Homecomings are always slightly curious affairs. After four years studying in a compact college, we return to our home towns feeling either overwhelmed by the scale or relieved by the delights of big city anonymity. Sometimes we sheepishly sneak back to the comfort of a former workplace and settle into the mundane rhythm, feeling at once welcomed and resented by colleagues new and old. In relationships we occasionally stray into greener pastures, frolic in the tall grasses and then realise it wasn’t the cleverest idea to venture beyond our well-appointed paddock.
Last week marked something of a homecoming when I touched down in Toronto to open a new bureau and shop for Monocle, and an office for my branding agency. While I’ve been back to Toronto often (two trips a year on average) since I packed up and headed to Britain, the signing of a lease, hiring staff and hosting a party all signalled that I’d somehow “come home”.
When I boarded my flight to Manchester 23 years ago, Toronto was trying to figure out its place in Canada. Having absorbed waves of English speakers and entrepreneurs fed up with the politics of Quebec, the slightly uptight city on the shores of Lake Ontario was coming to grips with various titles ranging from “the business capital of Canada” to “the nation’s most important city”. Fresh capital and talent allowed more office towers to spring up from its downtown core. At the end of subway lines, satellite business hubs sprouted with more high-rises and residences. Along the lake, walls of ugly condominiums shot up with little thought given to public access or aesthetics. And, at the airport, routes were being added to accommodate all the Hong Kong residents keen to get their children into local schools and to secure Canadian passports. Throughout the 1990s, Toronto shifted its focus to figuring out its place in North America. Was it a Chicago with a less beautiful shoreline, better crime rates and stubbier skyscrapers? Or could it really claim to be a more squeaky-clean version of New York?
For reasons both obvious and less so, Toronto has always been obsessed with the frontier that lies 90 minutes down the highway. Despite the immigrant communities that help maintain regular (if not daily) flights to Seoul, Mexico City, Shanghai, São Paulo and Kiev, Toronto likes to follow a US model when it comes to residential, office and retail developments rather than carving out its own vernacular.
The suburbs that seem to stretch all the way to Lake Simcoe look similar to the ones that roll on endlessly around Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas. The condos that cut into the skyline and interrupt once leafy neighbourhoods are works of engineering rather than architecture. The office towers are not celebrated in global design and architecture journals.
Today, Toronto is wrestling with its role in the world. Should it continue to look south because it will continue to offer endless opportunity for the foreseeable future? Or should it bank on Asia and Latin America while keeping in with its relatives in Europe? And what should it do with the results of all the poor urban planning? Does it knock down ugly towers and bury the raised motorway that gouges through the city?
For the moment, Toronto doesn’t want to focus on any single direction. There’s much talk of being world class but, as with any city, the proof is on the street. Fortunately, there’s plenty going on at pavement level – particularly with small-scale start-ups, well-designed cafés and tasty restaurants. The city has the good fortune of being one of the few North American cities that not only boasts a vibrant downtown but also has lively neighbourhoods. Off busy boulevards with low-rise commercial buildings are hundreds of tree-lined residential streets with higgledy-piggledy architecture and front lawns. There are walkable neighbourhoods connected by buses and streetcars. There are lots of independent shops and, most importantly, there is real life on the street. It was this dense, green and well-serviced vision of Toronto that first attracted urbanist Jane Jacobs, and it’s still one of the city’s strongest calling cards.
Unfortunately, Toronto’s been lacking a visionary urban champion at a government level for too long and its developers seem preoccupied with erecting structures that offer little more than the basics for residential and commercial tenants.
As investment continues and big infrastructure initiatives are unveiled, the city’s challenge is to move from a position of fulfilling the basics to fostering a culture of excellence. According to some estimates, Toronto has more development under way than any other western city – it doesn’t take much touring around the city to be convinced of such claims. But the bulk of what’s being constructed is disconnected from the city’s fine neighbourhoods. Toronto needs a compelling plan to chart a new course on the world stage, it needs to preserve its eclectic districts, it needs to impose a blanket ban on more mediocre buildings. Any takers for filling such a post?
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule