to come. When you're in one, you feel connected to the world, and when you look at one from afar, you feel you're seeing into the future.â€

Canada has only one really global city. In spite of the parochialism of its politicians, and woe-is-me-ism of its overtaxed, underserviced citizens, it is only Toronto that gets flagged by leading thinkers as being a contender on this score. With a metropolitan population that is poised to surpass six million by 2012, nearly half of whom will be foreign-born, Toronto is uniquely equipped for the 21st century. If it plays its cards right, its best is yet to come.

Already, two recent rankings, both of which are backed by the work of the urban theorist who is the inventor of the “global city†concept, Saskia Sassen, place Toronto in esteemed company. Toronto is 10th on Foreign Policy magazine's latest Global Cities Index, which measures “the 60 cities that shape our lives most.†Toronto is 13th – and third in North America – on the MasterCard Worldwide Centers of Commerce (COC) Index, which defines global cities as the “critical links in a network that directs commerce and finance around the globe.â€

Lest Toronto's rankings sound second-rate, Ms. Sassen, a sociology professor at Columbia University in New York, reminds us that they're anything but. “There is no perfect global city, hence, being ranked anywhere in the top 20 is the top,†she said in e-mail exchange this week.

This belies the results of a Conference Board of Canada study commissioned by the Toronto Board of Trade, and published earlier this year, that bemoans Toronto's mediocrity and places Calgary at the summit of global cities based on its recent economic showing and labour attractiveness. The study, titled Toronto as a Global City: Scorecard on Performance, relies on prerecession, strictly quantitative data that are far too narrow to properly capture what makes a global city what it is: a cauldron where ideas and individuals clash to create the economy of the future. Not to knock Calgary, but it is absurd to suggest it could outperform New York, Paris, London – or even Toronto – in this regard.


Indeed, though “old†cities generally grow – both demographically and economically – more slowly than boom towns such as Calgary, they are anything but in decline. As Mr. Sassen explained in a 2006 Newsweek column, it is “missing the point†to ask why New York, Paris and Seoul are losing people. “In global cities where the population is falling or stagnating, from New York to Manila, there is an inflow of highly educated 20- to 35-year olds, along with an outflow of the very young and the old. What's happening is a brutal triage; apartments that once held families now hold a single investment banker.†That makes them home to the most vibrant elements driving innovation, commerce and the arts.

Ms. Sassen developed the “global city†idea almost two decades ago, now, to explain why New York, London and Tokyo were such focal points in the world economy. Since then, the rapid liberalization of trade and finance has created dozens of new entrants, including Toronto, in the global-city sweeps. While many are in competition with one another, there is also much complementarity among them. Indeed, Ms. Sassen now shuns the term “global economy†and instead speaks of “highly particular global circuits†and “specialized intercity geographies.†Through it all, however, London and New York remain the pre-eminent global cities. They are alternately first and second, and second and first, on COC and Foreign Policy rankings, respectively.

Yet these great cities are nowhere to be found among the globe's most “livable†urban centres on any of the large number of rankings that measure that metric. It's not clear whether this means there is a trade-off to be made between global status and livability – a compromise that might lead most Torontonians to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.†What is clear is that human beings make all kinds of trade-offs to realize their goals – professional, personal, artistic or spiritual – and much of what makes global cities both intoxicatingly exciting and frustratingly stressful is that so many smart people – and companies – feel they need to be there. “And they will go to these cities even if they have some serious negatives,†Ms. Sassen recently told a London audience.

So far, Toronto appears to have preserved the best of both worlds. It has reached global-city status with, in spite of what the locals say, relatively minor concessions on livability. Yes, it lost the battle – if it ever fought it at all – with urban sprawl. The phalanx of glass condos that man its waterfront are decried by all. And the state of its infrastructure would be an embarrassment, were it not so starkly superior to Montreal's. Yet Toronto still ranks up there with supernaturally situated Vancouver on the most-talked-about livability indexes out there, such as those put out by The Economist and Mercer Worldwide.


Toronto is, however, conspicuously absent from the Top 25 Cities ranking compiled by the mook (magazine-book) Monocle, while Vancouver (14th) and Montreal (19th) enjoy pride of place among the editor-in-chief (and former Torontonian) Tyler Brûlé's favourites. As the arbiter of cool, it would be wrong to dismiss Mr. Brûlé's habitual dissing of his one-time home. People like him in the style posse have a lot to do with why creative types flock to places like Stockholm, Berlin and Melbourne. And besides, Toronto could do with more design, if not edge.

Its recent attempts at it do not impress Mr. Brûlé. “Bringing in Daniel Libeskind to bolt something onto the side of the [Royal Ontario Museum] more than a decade after [the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in] Bilbao? You can find small cities in the Netherlands or Denmark with more outstanding contemporary architecture than Canada's most important city,†he said from London. “If we compare what Toronto does to what its global peer group does, it's not particularly interesting.â€

Still, London, where Monocle and Mr. Brûlé's Winkreative design agency (which was responsible for the suave branding of Porter Airlines) are based, does not make his mook's top 25 quality-of-life index, either.

That may in itself say something about the trade-offs people make to be where the future of the globe is unfolding. In this post-financial-crash period, most signs point to Toronto becoming a more important locus of global commerce. One such sign are those ads now saturating U.S. television with Regis and Kelly touting TD Bank as “America's most convenient bank.â€

“Toronto is now home to the best banking system in North America and we're going to expand this southward,†predicts Thomas Courchene of Queen's University's School of Policy Studies. “As our banks expand south, it will be much easier for our manufacturing industry to expand south. You'll have a Toronto at the core of that network, with the human capital, research potential, educational concentration and great business services.â€


This speaks to two of Ms. Sassen's most important points. First, head offices matter. Toronto can't afford to lose any more of them. Most multinationals “have kept their headquarters in their home countries, no matter the thousands of affiliates, subsidiaries [or] offshore sourcing sites they have around the globe,†she explained recently. That necessarily places the home city at the centre of a global network, making it a hub rather than a spoke.

Second, the type of global city Toronto becomes, according to Ms. Sassen, is intimately tied to its past. “The deep economic history of a place matters for the type of knowledge economy a city or city-region winds up developing.†Hence, high finance and high-tech manufacturing are naturals for Toronto; the opportunity is Toronto's to waste.

When the last of the garbage strike's remnants are removed, it is incumbent upon Toronto's leaders – civic and labour – to build on that potential. A helping hand from the provincial and federal governments would be nice, too.

For if Canada is to produce one truly great, global city, like it or not – and admittedly, many Canadians won't – it's still Toronto.


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the most delicious thing about these sorts of globe essays (that tend to be fair and true) is the rabid commentary they solicit from "readers".