6 things the Twin Cities can learn from Toronto

While the population of the metropolitan area is racing toward 6 million, the urban core of Toronto nonetheless remains an easy-going place where locals have the option of living in tidy neighborhoods of single houses and duplexes or sleek high-rise apartments looking out over the blue of Lake Ontario.

This is the last in a series of three articles about what innovative ideas Minneapolis-St. Paul can borrow from our peer cities, adapted from Jay Walljasper’s new McKnight Foundation report, “A Tale of Three Cities.” First we looked at Denver, then Seattle.

For a peek at the future of American cities — if current trends continue — look at Toronto.

While the population of the metropolitan area is racing toward 6 million, the urban core of Toronto nonetheless remains an easy-going place where locals have the option of living in tidy neighborhoods of single houses and duplexes or sleek high-rise apartments looking out over the blue of Lake Ontario. Transportation choices abound — a speedy subway, streetcars on all major streets, commuter trains that carry 187,000 daily passengers, as well as biking, walking and driving.

The solid but not necessarily fancy neighborhoods of the pre-World War II city have become increasingly popular, to the point where there are no concentrations of poverty anymore. The downtown, heavily redeveloped in a 1970s aesthetic, is nothing to shout about but the neighborhood “main streets” are a delight, packed with useful and interesting shops, most of them locally owned. It ranks as one of North America’s best food towns, and the selection of art galleries, museums, theaters, music clubs and concert halls stirs the imagination.

Tour the world in a single day

You really feel part of the future here walking down these streets alongside young people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Forty-six percent of residents in the metropolitan area are foreign-born, not even counting children of immigrants. You can tour the world in a single day, visiting Little India, Little Portugal, two Little Italys, Koreatown, Greektown, a number of Chinatowns and then hit the Kensington Street Market for a taste of the city’s Latin American, Middle Eastern, Tibetan, Jewish, Hungarian, Rastafarian and countercultural flavor.

While ethnic enclaves spice the city’s atmosphere, people of all backgrounds freely mingle. My most recent visit happened to coincide with Valentine’s Day and when my wife, Julie, and I celebrated at a cozy Italian restaurant, we appeared to be the only couple in the place that shared the same ethnic heritage.

That’s not to say problems don’t exist. One urban planner has described the Toronto region as Vienna surrounded by Phoenix, meaning a walkable, thriving core city surrounded by vast tracts of sprawl.

The growing wealth of the center city has pushed lower-income people to inner-ring suburbs, where resentments fester. And that brings us to Rob Ford, the embattled mayor who was caught smoking crack on video but nonetheless remains in office and popular with some voters who cheer his populist posturing against urban elites.

REUTERS/Aaron Harris
“Rob Ford is the backlash to the new Toronto.”

Ford would not be Toronto’s mayor except that the city merged with its close-in suburbs a few years ago. (Wealthier outlying suburbs are not part of the city.) Ford won 47 percent of the vote, carrying nearly every precinct in what were once suburbs while his opponents swept all those in the center of town. Ford’s political capital has been sapped by scandals, but his critics have not been able to extract him from City Hall. (He is currently at a rehabilitation facility during a leave of absence.)

“Rob Ford is the backlash to the new Toronto,” says Toronto Star urban affairs reporter Christopher Hume.

All the markers of urban success I found in central Toronto — the energy, the youthfulness, the multicultural hipness — must make people who can’t afford to live there feel left out.

Similarities (and differences) with MSP

In some ways, Toronto and Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) match up closely. Both are cold-weather cities, with a reputation for civility, efficiency and a certain cautiousness in their municipal personality. Both enjoy stable, diverse local economies, where no one industry dominates.

But there are enormous differences, too. Toronto is the largest city and economic capital of an entire nation. Almost half the metropolitan population is foreign-born, which fosters local connections to virtually every corner of the world. MSP is not experiencing the rapid population growth, booming real-estate prices and accompanying gentrification at anywhere near the same level as Toronto. And the simple fact that Toronto is located in Canada means it plays by different rules in social service programs, immigration policy, arts funding and land-use planning.

Here are areas where the Minneapolis-St. Paul region (MSP) can learn from Toronto’s remarkable success and the ensuing backlash.

1. Pay attention to unintended consequences of urban revival

Continuing urban revival in Minneapolis and St. Paul does not necessarily mean suburbs will wither, or suburban dwellers will become fueled by rage. Metropolitan success is not a zero sum game. But Toronto’s experience should remind us to pay attention to: 1) the impact of gentrification; and 2) the need for urban necessities like transit and good public spaces in suburbs.

“We are facing the problems of success. So the issue for the future is how do you densify the inner-ring suburbs,” remarks Ken Greenberg, Toronto’s former director of Urban Design and Architecture who has also done extensive work for the University of Minnesota and St. Paul.

2. Don’t rest on your laurels

A significant factor in Toronto’s stark urban-suburban divide is that “the city has rested on its laurels,” explains Emily Munroe, program director of 8-80 Cities, an organization working to create more livable cities around the world. Munroe notes that transit improvements have been scant since the 1970s, with only modest subway extensions into the suburbs and no new streetcar or light rail lines developed until recently. Even the sidewalk network trails off beyond the urban center.

That’s why Ford’s campaign vow that “the war on the car is over” resonated with many voters. But Greenberg notes, “We’ve reached the point of no return — new roads are not going to solve the problems of congestion.”

3. Cultivate streetlife

Like beloved places in Europe, Asia or Latin America, a lot of Toronto’s public life takes place on the street — even in the winter months when MSP largely hibernates. The city’s lifeblood are the “main streets” — commercial corridors criss-crossing town with miles of small shops, rarely interrupted by parking lots. Regular streetcar service and narrow road widths keep traffic speeds down, which encourages more people to use the sidewalks as a town square where they can hang out.

Narrowing streets, adding streetcars and creating parking maximums for businesses (rather than the minimums we have today) would make great strides for enlivening neighborhoods in MSP.

4. Help immigrants feel at home

“Toronto is the most diverse city in the world,” explains Laidlaw Foundation director Jehad Aliweiwi, a Palestinian immigrant who moved to the city 25 years ago. Miami, he notes, is home to a larger percentage of foreign-born residents, but most are from Latin America while Toronto welcomes large numbers from China, India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Latin America.

Toronto welcomes large numbers of immigrants from China, India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Latin America.

Ken Greenberg, who himself emigrated from New York City, notes that most residents believe the city’s international profile positions it well in the global economy, and that numerous immigrants bring entrepreneurial skills to start new businesses.

“People are not under any pressure to shed their culture and language here,” he says. “That has served us well. Toronto’s unique character attracts people from all over the world to live in relative harmony.”

That doesn’t happen automatically. “Part of the reason that immigrants succeed here is that they are provided with the resources and opportunities to succeed, especially in the first three years,” says Aliweiwi.

The frontline for these efforts are found in a network of more than 30 neighborhood centers across the city, which focus on three areas: 

1)   Information and orientation about essential services such as schools, banking, translation services and tax registration.

2)   Language training, both formal classroom instruction and informal cultural-immersion experiences.

3)   Job-search workshops, covering the ABCs of the Canadian job market and practical skills like composing résumés and getting accreditation. “It’s about how you market yourself to get the best job for your skills and experience,” says Aliweiwi, who notes that many of these programs are available to Canadian-born citizens too.

5. Make winter warmer for newcomers

 “Ninety-nine percent of immigrants aren’t prepared for winter,” Aliweiwi estimates. “The neighborhood centers show them how to dress for the cold and how to put a snowsuit on a kid. How to ski and especially how to skate. We want them to become as fluent in Canada’s national game as in English. I’m amazed how many people from hot places like Pakistan and India come out to play hockey.”

6. Invite an immigrant family for Thanksgiving

Another successful effort in uniting people of all backgrounds is the  tradition of some Canadian families to invite new immigrants over for Thanksgiving dinner. “As an immigrant this gives you a sense that this is a place you want to be part of — it excites the shared civic spirit,” Aliweiwi recalls.

How MSP stacks up to our peer cities

Exploring Toronto, as well as Denver and Seattle in earlier stories, reminded me of MSP’s strengths, too. Our extensive park systems and off-road bicycle trails beats anything I saw in Seattle, Denver or Toronto, offering us remarkably easy access to outdoor recreation. Wonky but worthwhile achievements like regional tax base sharing and the wide-angle focus of the Metropolitan Council would benefit Seattle or Denver.

And just as important to our day-to-day lives, Seattle ought to envy our sunshine, Denver our natural green landscapes and Toronto our mayors.

In truth, my research shows the No. 1 concern about MSP’s future among many people — the achievement gap in education and income between whites and people of color — also haunts Seattle and Denver, which provide no ready answers under current economic and political conditions. Even Toronto is seeing growing social divisions based on income.

Overall, what struck me most in my travels to these peer cities is the transformative role that transit and well-planned urban density play in their success. I came home more convinced than ever of the importance of building an extensive light-rail/streetcar network and creating more neighborhoods with a big-city ambiance.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/06/2014 - 09:42 am.

    Finding only what you were looking for?

    “I came home more convinced than ever of the importance of building an extensive light-rail/streetcar network and creating more neighborhoods with a big-city ambiance.”

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/06/2014 - 10:56 am.

    I haven’t been to Toronto since 1981

    when I was a graduate student attending the hiring convention for my field. I stayed with some fellow students in a B&B in a residential neighborhood and rode the streetcar to the convention hotel (which was way out of our price range).

    It was a fairly long streetcar trip, and we passed through several kinds of neighborhoods. At one point, one of my fellow students remarked, “This is obviously a poor neighborhood, but it doesn’t feel scary.”

    “That’s because the residents haven’t lost hope,” another replied.

  3. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 06/06/2014 - 01:53 pm.

    #7. Don’t elect a wing-nut mayor like Rob Ford

  4. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 06/06/2014 - 05:49 pm.

    Intelligent Community of the Year

    Today, Toronto was named Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum (www.intelligentcommunity.org) based on their broadband network, knowledge workforce, innovation, digital inclusion efforts and high technology marketing.

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