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Toronto: Laboratory of Urban Innovation

The Toronto Star has an interesting article on Saul Kaplan, a leading US urban planning guru, and how Toronto has evolved over the past 30 years.  Kaplan’s views dovetail with ‘creative class’ thinker Richard Florida who we’ve covered on Buffalo Rising before. 

The Star article touches on many of the topics Buffalo Rising readers talk about every day – creating a more livable city, achitectural preservation and citizen-led economic development.

Here is an excerpt of the article but we encourage you to read the entire feature online at

Taking inventory during previous visits to Toronto, Kaplan sees
enormous promise in the new downtown “Discovery District” alone. The
District is anchored by one of the world’s biggest concentrations of
teaching hospitals, Canada’s largest university, more than two dozen
affiliated R&D institutes, and the decade-old MaRS facility. MaRS
is a public-private partnership that matches scientific breakthroughs
with entrepreneurs, capital and business networks.

collaborative model, run by citizens rather than government, is for
Kaplan and his generation of urbanologists the key to any city’s hope
for an urban renaissance. The old top-down model of
government-conceived and financed projects is outmoded.

City of Toronto and Queen’s Park are fiscally strait-jacketed. Ontario
has reneged on its sworn 2007 promise to fund Transit City. “We’ve
relied on government far too long,” says Frances Lankin, head of the
Greater Toronto United Way.

Lankin is a founding member of
the “2020 Steering Group.” That coalition of civic, business,
social-service and labour representatives hopes to spur a grassroots
vision of what Ontario should look like in 10 years.

As a
former minister in charge of economic development in Rhode Island,
Kaplan finds a similar intimacy in Toronto that makes collaborative
change possible.

“Everyone knows everybody in the smallest
U.S. state, so you can see the whole movie,” Kaplan says of his work in
the state capital, Providence. “Like Toronto, you can easily see how
the neighbourhood groups, colleges, the business community and
government can integrate. How they can combine forces to bring about
remarkable innovations.”

We’ve been here before. It was
grassroots activism in the 1970s that transformed urban planning in
Toronto by killing the planned Spadina Expressway and preventing the
demolition of Old City Hall, Union Station and the Toronto Islands
residential community. It was a citizen-driven movement that made
architectural preservation a priority for developers.

has a very good opportunity to become an urban-innovation hot spot,”
says Kaplan. “It has an active creative class. And there’s a vibrant
conversation about social change that you hear everywhere in the city.

quickly come together in Toronto to discuss challenges,” Kaplan adds.
“And those groups, in turn, form networks to tackle every kind of
social challenge. That is a double blessing. Citizens make a success of
the project they’ve rallied around. And that success attracts talent,
money and other resources to take on still more challenges.”

It’s not as if we have to abandon the top-down government model of civic improvement. We already have.

have Pittsburgh, Turin, Bilbao, Sheffield and other cities that have
lost their 20th-century industrial mainstay, yet thrive after
transforming themselves into knowledge-based economies.

now ranks, for a second year in a row, as America’s “most livable”
city, according to an annual worldwide survey by The Economist.
Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary rank much higher. For the second
consecutive year, they hold the first, fourth and fifth places
worldwide. (London and New York rank 54th and 56th, respectively, due
to low marks on crime and terrorism; quality of education; and for
Gotham, lack of universal health care.)

It can’t be a
coincidence that so many of the Economist’s more livable cities have
embraced a model of citizen-driven urban improvement. Or that the
rehabilitation of Turin, Bilbao and Sheffield, unimaginable two decades
ago, were each public-private projects with heavy citizen input.


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