Sunday, May 02, 2010

Toronto Wants To Be More Like Pittsburgh

Who knew that Richard Florida's journey from Pittsburgh to Toronto would prove to be a step down? Saul Kaplan thinks that Toronto needs to do a better job of leveraging its civic assets. In today's Toronto Star:

“Toronto has a very good opportunity to become an urban-innovation hot spot,” says Kaplan. “It has an active creative class. And there’s a vibrant conversation about social change that you hear everywhere in the city.

“Groups quickly come together in Toronto to discuss challenges,” Kaplan adds. “And those groups, in turn, form networks to tackle every kind of social challenge. That is a double blessing. Citizens make a success of the project they’ve rallied around. And that success attracts talent, money and other resources to take on still more challenges.”

It’s not as if we have to abandon the top-down government model of civic improvement. We already have.

So have Pittsburgh, Turin, Bilbao, Sheffield and other cities that have lost their 20th-century industrial mainstay, yet thrive after transforming themselves into knowledge-based economies.

Actually, I think the article really highlights the similarities between Pittsburgh, Toronto, and the listed European cities:

I’ve long complained that our city has been run on auto-pilot. But the outsider perspective of a Kaplan or Florida is of a Toronto too blessed with civic assets not to be suited to becoming, in Kaplan’s description, “a laboratory of urban innovation.”

Self-absorbed Toronto sees dysfunction, corruption and ineffectiveness. Outsiders see a potential "urban-innovation hot spot." That's why Cincinnati is seeking the advice of an infamous Pittsburgher concerning a casino project:

Cullen said the images he’ll show next week are subject to change, but the connectivity concept is not. In fact, the concept might extend to business relationships between downtown hotels and restaurants and the casino itself. Its loyalty marketing programs, for example, might reward frequent casino guests with freebies at downtown establishments.

“This is not intended to be altruism,” said Cullen. “We do think this is the right thing for Cincinnati. But we also think it can be the most successful model for a casino operation.”

That kind of talk is common at the front end of big-ticket development projects, but following that talk with action is not, said Tom Murphy, senior resident fellow for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., a research and education group devoted to urban planning issues.

Murphy said casinos “want to capture every dollar and they do that by not having any clocks or windows.” So, when a developer says he wants to generate economic activity outside of his building, Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, is skeptical.

“That sounds wonderful,” he said. “I’d get it in writing.”

Pittsburgh is seen as an urban-innovation hot spot. Remember Paul Farmer? I'd bet Minneapolis does:

When you came to Minneapolis, it was clear why the city wanted you working here. Projects you steered in Pittsburgh--light-rail transit, the riverfront, downtown improvement--have had city councils across the country drooling.

Farmer left Minneapolis for Pittsburgh in 1994. Ultimately, Minneapolis would fire him. I've wondered why Pittsburgh didn't celebrate his legacy. I suspect the answer is that the civic assets of Pittsburgh are bigger than either Farmer or Murphy.

Moving the post back to Toronto, residents there don't seem to appreciate what they have. They lack perspective. Might they believe Saul Kaplan? I doubt it. I doubt Pittsburghers believe their city is in the same league as Turin, Bilbao, and Sheffield. Not to foster complacency, Toronto is a great city and it does a lot of things right. Strange how Pittsburgh and Toronto share an inferiority complex.

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