Toronto needs a new wave of world-scale projects

“We need to do some big things.”

Urban planner Joe Berridge is at it again and we should listen. One of the early catalysts who jerked Toronto out of inertia at the turn of the millennium says it’s time for a new wave of world-scale projects that grab global attention and inspire us at home.

Toronto is nice, an ascending global power, but to stay on top, it has to feel the global competitive knife in its back and embrace the desire to improve and stay ahead of the pack.

Berridge’s 1999 seminal report, “Reinvesting in Toronto: What the Competition is Doing” gave wings to the movement that prodded governments and civic philanthropists to invest in fixing up Toronto’s derelict waterfront, remake and rebrand its cultural attractions, and think big.

People flock here. We are a world player. But to keep them here requires unrelenting thirst to improve.

We could get “lost in domesticity — very nice, but that’s not enough,” he says, drawing on his experience leading urban renewal projects around the world.

Toronto’s social cohesion is enough to attract 125,000 new people each year to the region. But they won’t stay if we can’t employ them and provide opportunities. And that requires global thinking.

Berridge says it is the city’s “moral obligation” to use its taxing power, its wealth, its status as Canada’s only global city and the historical advantages of public education, public health and public services to propel Toronto into super city status.

Toronto is still humming from the buzz created by the ROM, AGO, Four Seasons Centre (opera house), Ontario College of Art and Design, and others.

The Olympics passed us by but the Pan Am Games brought an athlete’s village — “the best athlete’s village anywhere ever,” Berridge says — on the old polluted Ataratiri lands that is now efficiently morphed into real housing.

Berridge, who, through his firm Urban Strategies Inc., sees the best urban projects around the world, says it’s time for a new wave of projects:

• Tourism has suffered as the U.S. looks to erect walls. It needs a jolt that comes from a major new attraction. Ripley’s Aquarium is doing twice as good as anticipated, he says, but little else has arrived lately. Consequently, Toronto is the 63rd most popular tourist city in the world. Not nearly good enough.

• Remake the Convention and Trade Centre. “It’s old, tired, inadequate, chopped up and way too small, and out of the top 10 trade and convention destinations.” Move it to Exhibition Place and Ontario Place to compete with Miami, Atlanta and New York, who are each spending $500 million to refurbish their convention centres.

• Waterfront revitalization is happening right in front of our eyes. It’s nice, but nice is not enough for a city playing on the world stage. It needs significant, big and bold attractions to enhance the beautiful neighbourhoods by the lake that the plans are delivering. Think Millennium Park in Chicago with its photogenic Bean. Or the 101-hectare Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, home to 250,000 rare plants.

• The proposed “rail deck park,” over the railway lands, can be “extraordinary,” Berridge says. Who pays for it? “Cash injection” of taxes, he says.

• Spend more on public amenities. “Toronto looks very shabby for a global city.” To invest in the public realm, city council should increase taxes “commensurate with its operations and responsibilities.” Rather than tax for the city’s needs, city councillors “like to play with other people’s money,” he says.

• Don’t scrimp on transit. Private wealth is overwhelmingly prevalent in the city. But even the rich can’t buy their way out of gridlock. What they’ll do is leave.

• Create a fourth university besides Ryerson, York and U of T — this one designed to attract students from around the world. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg did this to great success with his Science University that aims to boost his city’s high-tech sector.

The broader Toronto region has eight universities and the percentage of foreign students is “lamentably low,” Berridge says. Do we need another? Boston has 35, he says.

“Universities are the cleverest way to import the best brains in the world.”

Toronto is blessed and with that blessing comes responsibilities.

For example, Pearson is an amazing asset. If you are Manchester or Barcelona, you have no direct flights to Singapore. Toronto’s Pearson does — thanks to airport expansion, Air Canada, and now the airport transit link to downtown. That asset must be cherished and enhanced through great transportation links.

There are more people working around Pearson airport than anywhere else in the country, other than downtown Toronto. That’s the impact — and congestion is becoming a constraint on its success.

“After Kennedy (in New York), Pearson is the biggest gateway to North America.” Toronto is the only city in the middle of North America that’s growing.

Meanwhile, for most city councillors who control the spending and visioning required to keep the city humming, all that is lost on them.

Canada is depending on Toronto and city councillors don’t seem to know it. They are stuck in the narrative of “let’s keep taxes low,” let’s retrench and look inward and take care of our backyard — except the backyard has expanded beyond the limited horizons.

Public health works. Education works. There is social cohesion — still. The city should be looking for ways to export that know-how and leverage it to catapult it further ahead.

Instead, the dominant sentiment at city hall is, “We can’t afford to pay for what we need.”

Toronto’s tax base is so broad that if taxes are spread across everyone the city could emerge into the budget black in no time, Berridge says:

“Wealthy? Damn right we’re wealthy. But we want to be a global city and do it by stealth.

“We approve virtual projects — Gardiner, subways, housing with no chance in hell of getting money for them. Virtual projects in a virtual universe of virtual city building. Enough! Make the city a real player. Put skin in the game.

“Ask, what it is going to cost to enhance the global competitiveness of Toronto, and get to it.

“Our big public institutions need to know how to dance in the global market,” he says.



Compare listings


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get the latest on listings, stastics, news about Real Estate and Toronto

Stay Updated
Give it a try, you can unsubscribe anytime.