Our municipal government needs to stop worrying about how Toronto can become a world-class city—because, by any measurable standard, we already are one.
You know the popular internet rule—a variation of Godwin’s Law—that anyone who invokes Hitler in a debate automatically loses? I have long wanted to institute a local variation for civic debates in Toronto, in which anyone raising the term “world class” is instantly disqualified from offering further opinion. The problem is that we might quickly run out of debaters.
This came to mind last week during the triumphant subway-scheme smackdown at City Hall. Mayor Rob Ford got up and said, “Let’s do what will put us on the map as a world-class city…. We must build subways to be a world-class city.”
Forget for a moment that we already have subways, and leave aside the fact that many of the premier cities in the world are building LRTs in their suburban areas this very minute. Let’s focus instead on why this tired, old status-anxiety argument is so often injected into the debate—because Toronto is a world-class city already, right now, by any reasonable estimation.
Pick your metric: In its survey of the “greatest cities in the world” last year, PriceWaterhouseCoopers ranked Toronto number two, behind New York and ahead of Paris, London, Tokyo, and Berlin. A recent presentation given to the Toronto Board of Trade by U of T president David Naylor ran down a few more of our recent rankings in various global studies: We’re second in the Top 10 smart cities, third in quality of life, we have the fourth highest rate of entrepreneurship in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and are the 10th most attractive global innovation destination.
Not only that, The Grid recently ran a cover story about how our music scene—led by Drake, Feist, K’naan, The Weeknd, and Fucked Up—dominates global charts. We have an astoundingly low crime rate for a city our size: Last year, the consulting firm Mercer rated Toronto the 17th safest place in the world to live—35 times safer than Chicago and San Francisco. We likely have the most multicultural population in the world, home to almost twice as many immigrants, proportionally, as London and New York, and contend with almost none of the cultural tension and violence we read about in the news from Paris. We have more tall buildings under construction than any other city in the world by a wide margin. The Economist recently ranked Toronto the 12th most “globally competitive” city in the world for business, and placed us atop the scale in “financial maturity.” In another study, it ranked us the fourth most “livable” city in the world. The list of accolades could go on for pages.
The point is not that Toronto is perfect. There are lots of things we need to improve: Our prosperity could be more widely shared; our infrastructure desperately needs to grow to keep up with our expanding population; immigrants could be still better integrated; and as safe and affordable as Toronto is by world standards, it could always be more so. But if you’re concerned about our status in comparison to other cities, you can relax, because we rank among the very best in the world.
That’s why “world class” is an argument killer in Toronto. Only someone convinced they live in a second-rate craphole would try to make decisions based on imagining what they think a top-notch city would do. It demonstrates a lack of self-assurance unbefitting the leadership of one of the world’s great cities.
The interesting thing about where Toronto stands as a global city today is that it is still growing, still evolving, still defining itself. The question we ought to ask ourselves as we do is, “What is the best way for us to address our weaknesses, capitalize on our strengths, and become even better?” To find answers, we need to look at our own city and our needs, and then consider the options. Sure, we should check out the best examples of what’s worked elsewhere, and evaluate how that might fit into our plans. But we don’t need to worry about whether a particular course of action is something a world-class city would do. Because we are such a city, anything we do becomes something a world-class city does, by virtue of our having done it.