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What Toronto Needs Now: Richard Florida offers a manifesto for a new model of leadership

The city’s great period of growth won’t continue if we don’t enlist the best and brightest minds from Bay Street, the universities and the public sector

Richard Florida: What Toronto Needs Now

Richard Florida believes Toronto should take a cue from innovative city-building strategies in Silicon Valley and Chicago

In 2007, when my wife and I moved here from Washington, D.C., Toronto was ascendant. I’d been offered a job at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank investigating the competitiveness of cities. Toronto, it seemed to us, was an open, tolerant place offering a superb quality of life for its wide range of citizens. It was a destination of choice because of its thriving, stable economy, world-class banks, medical centres and cultural institutions, safety and livability, and diverse neighborhoods. It appeared a model of social cohesion, where people from across the globe were attracted to the prospect of a better future. Toronto’s best days were ahead.

Five years later, the city is at a crossroads. The mayor and a fractious council have been unable to provide leadership on Toronto’s big problems: transit and traffic congestion, the future of the waterfront, increasing gun and gang violence, and the escalating price of housing, to name a few. Worse still, the city has become a more divided and contentious place, its once enviable social cohesion at risk, a growing split pitting downtown against the suburbs.

At a time when we need a denser urban core, more affordable housing, better transit and less reliance on cars—a way of living that clusters people together naturally, allows them to interact more freely and produces the sort of innovation that spurs economic progress—we have a mayor who stokes the urban-suburban divide for political gain, and a deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, who believes that downtown Toronto is no place to raise a family.

Torontonians used to chide me about the Tea Party and American intolerance. I’m no longer hearing those jabs. After all, Rob Ford was elected thanks to populist support from suburbanites—many of whom resent what they view as the privileged, libertine lifestyles of the downtown gentry, urban hipsters and unionized public sector workers.

A while back, at a dinner party, a friend who occupies a vaunted position in Toronto’s entertainment industry asked me: why is it that Toronto can’t attract the best and brightest to local office? World-class global cities face thorny problems that require top-flight leadership. In Boris Johnson, London has a media-savvy, Oxford-educated conservative mayor who cares deeply about the quality and diversity of his city. Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is an immensely experienced, extraordinarily capable former U.S. congressman and chief of staff to Barack Obama who is governing effectively from the left of the political spectrum. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman, is a pragmatic moderate who calls on the best minds from all sectors and strata. Even Newark, the city of my birth, one of the most economically disadvantaged cities in America, now has the dynamic Cory Booker, a Stanford grad and Rhodes scholar with a law degree from Yale University, as its mayor. Here in Canada, Vancouver has Gregor Robertson, a former organic farmer and businessman who’s delivering on a green agenda and actively addressing homelessness, public health and affordable housing. And Calgary—to which Torontonians love to feel superior—has in Mayor Naheed Nenshi a young, Harvard-educated Muslim who’s intent on reforming council and growing his prosperous city in a fair and sustainable way.

While other cities are attracting effective mayors from across the political spectrum, our mayor has become a symbol of Toronto’s plight. Yet that plight is not of his making. Municipal governments across Canada have limited powers. Times are lean, which leads to shrill debate about how best to achieve these goals. Battles about bike lanes and library hours and plastic bags fill the daily media, but they distract us from the reality that the city’s future is being shaped by global forces we ignore at our peril.

Cities are the key social and economic units of our time. The process of urbanization we’ve been witnessing in North America since the mid-19th century is happening at a hyper-accelerated pace in China and India. Rural populations are moving en masse to rapidly growing urban centres. More than half of the world’s population already lives in cities; 40 years from now, two thirds will.