Toronto v. Minneapolis

I first went to Toronto when I was 12. I had been following the city for a few years, having written to the city’s economic development / tourism office asking for reading materials as a young wannabe planner the summer before (along with about 50 other North American cities, whose addresses I obtained from the World Almanac). I was born before the Internet made this information trivial to obtain, so I carefully hoarded and filed information about cities. To be clear, I am not so obsessive that I still have it … at some point space constraints dictated recycling … , the only files I retain from my youth are really “rare” new town planning documents from the 1970s and 1980s. At any rate, based on the idea of Toronto, it was the city I most wanted to visit.





My father took me to Toronto with one of his friends who was a general aviation pilot, and so I went in a Piper and landed at City Airport. The primary purpose of the trip from my perspective was to visit the Canadian National Exhibition (the Ex), a cross between a State Fair and World’s Fair (closer to a State Fair). The Ex, the adjacent Ontario Place, and the rest of the city was modern and seemed like the future. The underground city (PATH) connecting the retail buildings makes the city like a single super-structure, an arcology. The City Hall was a classic of modernist architecture, taking the glass box and shape-shifting into something not boxy. The Hilton, with its rotating restaurant and best breakfast buffet ever gives a magnificent view of the city.

Ontario Place, the World’s Fair-like part, (which was part of the Ex when I attended, but is now being redeveloped) with its pre-Epcot, post-Expo ’67 geodesic dome and skybridges connected to the waterfront. But oddly wedged between the Expressway and Lake Shore Boulevard (rather than the Lake), the CNE fairgrounds layout, the State Fair-like part, without Ontario Place would make a modern urbanist cringe. Looking at the maps (linked at the bottom of this page) the worst bit is putting parking on the waterfront, which at least during Fair Season, should be a major attraction. (Some may argue the freeway cutting the city off from the waterfront is the worst part, which is hard to dispute.)

Many years later, after a conference in Ottawa, I took ViaRail to Toronto. While staying at a Howard Johnson’s during its last week of operation (really never stay in a hotel that is about to close, staff does not care), I walked from downtown and revisited the CNE and Ontario Place grounds (well I looked at them through a fence) (not during Fair season), and like any set of unused buildings, it seems more like a Hollywood set of what the 1970s thought the future would be like.

Ontario Place is where they would have set Star Trek: The Original Series for an episode describing a slightly more advanced planet, where everyone was civilized and there was universal health care, but there was some twist, like once a week, all the men get on the ice and whack each other with sticks, which the peaceable crew of the Enterprise abhors. And then they force Kirk, Spock, and McCoy into hockey uniforms, and make them play against professionals. (This is not all that different from Minnesota, but is unlike the rest of the US, where men get on ice-free gridirons and run into each other) [200 Quatloonies on the newcomers].

Still Toronto is one of my favorite cities.

To help administer a PhD exam at the University of Toronto, I went back to the city and spent time in and around the University district. This year, with my wife I went for the IATBR and we walked the central city on foot, visiting different parts than previous.

Toronto was founded before Minneapolis, and has always been larger. It now has a population of 2.6 million people in the City, and 5.5 in the Metro, vs. 0.4 million in the City of Minneapolis and 3.6 in the CMSA. Today Toronto has a population density 4,149/km^2 vs. 2,710 for the City of Minneapolis. So we expect Toronto to differ. But it differs more than we expect. It is not just the same city larger, rather it is a city in a different phase of matter.

Both cities are on a grid, yet Toronto is continuously walkable, and has more walk accessibility. The block sizes are smaller in central Toronto than Minneapolis (i.e. each Minneapolis squarish block is bisected in Toronto to be more rectangular, though the long side of the rectangle in a Toronto block is a bit longer than the long side of the Minneapolis block). (This of course is an approximation, as the grids in both cities vary.) The houses are less likely to have a side yard in Toronto. So in a single family neighborhood near the City Center, Toronto has 22 houses per blockface, Minneapolis about 11. And since the densities are higher, there is more to walk to. Sections of Minneapolis are walkable, but it is hard to find a decent path connecting it all, Uptown to the University, e.g.

Minneapolis has a skyway, Toronto the underground PATH, I call that a wash, both are cool, and logical responses to Winter.

The tallest buildings in Minneapolis (IDS Tower and Wells Fargo) are 57 stories. The CN tower is 147 stories equivalent, but it isn’t really a building. There are taller buildings in Toronto, First Canadian Place is 72 stories, which is higher, and what we expect for a somewhat larger city. So we can’t say Toronto is more walkable because it is flatter (i.e. because it spreads its people out over more surface area) due to height restrictions.

Subways have organized mobility in Toronto since 1954, which has the third highest transit ridership in North America. The Subways are arranged in a tight U pattern, so it is easy to walk from the Spadina/University branch to the Yonge Street branch. But there is a crossing line on Bloor Street, providing great accessibility at the interchanges. The key is that it is not a simple radial system. Further there are still streetcars, which were not removed as they were elsewhere. The best analogy for Bloor Street is Lake Street in Minneapolis, in that it bypasses downtown (about 1 mile N) and has lots of activity. Bloor is much ritzier than Lake though.

The subway in Toronto is unusual in that one can walk between the cars, as they have accordion-like articulations. But since they are much longer than the single (or double) articulated bus, looking down the train from one end to the other as it rounds a curve is dizzying.

Toronto is on a lake, so like Chicago, to enable just as many people to have equal access to the “center”, you have to have higher densities than a city on a plane (like Minneapolis). I discuss this a bit in a previous post on The Theory of Constraints.

Toronto serves a different role than Minneapolis, it is a financial capital, having locked in its position when Montreal decided to be Francophone first.

Airport connections via Transit are much easier in Minneapolis. In Toronto, they are clearly and deservedly ashamed of their airport transit links. Unless you are already a local and have a transit pass or tickets, it is difficult to find them at the airport (it is at the Currency Exchange if you are looking), and that puts you on a broken-down bus that connects to the edge of the Rapid Transit rail system. The airport bus stops do not have shelter, or real-time information. The tickets are old-timey paper passes, which have probably been in use since buses were motorized.

So what can Minneapolis learn from Toronto?

  1. Real urban density can work in a midwestern city without significant adverse consequences.

  2. Not all the action is downtown. Where the radials connect is a point of high accessibility.

  3. Annexation and consolidation are a feasible form of governance. The “city” of Toronto has 7 times the population of Minneapolis.

  4. Cities must be opportunistic and welcome immigrants, be they disaffected Quebec bankers or oppressed minorities.

  5. How to serve better food. The bagels and the sushi are much better in Toronto.

What can Toronto learn from Minneapolis?

  1. How to connect an airport to the city.

  2. How to tie a city to its waterfront.

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