How to be a great city
Apr. 23, 2006. 08:38 AM
"Don't you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here."
"Max, if we lived in California, we could play outdoors every day in the sun."
Annie Hall, 1977
"Boy, this is really a great city. I don't care what anybody says. It's really a knockout."
The world may boast a wealth of great cities, but we don't always think of them as such. Even the greatest struggle from time to time. They fret about seemingly insoluble problems and unachievable goals, about history passing them by.
The New York of Woody Allen's Annie Hall came at the end of a disastrous decade for Gotham, one filled with urban decay, civic bankruptcy, crime and despair. The sun was shining elsewhere.
But the city rallied, with the defiant pride of Manhattan, to become the metropolis we recognize (once again) as one of the planet's urban masterpieces.
So what makes cities great? Or rather, what makes Great Cities?
What are the forces that shape the urban landscape and culture into something recognizably wonderful and inspiring? And what can we learn as Toronto, the most culturally diverse city on the planet, at last begins to accept and maybe embrace its own potential greatness?
We don't lack for ideas about transforming Toronto, taking it to the next level. Magazines like spacing and the book uTOpia: Towards a new Toronto attest to that, as does the outpouring of response to the "What If?" package in last Sunday's Star.
But other cities, from Detroit to St. Louis, have similarly had dreamy ideas about achieving or regaining greatness, with mostly disheartening results.
So what does it take and where is the spark?
In the past, you could make a city great by sheer, often bloody, willpower if you happened to be a visionary despot, which is how kings and popes transformed the likes of Paris and Rome, beginning in the 17th century. But those cities, like their early counterparts in North America, were much smaller at the time.
And there has always been the phoenix effect — tragic natural disasters like floods or fires that have, in the end, transformed cities into something ultimately more magnificent.
"Historically, one of the things that has driven change to make city life better has been really bad problems, like pollution or disease or fire," says architect Witold Rybczynski, who has written extensively about the development of cities.
So you end up with everything from better fire codes and sewers to new building methods and the remaking, from scratch, of vast areas affected by fire — like the 1871 blaze in Chicago that destroyed 18,000 buildings and left 90,000 homeless.
Not long afterward, steel-frame construction was pioneered in Chicago, heralding the modern skyscraper.
But no one then commanded people to live in downtown apartment buildings, providing the population density to support the restaurants, theatres and galleries that help define the modern great city. That was simply a futuristic idea launched on the world by a Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, which gradually gained traction among those who could choose where they wanted to live.
"It's what people want," says Rybczynski. "If people want to live downtown, or if certain kinds of people want to live downtown, then the downtown becomes full of those people and the system reacts to it. It's really driven by demand."
Or consider an additional attribute of many great cities, itself another (then-futuristic) endowment from the 19th century: massive, public green spaces. Think of Central Park in New York or High Park in Toronto.
With rare exception — Downsview National Park being one — opportunities for those kinds of transforming flourishes don't happen very often these days.
"As the city gets bigger and occupies more space, it becomes harder and harder to make large-scale interventions," says Rybczynski, now a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.
That's why so many cities, eying rebirth and potential greatness, now clamour to host the Olympic Games or a World's Fair, Toronto included of late. It's a rare chance to imagine on a larger scale, to start from what amounts to a blank slate.
"They can be very successful tickets to ride, if they're done right," says urban planner Joe Berridge, a partner with Urban Strategies Inc. in Toronto.
But note the "if."
Barcelona, for instance, used the Summer Olympics to transform itself into one of Europe's premier cities. The Spanish port is now a huge draw, not just for tourists but also for a host of investments by IT companies.
Yet there's no certainty in such gamesmanship. For every city that has used the Olympics to raise itself to greatness, there are as many regrettable disasters — Montreal, Atlanta, Athens. "There is an Olympics of having an Olympics," says Berridge.
So how do you fall on the happy side of that "if"?
You need vision and leadership, certainly, but those alone aren't necessarily enough.
"The trick for great city leadership is to figure out what the directions of the times are, and to channel them to some sort of greater public success," says Berridge.
He likes to cite Manchester, a decaying industrial city whose inner core was destroyed by an IRA bomb 10 years ago this summer. That catastrophe has led, not to despair, but to a shimmering rebirth.
"That was done by a fantastic combination of very strong political leadership and very strong civil service within the city," says Berridge. "They reckoned that there was going to be room for another great city in England, and they decided they were going to be it."
Manchester rebuilt its downtown core, hosted the Commonwealth Games and emphasized civic infrastructure. Says Berridge: "They have created an environment in which the European banks are flooding in and 20,000 people have come to live in their downtown in the past 10 years. All kinds of new cultural attractions have opened up, new public spaces have opened up."
Does Toronto have that kind of leadership?
"Wait and see," says Berridge. "We've certainly got the political leadership. The mayor understands these issues absolutely. Whether the mayor has the team to deliver, I think, is the big question."
Rybczynski isn't quite so sanguine about the central role of planning and visionary leadership. "There have been a lot of visions that have had negative consequences, and `visionary' implies a kind of top-down process, which really only works in highly authoritarian societies," he says.
"In democracies, cities tend to evolve much more organically, because it's the result of many small decisions but on a very large scale."
If, for instance, you had stood up 60 years ago and said your goal was to make Toronto the most multicultural city in the world, the laughter would have been deafening.
"Nobody planned it," says Rybczynski. "It's a very good example of how a city changes and handles that change, but it was more about handling change than about planning, certainly visionary planning."
But this accommodation of the city's changing size and nature was certainly wilful. And for urban planner John Bousfield of the Toronto firm Bousfields Inc., that takes you to one of the key facets of Toronto's earlier growth, and what it may now be lacking: massive public investment in infrastructure.
To Bousfield, the "sinews of the city" were nearly all laid out between the launch of the old Metropolitan Toronto, in 1953, and the early 1970s.
Much of the city's modern infrastructure dates from that era, and not just the newer sewage plants and water treatment facilities, or highways like the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway.
There was also the subway system, the ravine parks, the Leslie Street Spit and things like the 1967 Waterfront Plan, which laid the groundwork for Ashbridge's Bay, Bluffer's Park and the marina and park at Mimico Creek, among a host of others.
Bousfield likes to hand most of the laurels to Metro's first chairman, Fred Gardiner.
"Gardiner wasn't a visionary," says Bousfield. "But he was a great general and he surrounded himself with really top-flight engineers. Gardiner ran Metro like a vast construction company, the results of which we're still living off.
"All of those things were done, and without them, how could Toronto achieve anything like its stature? Wonderful things happened and it changed from being a provincial town to a metropolis. There just seemed to be money for those kinds of things, and then in the 1970s it stopped."
Well, perhaps not stopped, but certainly diminished in scale.
Is this important? Bousfield thinks it might be, certainly over the longer term. "I'm wondering if you can just stop the infrastructure and nevertheless keep going."
But here's the thing about great cities: They don't always develop along logical, linear lines. There are spurts and setbacks, more than a little chaos at times, and much that is unanticipated.
That unpredictability, says Rybczynski, is the heart of any city's charm.
"It seems to me that what makes cities so wonderful is precisely that they're not predictable, but they do react to what people want. Then they produce things which are quite unexpected, like Toronto itself."
This isn't always welcomed. There is, inevitably, resistance — not just to visionary ideas but also to the actual fact of change. And this is scarcely new. When the grid system of streets was being laid out for what would become mid-town Manhattan, for instance, the surveyors were pelted with rocks by local farmers and villagers. That was in 1811.
Some changes, and some ideas, ought to be resisted. The proposed Spadina Expressway, for instance, might well have done lasting damage to Toronto had it not been halted in the early 1970s.
But resistance to change, to progress, can also become generalized. You can see a species of that whenever Toronto residents' associations or community councils meet to consider any kind of development proposal.
"The normal spokespeople for the community, the residents' associations, are holding a terribly conservative view of what they want," says Berridge. "They want the place to stay as it is.
"While they've been wanting it to stay as it is, something like 120,000 people have come to live in the downtown. The city is voting with its feet about what it really wants to be, but that hasn't somehow got into the political consciousness of the city."
Or consider the massive cultural projects now under way, with a tab of roughly $1 billion: the expansions of the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario; the new home for National Ballet School; renovations to the Royal Conservatory of Music and Gardiner Museum; and, at long last, a new opera house.
In other words, precisely the type of developments that characterize today's great cities for urban futurist Richard Florida, who rates Toronto among the top three or four creative cities on the planet.
And yet, and yet.
In giving the William Kilbourn Lecture last fall, John Honderich — former publisher of the Star and now a special adviser to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty on the future of the GTA — touched on another aspect of civic consciousness that lags reality.
He harkened back to the raucous debate, nearly 40 years ago, about whether Toronto should purchase a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore for the then-new City Hall. It even spawned an election in which the winning slogan was "Sewers not Moores." (Private citizens ended up buying the sculpture anyway.)
There is, Honderich lamented, still an unhappy legacy from those days, what he called "the deeply ingrained inferiority complex that continues to grip this city in its view of itself and its place in the world."
For Larry Richards, a professor of architecture at the University of Toronto, that's why all of the new cultural projects need to be a resounding success, as "proofs of excellence."
Will that be enough? Maybe.
"Toronto has to come out of its pessimism and just be more confident and believe that things are possible," says Richards. "If you start believing, then people want to make things happen."
But great cities also have more than a strutting confidence: They combine that with a keen, almost visceral sense of themselves.
"(The writer) Jane Jacobs uses the word `style' in an interesting way," says Richards. "A city and people, no matter what kind of socio-economic status, need to have this identity by way of style.
"What's the Toronto style, the same way you might say Amsterdam has a style or Barcelona has a style? I think we're getting close to knowing that we have that."
Richards — and he's not alone — now finds himself keenly awaiting a movie called The Sentinel, just opening in theatres around the world, and starring Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland.
Like countless other movies, it was filmed in Hollywood North — but with one, portentous difference:
Instead of playing cinematic stand-in for New York, Chicago or London, Toronto will finally be playing itself.