Taking the stage to deliver a keynote address at the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) inaugural Toronto Symposium, renowned urbanist Richard Florida wasted no time in proclaiming his admiration for Toronto, celebrating his adopted city as a global leader in urban renewal and the arresting of urban sprawl. Yet, for all of Florida's enthusiasm about Toronto, the speech diagnosed a cresting urban crisis, proving to be an alarming call to action rather than a celebration of the city's accomplishments. 

As perhaps the most prominent public intellectual to move to Toronto in the 21st century—following in the footsteps of his idol and mentor, Jane Jacobs—Florida began by giving a narrative of Toronto's transformative urbanization, which brought him to the city in 2007. Now the head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at U of T's Rotman School, Florida seemed eager to celebrate Toronto and congratulate the audience gathered before him.

Urban Land Institute, Toronto Symposium 2015, Richard FloridaRichard Florida at ULI's Toronto Symposium, image by Edward Skira

However, the urban theorist's enthusiasm in singing the city's praises proved merely the short-lived dramatic overture to a withering analysis of why he now sees many of the city's best qualities as under threat. 

Cities and the Creative Class

"Toronto was and continues to be one of the most exciting cities in the world for urban development," Florida told the audience. "The city's rapid urbanization, combined with the halting of suburban sprawl, created a vibrant urban environment realm that—unlike New York or London, which are becoming enclaves for the super-rich—remained accessible to creative class professionals, fostering a dynamic and creative urban realm. Here is where the future of urbanism lies, I thought to myself," he continued, "in an exceptionally tolerant, progressive city that promotes density and diversity, nurtures the creative class, and offers something for everyone."

Florida's early enthusiasm for Toronto was largely founded on the city's ability to attract the "creative class" of workers, a trademark concept—coined by Florida himself—that identifies knowledge-based urban professionals as the predominant driving force of 21st century economies. Florida argues that the preponderance of workers in creative professions (ranging from bio-tech and education to theatre, engineering, and computer programming) is becoming an increasingly important economic factor.

In order to nurture and attract creative class workers, Florida postulates that urban environments need to be diverse, tolerant (specifically, gay-friendly), and eclectic. If a vibrant urban social social milieu is the determining factor in attracting creative class professionals, then creating successful cities—which, through their high densities are much better suited to be incubators of creativity than rural and suburban areas—is the main key to broader economic success.

Cover of the 10th anniversary edition of The Rise of the Creative Class, image cCover of the 10th anniversary edition of The Rise of the Creative Class, image courtesy of creativeclass.com

According to Florida, maintaining the diverse and tolerant population necessary to perpetuate the exchange of ideas and viewpoints that drive the creative economy requires effective urbanism. Urban diversity, density, and social cohesion (facilitated by transit and effective planning) are "not only the drivers of good cities, but of entire economies," the urban theorist explained, positioning "quality of place" as the key ingredient to socially and economically successful environments. 

The urban-oriented "creative class" theory championed by Florida runs contrary to much of recent socio-economic thought. While many thinkers have postulated that technological advances (particularly the internet) have reduced the importance of place, with global communication now far easier than ever before, Florida disagrees. "Thomas Friedman was dead wrong when he wrote The World is Flat," Florida proclaimed, arguing that the physical and social geography of cities is becoming more important than ever before, "the world is spiky, and great cities are the tallest spikes."

Technology, Florida claims, is not as important as the creativity of the individuals that harness it, with the creative abilities of professionals proving the key to economic success. "The economy requires good urban neighbourhoods and good communities," Florida argued, positioning the urban environment as the fundamental incubator of creativity.

Toronto's New Urban Crisis

"The 2010 Mayoral election signalled that something is very wrong with this city," Florida warned, asking how "such a progressive and inclusive place could begin to seem so divided" following the election of Rob Ford. "What became apparent—and has continued to become more apparent since—is that this city is leaving many of its people behind." 

Florida's contention that the election of Rob Ford evidenced growing problems had less to do with the now ex-Mayor's policies than the socio-cultural trends that saw him elected, however. Ford's electoral base, commonly known as Ford Nation, "did not reflect the creative class, showing us that a huge number of people have been left out. To this day, only 40% of Torontonians are in the creative class, while 45% continue to fall further and further behind in the service class." 

The growing disparity in economic success and opportunity has been noted by many urban thinkers, becoming particularly acute in Toronto. According to Florida—whose upcoming book will tackle the subject—a sharply stratified urban realm does not foster creativity, since stark economic differences threaten the diversity and openness that spurs creative environments. 

The economic stratification seen in Toronto (and many cities throughout the world) also manifests itself through geography, with an urban-suburban divide becoming increasingly apparent. While "40% of Toronto's employed residents are members of the creative class, this number rises to 75-90% Downtown," Florida noted, pointing out the stark economic boundaries in Toronto's geography.

Toronto's rising Midtown skyline, viewed from Nelson Street, image by Marcus MitToronto's rising skyline, viewed from Nelson Street, image by Marcus Mitanis

While the concentration of creative professionals in the urban core underscores the importance of "place" in fostering economic growth, the "sharp disparity between Downtown wealth and the rest of the city endangers creativity," said Florida.  

Florida also argued that an economically stratified urban landscape can eventually threaten to "push out the creative class itself." Citing London, New York, and San Francisco as negative examples of cities whose urban cores have become little more than "sheltered enclaves for the super-rich," cloistering away extremely wealthy members of society but contributing almost nothing  to the economy in terms of creative thinking and collaboration. In other words, innovation and creativity don't tend to come from the Upper East Side.

Five Macro Trends to Improve the Urban Realm

After examining the significant harms of stratification and geographic disparities, Florida prescribed five broad trends to preserve the creativity of Toronto's urban realm, while noting that a committed Federal Government could significantly help maintain the health of the urban environment. Concluding the thought-provoking lecture, Florida left us to consider these five concepts as potential solutions for Toronto:

  1. Density. In order for urban environments to foster the creativity and diversity that Florida identifies as critical to economic success, the influx of urban density needs to continue. Expanding housing stock makes the urban core both more economically accessible (by increasing supply) and more creatively vibrant, with new residents allowing for a more vigorous exchange of ideas and perspectives. Living in dense, urban environments can also breed tolerance, allowing for the benefits of diversity to express themselves more fully. Disparaging the NIMBY movement as "neo-luddism," Florida argued that density is instrumental to urban success.
  2. New Kinds of Suburbs. Recognizing that suburban streetscapes will continue to house a significant portion of the population, Florida argued that suburban areas need to be re-made into more socially and economically vibrant environments. Citing the work of Ellen Dunham Jones (whose ULI presentation will be profiled in the coming days), Florida called for a thorough re-imagining of the suburbs.
  3. High-Speed Rail. The geographic nature of Toronto's socio-economic disparities can in large part be mitigated by the development of more high-speed rail, making Downtown more accessible to residents of the city's peripheries. With the 20th century's automobile culture leaving behind some of the worst congestion in North America as its legacy, significant economic productivity and urban vibrancy has also been lost to the car.  
  4. Make a Commitment to Quality of Place. A more theoretical approach to improving the city, prioritizing "quality of place" necessities a paradigm shift in political and economic thought. The importance of effective urbanism becomes much more sharply pronounced if we realize the staggering economic benefits—on a national scale—of healthy a city.
  5. Push Up the Bottom. Finally, in order to maintain Toronto's ability to nurture the creative economy, Florida's admonishment called for more support to the economically marginalized. Allowing for a socially stratified and economically segregated society has significant negative impacts on the city's broader economic health, Florida warned.


Over the coming days, we will return with more from the Urban Land Institute's Toronto Symposium. Upcoming articles will include insight into Ellen Dunham Jones' presentation on suburban renewal, as well as the plenary discussion—moderated by Jennifer Keesmaat—regarding the impact of disruptive technologies on the urban realm.

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