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Thursday, October 17th, 2019

Believe it or not, Toronto’s council is helping it close in on ‘world city’ status, Australian urbanist says

by July 17, 2017 General

City council can seem dysfunctional but an urbanist on a fact-finding mission from Sydney, Australia says having one local government for all 2.7 million Torontonians has helped Toronto close in on “world city” status.

Tim Williams, on a break from a flurry of meetings with the city’s chief planner, Toronto Region Board of Trade representatives, academics and others, says Sydney — like Toronto a second-tier city on the cusp of global “top table” status — should envy the existence of a single 45-member council.

“The great challenge for us is that Sydney doesn’t have metropolitan-scale governance,” Williams, chief executive of think tank The Committee for Sydney, in an interview at the Board of Trade’s downtown office.

“We have no single council for Sydney. There are 5 million people, 41 councils, and amalgamation will bring that down to 30 (councils) in about a year.”

That leaves the Australian megacity at a disadvantage coping with side-effects of success including sky-high housing costs and population growth outpacing public transit, he said, noting Toronto has boosted transit investment in recent years after a long period of neglect similar to Sydney’s.

A report released this month by Committee for Sydney boiled down rankings by dozens of organizations to identify six cities — London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore — leading the world according to measurements of economic activity, livability, high-tech vibrancy, post-secondary strength and more.

Sydney and Toronto were judged to be in the next pack, as “nearly established contender world cities”, along with Amsterdam, Beijing, Chicago, Los Angeles, Madrid, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, D.C.

Williams, a native of Wales and former special adviser on communities and local government to the U.K. government, is visiting rival contender cities for ideas on how to help Sydney break into the top pack and how to manage the downsides of that transition.

His group’s study gives Sydney the edge over Toronto in direct foreign capital investment, likely thanks to its proximity to Asia, as well in the ranks of foreign students, “brand recognition” and, by a small margin, universities in which both cities are strong.

Toronto outperforms Sydney in affordability for young professionals —Sydney house prices are significantly higher — and the surging strength of the tech and life sciences sectors.

Williams’ main frustration with his adopted city is what he calls a governance focus on private vehicles rather than new mass transit needed to keep pace with residential growth and economic need.

The international phenomenon of residents flocking to downtown cores — the “great inversion” of the previous flight to suburbs — is concentrating jobs and economic activity without supporting infrastructure including transit.

Meanwhile, poverty is increasingly a suburban problem and many low-income residents there don’t have a viable way to get to downtown jobs to share in the cities’ success.

So which will be first to achieve global city status, Toronto or Sydney?

“Of course Sydney,” Williams says with a laugh, “but we can go up together.”