The perfect city. Seems like an illusive goal, no? Joe Berridge's new book, released on April 24th, takes a look at eight cities around the world (Toronto, New York, Singapore, London, Manchester, Belfast, Sydney, and Shanghai), in order to try and figure out what makes them similar, what makes them different from each other, and what sets them apart from other cities around the globe.

Berridge, a partner at Urban Strategies, is an urban planner and city builder who has had an integral role in the development of complex urban planning and regeneration projects in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Europe and Asia. He also teaches at the University of Toronto and is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

I have decided to take a more personal approach to this article, since that is exactly what Berridge has done with his book. In contrast to many other planning books, this reads much more like a diary of personal experiences intertwined with planning theory. The usual takes on the top-down vs bottom-up ideals of Moses and Jacobs are infused with personal anecdotes, which in the end create a much richer reading experience.

As an Urban Planner myself (though granted one with significantly less experience than Mr. Berridge), I can certainly understand and appreciate the planning philosophy that underpins his views as both a professional, and more generally as an urban dweller. His analogy, which I think is quite accurate, is that Planners are merely mechanics, adjusting and fine-tuning the complex machine that is the modern city.

I have also chosen to interpret this book through the lens of "how do other cities do things, and how can that help Toronto?". This is UrbanToronto, after all. While Mr. Berridge does make frequent direct references back to Toronto throughout the book, many other references are left up to the reader to interpret and compare.

Berridge was born and raised in an English country town, and moved to Toronto for grad school in 1968. In the era of 'Toronto the Good', the thing about the city that struck him the most was just how provincial it was. It was not until he moved away, only to return a few years later that he discovered how much the city had changed. As he so eloquently states, "the seeds of regeneration are not local, they are blown in from afar, although they need this healthy urban soil to flourish”. Toronto certainly had this healthy urban soil, and it was on streets like Spadina Avenue where these seeds began to bear fruit. He found that between the time he left and the time he returned, the street had changed from a typical British North American Toronto street to one that featured a wide range of Jewish to Eastern European shops and restaurants. Few to none of those same stores exist today. He described Spadina as "a fine-boned mess of a street that remains essentially the same every time it changes completely", which is a perfect description.

Spadina Ave in 1970, image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

His return was also during the period of the battle over the Spadina Expressway, and you cannot be too deeply involved in that without crossing paths with Jane Jacobs. While Berridge does provide a nice background on the diametrically opposed city building theories of Jacobs and Robert Moses, the main attraction for me was the personal stories he shares about his time with Jane. From the time she proceeded to tell him that he was "tawking nansense" (in her typical New York accent) while on stage at a seminar with her, to a time a year or so before she passed where she had him stop at a corner store to pick up a pack of cigarettes for her, the anecdotes he includes provide a lot of texture for the reader.

He then moves on to New York, where he details his involvement in the Battery Park City neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan. He also describes the Cornell Tech project on Roosevelt Island in the East River, which he says provides a crucial element for a city's success: attracting the next generation of talent and leaders. For a city to be successful, "all the hard work [must be] done by people in their thirties who must then be pushed into positions of power and influence quickly, later to be re-invigorated by a rush of fresh talent.” While educational institutions are a key element of attracting these people, a housing market that they can actually be a part of is crucial to keeping them, which is a problem that many cities around the world, including New York and Toronto, are currently facing.

Battery Park City, image courtesy of Marvel Architects

Next he profiles Singapore, a City State so diametrically opposed to how Toronto operates that he refers to it as “a walking, talking political science course”. In Singapore, the "war on the car" is an actual thing (unlike in Toronto, where it's nothing more than a politically-convenient slogan anytime someone dare challenge the supremacy of the car). Singapore has one of the lowest car ownership rates in the world, and the government requires prospective drivers to purchase a certificate to buy a car. Like taxi tokens in Toronto, the supply of these certificates is tightly controlled, with only a 1% increase in the total number allowed each year. This has driven the market price of a certificate to over $75,000 per year, with the certificate only being good for a period of ten years. Only after you have this certificate can you actually purchase a car.

Singapore also seems to have large-scale development figured out. A former port area just south of the downtown core has been redeveloped in only a few years. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. Unlike Toronto's Port Lands redevelopment however, which originally required over 350 Environmental Assessments (eventually lobbied down to about 200), Singapore's redevelopment required none. Where there was once shipping containers and cranes, now stands Marina Bay, a vibrant extension of their downtown core.

Marina Bay Sands, image courtesy of Safdie Architects

Moving on to London, Berridge details his involvement with the Canary Wharf redevelopment project, which many now view as the catalyst for the redevelopment of East London. He details a borough called Barking, a multi-cultural suburban community that until the transit improvements like the Jubilee Line that were spurred by Canary Wharf, lacked adequate transit connections to the rest of the city. One can't help but draw parallels to areas in Toronto like Scarborough or Northern Etobicoke.

Detailing Crossrail, the massive rail project currently snaking its way under and across London, he explains how London's governance structure makes such a project possible. The Greater London Authority oversees the 'big-ticket' items, while the 33 borough governments look after the more fine-grain items. It's the governance structure that Metro Toronto was supposed to be, before it was ultimately scrapped in the 1990s in favour of the single-tier government Toronto has today. With Transport for London (TfL) providing transit service across the region, it's hard not to look at that setup with envy.

Crossrail map, image courtesy of TfL

Berridge's detailing of Manchester and Belfast's struggles with overcoming deindustrialization aren't particularly relevant to Toronto, but nevertheless they do offer some interesting insights into those cities and how they are attempting to re-invent themselves.

Sydney is the city in this book that is probably most similar to Toronto. They both share a British colonial history, they have been locked in a duel with a similar-sized city for most of their history (Montreal for Toronto, Melbourne for Sydney), and they are both at the centre of a region that is approximately the same size. Sydney just happens to have the weather that many Torontonians wish they had.

The final city that Berridge looks at is Shanghai, which he calls "the capital city of the future". Shanghai has seen an absolute explosion in population since the 1980s, with its population currently growing by between 700,000 and 800,000 per year. By comparison Toronto, the fastest-growing urban region in North America or Europe, is growing by only 100,000 to 125,000 per year. With a current population of 24 million, Shanghai is projected to reach between 35 and 45 million by 2050, with the Yangtze River Delta region projected to hit 200 million by then as well.

This explosion in population has led to an unprecedented expansion in transportation infrastructure. Shanghai's first metro line opened in 1993, yet it currently has the largest metro system in the world. It currently has twelve lines, five of which are being extended, with an additional four lines under construction. Coming from a city that has endlessly debated a three-stop subway extension for over a decade, this statistic fills me with a mixture of awe and embarrassment.

However, one must point out the vastly different governmental structures that Shanghai and every other city Berridge examines exist under. While the rest of the list must function within some form of a representative democracy, Shanghai is unencumbered by such trivial matters as public opinion, individual or property rights, and modern labour laws. The central government is free to proceed with any projects they see fit to proceed with, and that's that. With a system like that, it's somewhat less surprising the scale at which Shanghai is able to build, though it still does leave one envious for some kind of middle ground.

Shanghai in 1990 vs 2010, 1990 photographer unknown, 2010 by Sam Gao

Circling back to Toronto, Berridge addresses one of the strangest complexes that Torontonians have; the strange mixture of feeling superior on the Canadian stage, but inadequate on the world stage. In reality, as far as most important cities in the world go, Toronto ranks between 6th and 16th (depending on the study). There are only two cities that were not economically significant a century ago have since joined the global premier league: Singapore and Toronto.

One of Toronto's biggest strengths is its attractiveness as an immigration destination. It's been a key element in Toronto's rise to global prominence. As Berridge points out, "each time the world convulses, some tens of thousands of newcomers appear in Toronto’s streets".

In terms of growth, Toronto (and Canada) is also overly-modest. Statistics Canada put the Greater Toronto Area with a population of 6.5 million. However, if the statistical methodology of the U.S. Census Bureau were to be used, Toronto would be close to 13 million, making Toronto the third largest urban region after New York and Los Angeles. At current rates of growth, it will pass Los Angeles by mid-century.

Looking south across Toronto's nascent South Core, image by Craig White

So what does make a perfect city? You'll be able to find out for yourself when you pick up a copy of the book.