Richard Joy is bullish about Toronto. "We're at the heart of the fastest growing urban region in North America, and the most diverse," ULI Toronto's Executive Director tells me, tallying Toronto's numerous urban accomplishments with contagious enthusiasm. From the Greenbelt — "the largest urban containment boundary in North America" — to the ambitiously high-rise suburbs that complement it, to our nascent status as "one of the world's fastest-growing and most dynamic tech hubs," Joy highlights the dynamism of a quickly evolving city. But the point, he stresses, isn't to feel good about ourselves.
Speaking ahead of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) upcoming Toronto Symposium, Joy points to the city's "unique position on the global stage as both an opportunity and a risk." Like many economically successful global cities, Toronto suffers from obvious social equity problems; housing affordability, homelessness, and urban poverty are near-crippling problems amid the city's economic boom. And in a city that loves to celebrate its diversity, access to services and quality of life remain bifurcated along racial and socio-economic lines. Then, there's the more acute urban planning failures — like our aversion to tearing down the East Gardiner, or the gaping chasm separating rational transit planning from political priorities.
For many urbanists, the city's successes and failures are widely known realities. Toronto "has some unique advantages and some not-so-unique problems," says Joy, but it's missing the sense of civic self-confidence required to make the city a global leader. "In the 1970s, there was a greater energy and assertiveness about urbanism, but somewhere along the line we lost the thread, at least branding-wise," Joy argues. "There's a hesitancy to try new things," he says, "and to test out new ideas that haven't been proven elsewhere."
For a city as unique as Toronto, that's a problem. "It's why the theme of Toronto Urbanism frames this year's symposium," says Joy. "It's about us becoming more conscious of our global significance, and exploring what Toronto Urbanism should mean." There's no didactic agenda, Joy stresses. Instead, the event aims to nourish a more assertive city-building zeitgeist. By asking questions, ULI hopes to spur answers.
Taking place November 7th, the symposium offers a diversified and expanded program for 2018. "The programming is decentralized," says Joy, explaining that ULI Toronto's three co-chairs worked with a team of approximately 50 volunteers to develop an eclectic and intersectional program. Developed in collaboration with volunteers whose experiences ranging from social justice work and race relations to real estate financing, the three-day event looks to explore urban issues from varied perspectives.
November 7th's symposium centres on a series of immersive field tours across the region. The 11 full-day tours will take in diverse topics — and places — covering issues including public health, heritage architecture, high-rise living, digital urbanism, suburban place-making, and people-first planning. For ULI Toronto, the tours are a first, offering that Joy described as "opportunities to touch and feel the city" from Toronto laneways to Downtown Markham, and beyond the academic and withdrawn context of a typical land use planning symposium.
Toronto is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of its own success. As more people and more industries pour in, our housing prices surge and inequality grows. It is essential for the real estate industry, urbanists, city-builders and all of us to find solutions for ensuring our city and region remain affordable, liveable, creative and inclusive. We need to take a hard look at where we’re at and where we need to go.
More information about ULI Toronto's upcoming Toronto Urbanism Symposium is available via the ULI website, linked here. The ULI Symposium will also be followed by November 8th and 9th Future Cities Canada Summit.