Toronto, Ontario: A Big City that Works

North America’s most livable big city

| May-June 1997


When it comes to urban living, as with ice hockey and health care, the United States has a lot to learn form Canada. Toronto, the country’s largest metropolis, with a population of almost 4 million, ranks on many experts’ list as one of the world’s great cities. The United Nations ranks it as the most multicultural city in the world. And big-city dwellers in the United states frequently look north with envy at Toronto’s low crime rates, excellent public transportation, charming residential neighborhoods, cosmopolitan energy, and sophisticated cultural scene.

It’s the place where Jane Jacobs, widely acclaimed as the most important champion of urban livability, settled with her family after writing the groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs points out a number of Toronto’s most attractive qualities: First, the heart of town was never ripped apart by freeways. In the ‘50s, when American transportation planners were giving birth to the interstate highway system, Toronto was building a world-class subway, and the freeways are still confined to the edges of town. Second, Toronto escaped the worst damage of urban renewal, unlike many large American cities where working-class neighborhoods were bulldozed and replaced with sterile modern development projects. Third, Canadian banks never went in for redlining—the practice of refusing to loan money to people and businesses in poor neighborhoods. Slums don’t just happen, Jacobs points out: “It takes a lot of effort to make a slum. There are no slums in Toronto. There are lots of neighborhood right in the center of the city that are desirable places to live. And people of all kinds of incomes live there.”

Although the downtown area is Toronto’s architectural showplace, it’s the neighborhoods that really make the town. Many of them have a strong cultural identity—from Chinese to Greek to artsy—as well as containing lively business districts within easy walking distance. In addition to the subways, there’s a comfortable and efficient streetcar system.

Toronto is not immune to urban problems, and it’s currently facing threats from the conservative provincial government, whose plan to slash all sorts of social services in order to cut income taxes—if it is successful—could tarnish the city’s shining image. Yet opposition to these policies remains strong, says Jacobs as Toronto’s quietly proud citizenry lines up to protect the future of North America’s most livable big city.