Skip to Content

Block Magazine

Creativity has its place
Issue 25

The Impossible, Perfect City

Since joining Urban Strategies in 1986, Joe Berridge has led some of the world’s most significant master-planning and urban regeneration projects. This year, he condensed his experience into Perfect City, a book reflecting on eight of the world’s greatest cities. (Spoiler: None is perfect.) Benjamin Leszcz caught up with Berridge to discuss Toronto’s charming imperfection.



Artwork of Toronto buildings and Jane Jacobs holding a stack of papers.

Jane Jacobs looms large in your book, as an icon of community- led city-building. How would you describe her influence on you?

I came to the University of Toronto in 1965 holding [Jacobs’ book] The Death and Life of Great American Cities in my hand. I lived by it. I had a teaching assistantship, and when I went into my class the first day, I was a little bit nervous. Before I could open my mouth, the door flew open, and my supervising professor came in with Jane Jacobs. They were holding a bunch of placards, and they said: “Out now. We’re going to protest the Spadina Expressway.” So we went across the road to Queen’s Park. I was flabbergasted. But it was a wonderful introduction. She was just a force of personality, a distinctive presence who wore these enormous cloak-like coats and sandals. She was a New Yorker, and she came to polite, careful Toronto, and we didn’t know what the hell to do other than say yes.

What’s her legacy here?

She was the patron saint of Toronto. Her view of cities has been the prevailing view since David Crombie became mayor in 1972. She was very accessible to him, to Barbara Hall, to David Miller. But the rest
of the world had no idea. The rest of the world placed her entirely in New York City. And this is part of the fact that Toronto is the biggest city in the world nobody’s ever heard of.

You use that phrase in the book. But you seem to consider Toronto’s modesty to be a good thing.

We don’t toot our horn. And Toronto has been spared one of the plagues of other world cities, which is the plague of the super-rich. And part of the reason is because I think your Russian oligarch says: “Toronto? Where’s that?”

Right. Is this connected to the phrase, which you borrow from Robert Fulford, that Toronto is the “Accidental City”?

Toronto never intended itself to be a publicly strutting city. In fact, people came here to get away from that world. They were refugees, immigrants from totalitarian or war-torn cultures, and they came to this town for respite. Northrop Frye said, “This is a good place to mind your own [damn] business.” In a strange way, it’s a very fine thing.

Sure, but it’s not much of a foundation for civil society.

No, it’s a foundation for strong families. When I travel around the world, I increasingly see the importance of family as a bedrock for city development. But the point is well taken. We need the institutional governmental framework. And the fascinating cultural problem we have now is that we have to create not just the culture of being a megalopolis but the institutions of being a megalopolis. We don’t have a regional urban transit system, we don’t have anything like a regional housing capability, we don’t have a very strong regional economic-development arm.

“Toronto is in the big leagues now. We’ve got to do tough, big-league things.”



You’re a consultant to Sidewalk Labs, and you’ve been a vocal supporter of the project. Any reservations about Google’s march toward global domination?

One is right to have nervousness about this. But Toronto is in the big leagues now, and we’ve got to do tough, big-league things. The world will offer up these opportunities, and the sophisticated city has enough confidence and expertise to not just say no—or, worse, just say yes. It’s asking, “What do we like, what do we not like?” When they’re coming in with recommendations about new government structures, we should listen. We shouldn’t necessarily accept, but we should listen.

You’ve named David Crombie as the best municipal leader of the past 50 years. What would he do if he were mayor today?

If he were mayor now, I think he’d form a regional cabal of mayors from the 905. And he would say, “We’re all going to say we want a sales tax to support transit.” It’s the only instrument that’s big enough, that doesn’t hurt the rest of the province. Just two percent. Orange County, Salt Lake City—a bunch of American jurisdictions have done it.

In the book, you use the French expression jolie laide—literally, “beautiful ugly”—to describe Toronto. Is that damning us with faint praise?

There is a strange beauty to Toronto if you forget about classical notions of beauty. Go to the ugliest place in the city, at Finch and Weston, and it is an ecosystem for immigrant business formation; it’s got fantastic food, amazing shopping. And that’s beautiful.

What about the more beautiful kind of beauty?

We’re very good at modest beauty. You go inside Jack Diamond’s opera house [the Four Seasons Centre] and, it’s calm and beautiful and lovely. We have lovely architects. But you go to Hong Kong and you’ve got a tower by César Pelli; in Kowloon you’ve got a tower by Kohn Pedersen Fox. They are both exquisitely beautiful, probably 80-storey towers. And yet they’re hardly decorated or sculpted. To do something like that takes a quality of sophistication that is not in our battery here. Then, there’s nothing like wealth to create beauty.

Early in the book, you write, “The primary task of the city is to create and distribute wealth.” Of course, a baseline of economic stability is essential, but what is a city’s deeper purpose?

The urbanist agenda is unachievable if you don’t have the energy of wealth creation. But ultimately, the city is for the realization of everyone’s personal ambition, their personal happiness, their family and social happiness. But it’s easier to be happy if you’re making a living.

You’ve argued that Shanghai is poised to displace New York as the next global capital. Driving this, partly, is the city’s capacity to implement transformative ideas quickly—like the world’s largest rapid transit network, which basically didn’t exist 25 years ago. Could Toronto ever become a global capital? Or is our modesty inherently antithetical to the boldness that might be required?

I think that you’ve hit it. There’s the yin to every yang. If you want this to be a peaceful, calm, harmonious, courteous, supportive, immigrant-friendly city, you can’t say, “I’m driving a subway through your neighbourhood; get out of the way.” We’ve never been able to do that. There is a tension there: The very thing that makes us such a healthy place is stopping us from becoming a healthy place.


Share this article

Related Articles