Cities like Toronto and Vancouver operate more similarly to their American counterparts than European metros, yet are still different enough to offer useful lessons.
When urban planners talk about their ambitions for American cities, they often look towards the bike infrastructure of Copenhagen, the transit system of London, or the famous boulevards of Paris.
But maybe that should look a bit closer to home.
In their new book America’s Urban Future, authors Ray Tomalty and Alan Mallach make the case that while European cities are impressive, they aren’t that relevant to American planners, in part because their governments and history are so different from that of the U.S.
Instead, they argue, American urbanists should draw lessons from Canadian cities, which operate more similarly to their American counterparts yet are still different enough to offer useful lessons.
Tomalty is an adjunct professor at McGill University’s School of Urban Planning and principal of the consulting firm Smart Cities Research Services. Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and a former director of housing and economic development for Trenton, New Jersey.
They spoke with the Urban Edge Senior Editor Ryan Holeywell about their new book. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ryan Holeywell: When I speak with urban planners here, of course, all the time they offer up examples of exciting things happening in Europe that American cities should emulate. How’d you get the idea to write about how Americans can learn from Canada?
Ray Tomalty: European cities are seen as ideal cities for Americans because they go to Europe in the summer. They visit Paris and Barcelona and Madrid and Berlin. They think they’re beautiful places. But the problem is, European cities have quite a different context than North American cities. So it makes them apples and oranges.
Their government structure is so different. There’s the history, the amount of land available, the price of land, the concentration on transit infrastructure, the effects of World Wars. It’s all different. There are so many variable distinguishing the Old World from the New World.
Holeywell: So what you’re saying is, even if these places look great, it’s too much of a leap to try to emulate them?
Alan Mallach: A lot of people who write about how we should follow those models either don’t appreciate the differences or are being slightly disingenuous about them.
Tomalty: The differences are bigger than the similarities. Canada is less remarked upon by Americans. It’s kind of taken for granted by many people in the U.S. But the truth is, it’s kind of a perfect situation. Canada has many similarities, but we’re different in ways that really count. We’re different enough that it’s ambitious but similar enough that it’s an achievable target.
Holeywell: I’ve probably run across more Americans who’ve been to Paris and Madrid than Toronto and Montreal. Canadian cities are close to home for Americans, yet we’re drawn to a place that’s so far away. Just from a practical standpoint, it seems to make sense to study a place that’s nearby.
Tomalty: Canadian cities kind of look like U.S. cities. If you put a picture of a Canadian city and a U.S. city in front of me, I might have trouble telling which is which. But when we look below the surface, we find there are very important differences between cities in these two countries.
We gathered data on sustainability issues. Things like greenhouse gas emissions and waste production. Canadian cities were performing a lot better than U.S. cities. We looked at livability issues, and Canadian cities were doing better too. Even though they look somewhat the same, there’s something else going on that makes Canadian cities perform better.
Mallach: I’ve looked at how American cities are becoming increasingly economically polarized. More and more poor people live in poor neighborhoods. The well-to-do live in wealthy neighborhoods. There’s less and less in between. That’s not true in Canada. That trend isn’t happening.
Holeywell: You discuss the way Canadian provinces have more autonomy than U.S. states, but on the flip side, Canadian cities have less autonomy than U.S. cities. How does that interplay affect Canadian cities?
Mallach: In the U.S., to be an incorporated city or town is essentially a birthright. I’ve looked hard to find whether there’s ever been a case in the U.S. where a state, if it had the power to do so, had dissolved a town or forced it to consolidate against its will. Quite literally, I couldn’t find a single example. This happens all the time in Canada.
Clearly, the cities don’t necessarily like it, but they accept this is the way it is. So what it means is you don’t have this urban-suburban dichotomy that you have in the U.S.
Similarly, when a city does its planning, it’s expected that its plan will fit into the regional plans. If the province of Ontario announces there’s a regional strategy for everything in the greater Toronto area to densify, then by God, the local plans better show how they’re going to densify. Otherwise, the regional planning agency simply won’t approve them.
It goes against our much-vaunted ideas about local autonomy. I think the reality is the social and environmental outcomes are better when you have less local autonomy.
Tomalty: We don’t have so much of suburbanization, where people colonize a new farm field and declare themselves a municipality, with super low taxes and only very large lot zoning so only wealth people can live there.
We have less of that because city boundaries tend to incorporate both the central city, with its problems, and the wealthier suburbs, with their resources. There’s more of a sense of cooperation between suburban and downtown.
I’m not saying there aren’t tensions. But they’re manageable. They’re specifically designed to try to minimize the inequalities you get in suburban areas in the U.S.
Holeywell: I wasn’t familiar with it in name, but I knew the concept of “equalization,” which you discuss in the book. How big has its role been in urban Canada?
Tomalty: Basically you pay your property taxes to a central authority, which then distributes them in the form of infrastructure grants and that sort of thing so communities have a minimal standard of public infrastructure. The same thing happens with schooling. The Canadian school system has worked out so large jurisdictions incorporate poor and rich areas. Schools have exactly the same resources. The teachers are paid the same, and the schools get largely the same funding. It doesn’t make for the type of vast night and day differences you see in schools in certain U.S. states.
Holeywell: So that gives people less of an incentive to flee from the urban core, right?
Tomalty: We looked at that and compared urban populations to province wide or statewide populations on a number of indices. It was clear that the disparities were far greater in the United States than in Canada.
Holeywell: There’s a chart in the book that highlights the difference in transit use between large American cities and large Canadian cities. I wasn’t surprised it was higher in Canada, but I was shocked at just how much higher it is. What’s going on?
Tomalty: There are various ways of looking at it. Somebody might assume Canadians spent twice as much on transit. But the truth is the transit systems in Canada are less funded than systems in the U.S. It reflects the macro efficiency of urban areas. It comes down to the bones of the city and how it’s structured. There is consideration given to the layout so that it serves transit.
In some places even people in new suburbs have fairly decent transit service within walking distance of their house. Ottawa is a good example of that. Most people have access to half decent transit, no matter where they live.
Holeywell: One thing you often hear in the U.S. – and it’s probably not fair – is this idea that if you have a city with a dense core, thriving activity, and great transit, you’ll eventually price normal people out of it. Did you look at the cost of living in these Canadian cities? It’s a big issue in Vancouver of course. What about elsewhere?
Tomalty: We didn’t look systemically at the cost of living in the two countries. It’s true that housing prices are very high in Vancouver. But Montreal, for instance, is a very dense city with a very European feel, yet housing prices are extremely low there.
Mallach: Ultimately, housing prices are much more about demand. The density tends to be a response to the prices. Vancouver and Toronto are extraordinarily expensive for reasons having to do with demand. Toronto is becoming a global city. There’s a huge amount of immigration. Halifax and Montreal aren’t particularly expensive cities even though they’re both very attractive cities.
The other thing though is, if you look at the U.S. and the Rust Belt, you see a city like Cleveland, where I think the median home sale price is $35,000 or $40,000, or Detroit, where a quarter of all the parcels are on vacant lots. There’s no counterpart to that type of urban disinvestment in Canada. I don’t think there is a city in Canada where you can say “this city is in deep distress” the way you can say about literally dozens of U.S. cities.
Tomalty: Cities like Vancouver have long histories of managing urban growth. It’s true it has very high single detached housing price. But the price of other types of housing isn’t very high. The whole point of the growth management framework is to diversify the housing stock to make it more affordable to a wider range of people. Part of the cost of that is maybe a premium on detached housing, but the other forms of housing are more reasonably priced.
Holeywell: How much of the success of these Canadian cities has to do with the fact that they don’t have a history of black-white tension or they haven’t suffered from white flight the way American cities did?
Alan: I think race is an important undercurrent for almost everything that happens in the U.S. I’d guess the fact that it is so much less central an issue in Canada makes a lot of these issues somewhat easier to address, since there isn’t a racial subtext.
Tomalty: We obviously don’t have the same issues here, with respect to race. We have other cleavages though, between the French and English, for example. One of the points we make in the book is that immigration, as a percentage of total population, has been much higher in Canada than in the U.S. That’s contributed strongly to the health of Canadian cities. It provided a fuel for cities to thrive on as new people came in who were willing to invest … while older Canadians were moving to suburbs. Immigrants helped stabilize cities in a way that didn’t happen in the U.S.
Holeywell: Last question for both of you. If you were to take a typical American urban planner to a Canadian city, and you wanted him to see a place he could learn from, what would you show him?
Tomalty: Mississauga would make for an interesting little tour. You may not have heard of it. It’s a city to the west of Toronto where the international airport is. It was a dreary, low-density, suburban bedroom community to Toronto for many generations. The boundaries filled up, and instead of stagnating and turning into an older problem suburb, as you see in American suburbs, Mississauga kind of reinvented itself into a real city. They brought in high-quality transit. They built a real downtown. They invited great architects. And they densified a lot of the main avenues. It’s not New York or Chicago, but for a sleepy bedroom suburb, it’s a pretty neat place.
Mallach: There’s not a lot in the way of planning that gets the same visible ‘wow’ factor you get from Paris or Berlin or some place like that. But if you look closely, not far from Mississauga is a suburb called Markham. In a way, it’s going through the same process, maybe 10 years behind Mississauga.
Also, even though people from Toronto and Montreal think it’s a boring city, I’d be inclined to take an American planner to Ottawa and show them the interplay between transit and downtown investment, the gradual densification, and the recreational space that was created. I think it’s an extraordinarily livable medium-sized city.
The Kinder Institute for Urban Research is a multi-disciplinary ‘think-and-do tank’ housed on the Rice University campus in central Houston, focusing on urban issues in Houston, the American Sunbelt, and around the world.