Not any more

Toronto vs. London, England — an eight-point comparison

In Canada on December 9, 2010 at 14:16


Back to the mothership

Our resident urbanist, Shawn Micallef, explains what modern London, England, can tell us about Toronto’s past, and its future

BY Shawn Micallef   December 09, 2010 00:12

Toronto, they say, is obsessed with New York. But these days, we may be wiser to direct our gaze back to our colonial mothership, London, England. It used to be that our fine city looked across the Atlantic for most things intellectual, cultural and political. (Street and neighbourhood names too: King, Queen, Bathurst, Islington.) These days, London gets more media play for its rapidly deteriorating social and spacing conditions than for its cultural supremacy. Add to that a population now swollen to over 8 million people and you wind up with a British tonne of problems to try and contain in a land mass only 40km wide from suburban edge to edge.

As it happens, Toronto is almost exactly the same size. And as we swear in our new suburban mayor, many of the very same issues plaguing London—transportation, congestion, immigration and the urban-suburban divide—have emerged, rather aggressively, as our most pressing concerns. In fact, one could argue that London and Toronto are on very similar paths—only a hundred years or so apart.

Consider the similarities. In the 1890s, there were about 5.5 million Londoners, which is close to the size of the GTA’s population today. Imperial London grew quickly during the mid-to-late Victorian era as people from all over the world migrated to the city to be at the centre of it all. Likewise, Toronto is growing today through its immigration boom, placing us at the centre of a global multicultural network.

Today, both London and Toronto are remarkably walkable and neighbourhood-based, with transit systems that have always driven development. Both are also filled with a jumble of architectural styles and have districts that aren’t traditionally “beautiful,” but are gentrifying fast.

Above all, there is a sense of economic and cultural freedom in both of these market-driven places, which are bubbling with opportunity and bursting with innovation.

I recently spent eight days in London, wandering my second favourite city (Toronto will always be No. 1 to me). What I saw when I walked the streets is that Toronto is very much still its parent’s child. Our sidewalks have London’s DNA mixed right into the concrete. Perhaps now more than ever, thinking about how London became what it is today is helpful in understanding Toronto’s own evolution into a truly global alpha city. It was also heartening to find that, in plenty of areas, the student has become the master.

1. Reach
London, historically, had an army working for it, expanding the empire and acquiring territories, all of which fed the capital. For all the racist, oppressive and exploitative faults of colonialism, London would not be the multicultural metropolis it is today without it. Good has grown out of bad, and the city’s openness to absorbing people from across its fallen empire has become one of its greatest strengths. Toronto didn’t have an army, so our empire has been created by stealth. We’ve attracted people because they simply wanted to come (the same reason people still go to London now).

The difference you’ll notice there is that Londoners are sure of themselves—they’ve been telling their own stories for centuries now. London has been the star of so much literature, historical and fictional, that it lives in the imaginations of people there and everywhere.

Toronto’s history and stories don’t seem as deep, because we’re only beginning to really tell our own stories and, for example, let Toronto be presented as Toronto in movies. This seems like a small point, but it’s a big reason Torontonians notoriously suffer from identity issues, and why looking to London or New York became so commonplace.

2. Density
The geographic parallels between the two cities are interesting. London is a lot thicker. During the day, the number of people in the streets is incredible. You can get a similarly immense urban-movement feeling in Toronto when standing over the 401 or watching a packed subway train go through a station, but London constantly feels like an anthill that somebody’s disturbed.

We’ll experience more of this phenomenon in Toronto as the population rises. Both Toronto and London are walkable places where neighbourhoods blend seamlessly with one another. Like London, and unlike many North American cities, Toronto has extended “high streets” (main streets) that have kilometres of near-continuous retail and restaurants and bars and good stuff to do. London is nearly impossible to walk through without spending money. Every block demands its pound sterling. The high streets, especially before the holidays, sparkle and shine. Above Regent St., a thick web of twinkly lights hangs like a dozen electric fishing nets, and entire buildings along Oxford St. are wrapped in lights, keeping the avenue bright well after dusk.

Giant department stores like Harrods, Selfridges and even Marks & Spencer are filled with so much stuff that they unfold dreamlike as you walk through. It doesn’t seem possible that all of these goods could ever be consumed. In Toronto, even places like Holt Renfew (which owns Selfridges now) don’t capture the wild quality of the department-store and high-street experience of London. Perhaps this is for the best: it’s easier to keep your money to yourself here, though if you’re looking to eat late in the evening, Toronto wins. London’s pubs and restaurants are shuttered early.

3. Style
Linked to its walkability is London’s dedication to the details of its streetscape. The sidewalks, lamps, rubbish bins and curbs are built with a solid elegance that is largely unknown here. Upon returning to Toronto, our street furniture seems like it’s Fisher-Price, the sidewalks rough and patchy. London invests in fit and finishes more than we do. Here, we now call spending on such things “gravy,” because we don’t yet believe we have the makings of a great world city. London knew what it was from the beginning and never forgot it.

If we care about how streetscapes look, we should care about the people walking along them, too. London is about the best-dressed place on earth—particularly in the case of men (women, wherever they are, generally know how to dress, the regrettable phenomenon of jeggings aside). The inclination here is towards formality. Clothes are tailored and everything fits. Returning to Toronto, the general frump of the population is a bit of a downer.

I also miss the sound of other people’s shoes on the sidewalk, a constant companion in London. Those nice paving stones, coupled with leather-soled shoes and proper heels, make a much better sound than the one that emerges when casual rubber soles meet poured concrete in Toronto. Walk along the new, fancy Bloor sidewalk near Yorkville to get an idea of how London sounds, but then imagine that sound everywhere—even in run-down neighbourhoods—echoing off stone buildings.

4. Movement
People drive in London and, although they complain, nobody expects it to be easy. In Toronto, we still think getting around in cars is supposed to fast and pleasant, as our newly elected conservative mayor insists it can be.

In London, they no longer have the luxury of thinking wider roads can make a difference. The city is so congested, conservative mayor Boris Johnson is pledging to make it even more walkable. His predecessor, the David Miller–like Ken Livingstone, created congestion tolls for cars entering the city centre. People grumbled, but there was no revolution and, if there was ever a war on the car declared, it was over fast.

Of course, London’s relationship to the car spans a much smaller percentage of its history. Cars have been around in Toronto nearly half as long as we have, so our allegiance to them is hard to shake. However, as our population density grows to London-like levels, we’ll come to learn what Londoners already know: that more roads just invite more cars and more traffic. London deals with congestion by building less, not more, car infrastructure.

That dense population makes it slow getting around. Really slow. In Toronto, I tend to be a bit (too) carefree about distance: if I’m late, I can take measures that will make me a bit less late (I can bike faster, run, jump in a cab). In London, there is nothing you can do to speed your journey. The city is in control and you’ll get to where you’re going when it wants you to get there. The Tube is much more extensive than our subway system—its map looks like an organized plate of spaghetti—but the speed of Toronto’s subway system is so much greater that all my TTC complaints are temporarily forgotten upon my return. I was late for every appointment I had in London, except for the ones to which I rode a bike.

Ah, bikes. A London friend gave me a key to the city’s bike-sharing scheme—not yet available to foreigners—fondly named “Boris Bikes,” after the aforementioned conservative mayor. They are similar to Montreal’s (and, soon, Toronto’s) Bixi bikes, available for short-term loan from depots across the city.

As a cyclist with my own bike, I didn’t think this kind of thing would matter to me in Toronto. But riding the Boris Bikes changed my mind. Other than walking, it was the one way I could take control of my movement around London. I’d take one a few blocks to get to the Tube station faster. Or I’d take a bus to a bike station and ride from there via a more direct route than transit would go. With 6,000 bikes spread throughout the core of the city, there tended to always be one around.

The bikes themselves are built as heavy as tanks, but they’re good for short trips. I did do two longer, late-night 10-kilometre rides across the city to avoid waiting for the night bus. If you want to be alone with Buckingham Palace, ride by at 5:30am, and it’s just you and the Queen. Everybody seemed to use the bikes, even businessmen in three-piece suits, their briefcases latched to the basket on the front, peddling along Fleet Street. The Boris Bikes are a gateway drug to a strong bike culture. One hopes Bixi achieves the same effect in Toronto—“Rob’s Rides,” anyone?

Riding in London was similar to biking in Toronto. There were some bike lanes (and even separated “bike highways”), but I didn’t know where they were or where they went, so I stuck to the roads, where bikes blend in with the traffic. Unlike in Amsterdam, where bikes rule over cars (and, it must be said, over pedestrians), the London cyclist needs to be a little tough, like a Torontonian, but he or she can flow along with traffic just fine when alert. The many bus-only lanes were good for bikes too. While I noticed a little more respect for cyclists on the roads from drivers, the experience in Toronto has a slight advantage as our regular car lanes are wider to accommodate all those big American cars.

5. Suburbs
London has a tenuous relationship with its suburbs. Downtown Londoners can be heard making snide remarks about people from surrounding areas, like Essex or Kent (the English version of the 905, they’re called the “Home Counties”). The same dynamic as Toronto exists between urban and suburban: the Home County residents vote more conservatively, live in single-family (or attached) suburban homes, drive cars a lot and shop at Tesco (the British Walmart-style retail behemoth). People in the city complain of the sprawling nowhereness of it all, the repetition, the boredom of the suburbs—if not for the accents, you could be listening to a Torontonian, as the same generalities and stereotypes are shared.

6. Gentrification
Like Toronto, and despite being so much bigger and having a longer history, London has lots of dowdy neighbourhoods with Texaco stations and food marts that are far from the shiny famous middle where Saudi Princes whiz by in Mercedes limos. This is something people forget when they see the superstar parts in the paparazzi magazines. Dozens of neighbourhoods are becoming gentrified, some slowly, some quickly, just like Parkdale or the Junction in Toronto. There are old, rundown malls in London (like the one in the middle of the Elephant and Castle roundabout) that are just like some of Toronto’s (like the Galleria on Dupont at Dufferin). They have no chain shops but are filled with ancient businesses, new immigrant start-up shops and little kiosks selling phone cards that charge only a few pence to call Mumbai.

When I went to London in 2003, I wandered around Shoreditch one night. This is on the east side of the city, traditionally working class and somewhat rundown. It felt exactly like what West Queen West did around that time, just before the Drake and the rest moved in. It was dead at night, there were few people on the sidewalks, no shops open (and many were permanently closed). Today, it’s overwhelmed by partiers on weekend nights and brunch eaters by day, just like West Queen West and Parkdale. Nearby, Old Street is known as the “Silicon Roundabout,” as it’s the location of so many web- and design-oriented businesses. The circles continue to expand and heretofore-unloved neighbourhoods become hip.

I went up to the Dalston neighbourhood north of Shoreditch, a couple of kilometres away from any convenient Tube stations. It looks like 1970s, depressed Britain and, until recently, it was never talked about by anybody other than the people who lived there. On Saturday night, though, the sidewalks were filled with what one London friend described as “the pouty people,” smoking outside of pop-up clubs. Hipsters pout the same everywhere, and they colonize neighbourhoods in the same way, inhabiting sweaty, loud basements and watching bar-top performances. The place we went was called the Dalston Superstore, like London’s version of Queen West’s Beaver—though much farther from the city core.

7. Architecture and liveability
The way London looks is almost Torontonian, too. There isn’t a considerable amount of uniformity in its architecture, nor a particular look or style. Sure, there are a lot of Georgian and Victorian buildings in the city centre, but they aren’t dominant in the way architectural styles are in other European cities—the way Paris looks like Paris or Prague looks like Prague or Edinburgh like Edinburgh. With such extensive bombing during the Blitz, huge patches of the city were destroyed and often not rebuilt for a decade or two, and when the new stuff went up, it often wasn’t in any traditional London style. So there is a mishmash of buildings: old cute stuff and, like Toronto, post-war modernism (the stuff Prince Charles is always hating on).

This kind of landscape makes for creative cities. London’s always had, and still has, a hot cultural and arts scene. Cities whose look was established ages ago are often locked into that era like museum pieces. Artists in Edinburgh complain that it’s hard to do anything new there. When was the last time Paris had an internationally known and thriving artist scene? The 1920s? Jumbled-up cities like Toronto and London are allowed to constantly re-invent themselves; they act as a kind of tabula rasa for culture to happen on.

On this last point, Toronto may have even more freedom than London. It’s a much easier place in which to live. Resources aren’t as scarce and the rent is more affordable. Londoners certainly have strategies to avoid costs, but I find I spend pounds as I move through London at the same rate I spend dollars at home (the pound is worth around $1.60 Canadian right now). It is still possible, in Toronto, to live alone in an apartment that has a room or two without making a great amount of money. In London, the equivalent situation is having a tiny room in a flat stuffed with three roommates.

8. Expansion
With the fate of Transit City an issue right now, it’s worth noting that London and Toronto have had similar growth patterns. Many of our first suburbs, parts of the city we think of as “the middle,” actually began as streetcar suburbs. Transit drove development. In London, they had what are sometimes called “Tube suburbs,” where the underground was laid and the urban density followed. Toronto’s current version of this has been the Sheppard line, the “subway to nowhere” that now goes somewhere as whole new communities have sprung up around it. Early on, the poet Shelley called London a “great sea, whose ebb and flow at once is deaf and loud,” and the Building News, at the turn of the last century, described London as having “fungus-like growth.” This is the same tone we use to describe Toronto’s development sometimes. 

Returning home just in time to find the city immersed in a huge battle over its future—Transit City and other Fordianisms that bubbled up in my absence—I find that London’s example has quite a lot to teach us about how to grow. In finding strength in diversity, we’re already bettering London’s example by peacefully accomplishing what it did by force. If we can, as London did so well, make the polyglot population pay off by forming a political and business network upon which the sun never sets, we’ll have a serious global advantage. Moreover, we can learn from London’s big (but nice) ego, to be more—as the frat boys say—balls-out about our Torontoness. (And we should fund a city museum, too.)

At the street level, both cities contain enough block-by-block enticement is to keep people exploring, but London sparkles brighter. We shouldn’t be afraid to turn the lights up, and we should always remember that even if the gravy train doesn’t run on time anymore, God is in the details, so we ought to dress ourselves and our city to impress.

London’s larger number of transit options and lines stretching to every corner of the city are an example we should emulate, but Toronto’s system is easier and quicker to negotiate—a feature worth preserving. Still, especially as we grow, we need to know that adding car infrastructure will not solve congestion problems—London has now awoken to that reality. If you invest deeply in transit and bikes, as they have, people will still want to come into the city, and will find it less frustrating to navigate when they do.

Transit infrastructure also gives London’s suburbs easy access to the city on frequent trains. Imagine being able to go to Union Station and catch a GO Train every 15 minutes to Brampton, Newmarket or Oshawa. No need to plan—just show up and there will be a train. This means that, snobbery aside, the suburbs feed the city.

And, in the suburbs and elsewhere, let’s not fret about the dowdy parts of Toronto too much, since they foster creativity and allow room for building something new. Meanwhile, it’s likely that the desirable places to play and live here are going to continue to move farther out. North York and Scarborough strip-mall bars will possibly become the places where skinny-pants-pouty-people trek to for the next fun thing. We should get used to—and get comfortable with—the inner suburbs.

There are hundreds of city-building lessons to absorb after a visit to London, but for Toronto the most valuable is a sense that we are, in some ways, already a better city than London, and that, going forward, a city the size we are now, with all our dynamics of immigration and expansion, can in 100 years occupy the status London now enjoys on the world stage. It’s a city that survived the Blitz and has survived bad mayors—or having no mayor, for a time, after Margaret Thatcher dissolved the London council in the 1980s—but still reigns as a great city, an alpha city, a leader of the world. 

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