We know, we know, Toronto is Toronto and Paris is Paris. Except for the fact they are both cities, the two have little in common. Almost everything about them is different, and never more obviously than during the exceptionally painful civic election unfolding here.
Even the word “city” feels inadequate: if Paris is a city, what’s Toronto, or vice versa? On the surface, we are a large, mostly suburban but tolerant car-dependent conurbation under the control of a municipal authority and held together by a network of highways and a transit system. In reality, our roads are gridlocked, our transit is unreliable and civic government powerless.
Though transit in Paris is vastly superior and civic governance incomparably more robust, its highways are clogged and its suburbs even more depressing than Toronto’s. On the other hand, Paris has history and Baron Haussmann on its side. Toronto has the future and Fred Gardiner on its. Paris was a thriving metropolis before Toronto was a clearing in the woods. In some cities, though, age is no more a benefit than youth is a hindrance to others. The City of Light enjoys a modest climatological advantage over Toronto; its heat waves are as debilitating as ours, but Parisian winters less severe.
The differences between Toronto and Paris lie more in each community’s understanding of what it means to live an urban life. It can be found in how residents inhabit their city, their expectations, assumptions and relationship to the larger urban context. The civic values of the two cities are perhaps most clearly expressed through urban planning. Paris is a famously ambitious city whose landscape includes boulevards and wide sidewalks lined with six- or seven-storey mixed-use buildings that happily form part of a larger harmonious whole. By contrast, Toronto, especially the postwar communities, tends to be a car-dominated squabble of impulses and intentions where things never quite add up.
Despite 21st-century initiatives, planning in Paris is informed by a vision that dates back generations. Mistakes such as the 1970s Tour Montparnasse stand out painfully. Long considered the ugliest building in Paris — the city’s only skyscraper district, La Défense, is actually in the western suburb of Hauts-de-Seine — the 210-metre tower would look right at home in a highrise city like Toronto. Last year, its owners bowed to public pressure and organized an international competition to redesign the much unloved tower. The new structure is expected to be finished by 2024 when Paris hosts the Olympics.
Though contemporary architecture in France is generally a lost cause, there are exceptions: Frank Gehry’s 2014 “cloud of glass” in the Bois de Boulogne and Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute come to mind. What makes French cities architecturally memorable is conformity not individuality. Cities in France sing like choirs. They appeal to our desire for clarity and order. They make us feel comfortable. We know where we are, even when we don’t.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s cacophonous approach to planning and lack of vision combined with the Ontario Municipal Board and its successor, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, have, in effect, privatized the future and handed it over to developers. They are the city’s de facto planners, its regulators of growth and arbiters of design. The box-tickers at city hall can rarely do more than watch and submit another report.
Toronto’s hands are tied, its destiny controlled by the province. For now that means Doug Ford, whose relationship with Toronto is ambivalent at best. His term on city council, an acknowledged failure, earned him scorn and derision in equal measure. His 2011 proposal for the Port Lands, which included a Ferris wheel, monorail and mega-mall, showed him for a development industry dupe. By the time it was dropped, it had revealed Ford’s lack of sophistication and made him look foolish and in over his head.
Paris on the other hand was historically governed by kings and emperors. Haussmann’s Paris, for example, was ordered by Napoleon III, a hugely ambitious despot whose dreams of urban grandeur knew no bounds. The city didn’t actually have a mayor until 1977. Today it’s both a municipality and a department. In 2016, the Metropolis of Greater Paris was created to facilitate the administration of the city region and its surroundings. With a population of seven million, it is slightly larger than the Greater Toronto Area, which has no formal status.
Semi-democratic, suburban and willing to settle, Toronto has never sought greatness. Paris has never sought anything but.
Christopher Hume is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @HumeChristopher