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U of T's great cities stories of 2014: the year in review

Improving everything from traffic to building design: eight of our favourite urban tales

New structures, from the new Goldring Centre on U of T's downtown campus (above) to the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough demonstrate how U of T literally builds the city (all photos by Dominic Ali)

Across the globe, researchers say, universities play a key role in building and strengthening cities, helping them connect with the world and reinvent themselves in dynamic ways.

That crucial role of the university as a city-builder isn’t always obvious – even here in Toronto, where Canada’s top-ranked university fuelled more startups between 2009 and 2012 than any other single North American institution. Few people know that U of T directly employs more people than Chrysler and GM employ in all of Canada combined – or that the economic stimulus from the expenditures of the university and its students adds up to $12 billion a year for Ontario – most of that within the GTA.

But it’s easy to grasp U of T’s impact on the GTA once you start looking at the work of the faculty and students across its three campuses. They help strengthen and improve the city even as they research and analyze how it works and what it needs to be safer, healthier, smarter. 

Dominic Ali writes about cities and urban issues for U of T news. Below, Dominic shares some of his favourite city stories from 2014.

Doing the math for municipal politicians
Toronto’s 2014 municipal election provided no shortage of excitement, and a report by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance that assessed the city’s finances was at the centre of heated debates in the run-up to the polls. One of the report’s findings that “Toronto doesn’t have a ‘spending problem’ garnered headlines and promoted informed debate among voters and the public.

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Making cities accessible
Many North America cities like Toronto are preparing to deal with an aging population in the coming decades. Luckily, an associate professor with the U of T’s department of geography and program in planning is researching ways to make cities can be made more accessible so that they can be enjoyed by all residents, from families with children in strollers to seniors with limited mobility.

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Getting transit back on track
Toronto’s transit plans are dinner party conversation among residents. Should new tracks be above-ground or below? Who should pay for it? What areas should it serve?

Helping to shed some light for our readers on this issue was transit policy and planning expert Matt Siemitaycki, an associate professor with U of T’s geography department.

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Great universities = great cities
U of T researchers in disciplines as diverse as public health, environment, innovation and entrepreneurship are all examining and finding ways to make other cities great. And the university is sharing this knowledge with the rest of the world through significant international collaborations in places such as India and Brazil.

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Building the city – literally
Whether you’re lucky enough to live here or a tourist passing through town, one of the highlights of this city is its inspiring architecture. Architecture professor and author of University of Toronto: An Architectural Tour Larry Wayne Richards enlightened readers with historical background about U of T’s campuses and gave us an opportunity to feature a few Instagram masterpieces from today's students.

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Proving that bad urban design damages our health
A fascinating atlas conducted by a research team mapped levels of diabetes in the Peel region of Ontario. Researchers found two significant reasons why Peel has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the province: poor neighbourhood design discourages walking and there are many residents whose ethnic backgrounds predispose them to diabetes.

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Explaining how mega-events can help cities
The past year was a big one for sports fans. The Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia and the World Cup that took place in various Brazilian cities were a boon for bars and a great excuse to buy a larger TV. But how do these mega-events affect cities? Urban studies lecturer David Roberts weighed in with his thoughts:

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Water: conserving and protecting this valuable resource
Professor Jennifer Drake of civil engineering is focused on building and managing water systems that minimize the impact on the natural environment. Drake shares her insights on low-impact development for water management, challenges facing cities and innovations in water security.

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Introducing the Cities Podcast
U of T News launched a podcast miniseries this fall, featuring conversations with the university’s researchers, entrepreneurs and students whose work is advancing Toronto’s realities of traffic, transit, sustainability and the role of the city. (Learn more about the podcast series) The goal: to join the conversation happening around Ontario municipal elections and share insights and expertise from U of T thinkers on key voting issues. Now we're looking to the community and asking: did it work?