How to build the perfect city? Urban planner to launch new book at U of T's School of Cities

photo of Joe Berridge
Joe Berridge, an adjunct professor in the department of geography and planning and a partner at urban design consultancy Urban Strategies, says it's time for Toronto to come to grips with its big-city status (photo courtesy of Urban Strategies)

The Ontario government expects to complete its proposed Toronto subway relief line – dubbed the “Ontario line” – by 2027. That will be a full 25 years since the city’s last new line, Line 4, began carrying passengers underneath Sheppard Avenue East.

For comparison, Joe Berridge, an adjunct professor in U of T’s department of geography and planning and a partner at urban design consultancy Urban Strategies, points to the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai.

“The Shanghai metro system, with its 12 lines, is now the most extensive in the world, yet its first line opened only in 1993,”  Berridge wrote in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed based on his new book titled Perfect City: An Urban Fixer's Global Search for Magic in the Modern Metropolis.  

“Four new lines are under construction and five existing lines are being extended.”

Read Joe Berridge’s op-ed about Shanghai in the Globe and Mail

Berridge, a U of T alumnus who has been a master planner for city-building projects around the world, including Manchester City Airport and the London Docklands, will be at U of T's School of Cities Wednesday to launch Perfect City at an event held in partnership with Urban Strategies and the Urban Land Institute. He will be joined by Gail Dexter Lord, president and co-founder, Lord Cultural Resources, Josh Mitchell, U of T’s new director of real estate and Bill Nankivell, the CEO of B+H Architects. The discussion, about the spirit of a perfect city, will be moderated by Shauna Brail, an associate professor, teaching stream, of urban studies and the School of Cities’ associate director of partnerships and outreach.

Berridge says Shanghai has been able to plan and build unlike any other city in China, or elsewhere in the world, in less than three decades. It is slowly halting growth of its suburban areas by developing within its city boundaries, providing better careers and quality of life for residents. However, housing prices in Shanghai are also on the rise – not unlike Toronto.

“I am convinced that Shanghai is destined for global supremacy,” Berridge writes in the Globe. “Three connected reasons: its muscular city-building strategy, its colossal scale and the entrepreneurial energy of its citizens.”

U of T’s Nina Haikara recently caught up with Berridge talk about what makes a perfect city:

What inspired you to write Perfect City?

I’ve always been fascinated by cities and have had the good fortune to work in a great number of them. Working is different from just visiting – you get to meet the people in city government, the private sector, architecture, and in culture and sports, who are trying to manage, improve and re-design the place. So, you get right inside, which makes you question, “How do these places work? What makes them simultaneously very different but essentially the same? How do you make the perfect city?” That was the question. Not expecting a singular answer, but trying to learn from what works and what doesn’t in each of the cities.

You mention the importance of the “creative class” – a term coined by U of T’s Richard Florida in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class – as being an important factor, perhaps one that needs to be nurtured. Why does this concept resonate in the cities that you’ve worked in, including Singapore, London and New York? 

There is no doubt that I have been very influenced by the work of Richard Florida, who I think has the best understanding of – and a continuing fascination with – the forces behind the contemporary big city.  He’s had three very influential ideas. First, the notion of the creative class: that the success of modern cities is driven by people who work with ideas rather than things and that those people require a particular kind of city – one that is inclusive, open, flexible and creative.

The second core notion of Florida’s work is the idea of ‘spikiness’ – that fewer and fewer cities are getting more and more significant. You can see this in the financial services industry, or in the media, tech and artificial intelligence sectors. What you see in Singapore, London and New York, as I discuss in the book, are cities that are at the top of the spike. Great for them, not so great for the left-behind city. And increasingly, that spikiness is producing the problem that Florida’s third great contribution identifies: the “winner takes all” city. Spikiness seems to be exaggerating the income inequality differences not only between cities, but within them.

What are some of the most important attributes that contribute to a perfect city and why do they matter? 

I try and identify the key drivers behind the success of the big cities I cover, and how each of them responds to the very similar challenges they face. Cities at the top of the spike share a number of common features – that are both cause and effect of their success. All of them have very successful financial services industries, which seem to be one of the core economic drivers. They have highly connected airports that link the city to the rest of the world. They have universities that are top-ranked and, at the same time, have entities like MaRS in Toronto, One North in Singapore or Here East in London that convert intellectual capital into economic energy. They all have very vigorous cultural sectors – and they all have really good food.

The book celebrates large-scale planning initiatives such as Roosevelt Island and the London Docklands, and juxtaposes Robert Moses’ grandiose visions with Jane Jacobs’ community-focused streetscapes. Do cities need elements of both to be successful?

The debate between Robert Moses’ and Jane Jacobs’ views of the city is a convenient way to caricature a “top-down, get it done” view of city-building from a “bottom-up, people know best” view. It’s such an epic struggle that there have been several recent exhibitions, plays and even an opera on the contest between these two larger-than-life figures. There is no doubt that, in reaction to the excesses of ‘50s and ‘60s expressway building and urban renewal, the pendulum has swung very much towards more local, street- and neighborhood-based planning. Which is as it should be.

The problem is that the big challenges for the modern city – the development of mass transit, the provision of affordable housing, the reduction of energy consumption, the renewal of the city fabric and infrastructure – to say nothing of the provision of airports, universities, tech complexes, hospitals and so on – cannot be effectively dealt with at the local level. How to successfully do these big projects while respecting the qualities of the small things that make city living a delight is the big challenge for the modern city. That’s why what’s happening in Singapore and Shanghai and other Asian cities is so fascinating. We may have a lot to learn.

Perfect City cites Toronto as one of the fastest growing urban regions in the world. What does the city need to plan for in order to handle this growth?

I characterize Toronto as “the accidental metropolis” because somehow it has joined the ranks of the top dozen world cities without any such intention that I can discover. We are the fastest growing city in the developed world – passing Chicago and Los Angeles to become the second largest city in the U.S. and Canada by mid-century. This is quite extraordinary growth for which it’s hard to find a precedent. We have also, in the process created here, a unique society – over half our citizens were not born in Canada. There’s no city in the world like it, and it is a largely peaceful, equitable and prosperous place in comparison.

But we are running at the limits of accidental good fortune, lacking the ability to plan, fund and manage the needed transit system, with airports and other infrastructure nearing capacity, with a growing crisis of housing affordability and seemingly without the energy or ambition to undertake the big city-changing initiatives undertaken by our competitors. While there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from the cities I visit in the book, I think probably the key is for Toronto to relax and finally acknowledge that it is no longer a small town.

The book is in many ways a testament to a fascinating career. What drives your passion for cities and how have your perspectives on the role of urban planning by urban planners changed and developed over the years? 

Being an urban planner is one of the most fascinating of jobs. I have been incredibly lucky to work in cities all over the world and be entranced by their variety. And it’s not just the cities themselves, but the people you get to meet and work with. What other profession enables you to meet with mayors and senior politicians, businessmen and cultural impresarios, architects and engineers – and then go to a church basement and meet the people – the residents and communities who live in the place, and who have no compunction in letting you know what they really feel? No other profession has that kind of range.

And there is also the realization that the future of the world will be decided in cities. Where are we all going to live together harmoniously? Where will we ensure the benefits of economic development are equitably shared? Where will we engender a radical reduction in fossil fuel use and ensure the delight and poetry of 21st century life is treasured and enriched? There’s lots for city planners to do.


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