Dr. Anne Golden is one of Canada’s most prominent thought leaders on governance, transit investment policy, social justice and city building. Throughout her distinguished career, Dr. Golden has brought a strong voice to the critical public policy issues of our time. Below is Dr. Golden’s keynote address following her being awarded the Couchiching Award for Public Policy Leadership. The address was presented at the 2016 Couchiching Gala at Hart House in Toronto.

Photography by Nekhat Ahmed of Desi Girl Photography

Dr. Golden’s Keynote Address:

“I am pleased, honoured, and humbled to accept this award and to join its past illustrious recipients. I have been blessed with career choices and extraordinary colleagues who have made it possible for me to contribute to public policy discussions over many decades and for that I am deeply grateful.

Urban issues have been close to my heart throughout my adult life. Many of you will recall the battles of the late 1960’s: against the “block-busting” of downtown communities by developers and against the Spadina Expressway. This fight to stop the expressway – which would have eviscerated several of Toronto’s oldest neighbourhoods – was a personal turning point. Through the terrific people whom I met and the intense and intelligent debate, I became aware of the new ideas about cities emerging then, ideas that opposed the large-scale, auto-oriented, top-down post WW2 planning mindset. By the late 1960’s reaction was setting in and I was ripe for the challenge.

Fast forward forty years. The case for cities and city-regions as holding the keys to human destiny has been made. Cities power the global economy; cities are where the majority of the world’s people live; cities account for close to 80% of the carbon emissions from human activities. It is no exaggeration to say that “if we don’t get cities right, we won’t get the world right”. This is the topic I have chosen for my remarks this evening – “Cities at a Tipping Point”.

More than 50 years ago Jane Jacobs put forward the concept of cities as phenomena of “organized complexity”, an idea she borrowed from the biological sciences. What was required, Jacobs argued, was a new way of thinking that replaced simple templates with an understanding of the dynamic interactions involved in how cities actually work and grow.

We are now on the threshold of a new era for cities. All of the global mega-trends: the technological revolution and the globalization it is facilitating, accelerating climate change, and the migration of people everywhere into cities – are dramatically changing our urban landscapes. What an exciting time to be grappling with urban transformation!

Exciting and unsettling. Just one example will illustrate what I mean: the advent of the driverless car (a subject we are working on at the Ryerson City Building Institute). The notion of automated vehicles may sound like science fiction, except for the fact that prototypes are already being produced by the major car companies[1] and by Google. President Obama is so bullish about the potential of self-driving cars to reduce pollution, traffic, and accidents that he plans to provide $4 billion over the next 10 years to pay for testing them. Ontario is the first province in Canada to allow companies to test their self-driving cars on public roads, as of this past January, 2016.

So we do know that driverless vehicles are coming. What we don’t know is whether they will benefit or damage our cities. Will small ”taxibots” serving people on demand, and driving them where they want to go lead to less need for car ownership, reduced congestion, smaller roads, more compact travel, repurposing of parking lots and garages, enhanced public spaces, reduced gas emissions? Or, by easing commutes, will they incent more sprawl with all of the associated downsides?

While automated vehicles are just one example of the sweeping adjustments that the global economy, climate change and technological innovation will force on cities, they are emblematic. It is hard to think of an invention that affected the shape of cities in North America more than the automobile. Beyond the economic and social spin-offs, which were overwhelming and often positive, was car-centred urban sprawl. While European nations strengthened mass transit systems, North Americans invested in automobile infrastructure. And as car ownership spread after World War 2, so did low density development with rising automobile dependency, longer commute times, traffic congestion, air pollution.

Sadly, we Canadians failed to learn from what was happening south of the border. We watched our American neighbours respond to the extraordinary urban growth of the last half-century with zoning regulations requiring low-density single family homes and no mixing of shops or businesses, unable to support public transit – the opposite of what builds vital, efficient, healthy and “happy” cities. And we copied them.

Now, today, once again it is automobile technology that is poised to bring disruptive change to the shape of our cities. The driverless automobile seems to offer the possibility of bridging the inherent conflict between the car and the city and undoing some of the damage of sprawl. Will it do so?

As Yogi Berra said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. [2] Had I been asked this question a few years ago, I would have been doubtful. I have spent most of my professional life looking at the problem side of the equation – our neglect of physical infrastructure, notably transit; the failure to integrate land use and transportation planning; our outdated financial infrastructure leaving cities in fiscal handcuffs; and governance structures that don’t work well for metropolitan regions. I must admit that my disappointment at how we have failed to make the investments and changes we should be making has outweighed my natural optimism.

Today, however, I am more optimistic. For several reasons:

First, there is an explosion of interest in city building, a new awakening if you will.

Just look at the new books being published on cities that are making the case for change. These books are reflecting and capturing the energy and hope that is emerging with the new urbanism: Urban affairs writer, John Lorinc, was in the vanguard of what is now a movement to make our metropolitan centres sustainable, livable, and more competitive when he published The New City: How the Crisis in Canada’s Urban Centres is Reshaping the Nation (2006). Happy City by Charles Montgomery (2013) delineates the link between psychological well-being and the physical design of our urban communities, showing us in his highly readable book why walkable cities are happier places to live. Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradly from Brookings argue that a revolution is stirring in America in The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metro’s are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (2013). And Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC’s former Transportation Commissioner who launched NYC’s bikes share program, added 400-plus miles of bike lanes, and installed 60 public plazas across the city, including the one in Times Square, has just published a new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (2016) explaining how cities can be reimagined and redesigned.

Moreover, civil society mostly “gets it”. Late last year the Ryerson City Building Institute released its first annual State of City Building report. It includes an inventory of organizations outside of government that are engaged in studying and advocating for excellence in city building across the Greater Toronto region. The findings are exciting: more than 230 city building organizations are now tackling complex urban challenges – a marked increase since the year 2000. The general public, too, is becoming more aware of sustainability and climate change challenges, and – with all of the volatile swings in weather recently – more convinced that global warming is a “now” issue.

Second, I am encouraged by the calibre of leadership we are seeing at both the professional and political levels in our major cities.

In Toronto, Mayor John Tory in a recent series of transit announcements – on SmartTrack, the eastern Gardiner, and the Scarborough transit plan – has demonstrated a reassuring willingness to allow his thinking to evolve in response to new information and ideas. Nor are the mayors of our major cities right across this country sitting back waiting for the senior levels of government to ride to the rescue. Many of them are driving innovation on matters ranging from public transit and environmental protection to economic development and civic engagement. And in our province, Premier Wynn has made a $29 billion commitment over the next decade to build transit and transportation infrastructure in Ontario, with just over half of that amount allocated to the GTHA – the largest such commitment ever made in Ontario.

At the professional level, we are blessed with extraordinary leaders with the intellect, knowledge, competence, and courage to press for the changes in city planning and design that will make our cities more livable, economically successful, and environmentally sustainable. And judging from the graduate planning students I meet at Ryerson, the next generation of planning professionals will be just as talented.

Third, we are starting to see widespread acceptance of Jane Jacob’s pivotal insight that cities are really ecosystems requiring the application of ecological principles to the management of urban growth.

That hasn’t happened overnight. I recall from my early days of civic activism and working on David Crombie’s first election campaign back in 1972, our slogan was “Toronto is a living thing. Let’s treat it with care”. Of course, David knew Jane, taught political science at Ryerson, and understood the connectedness of things. But it has taken decades for the message to sink in.

Today, from Boston, New York, and San Francisco in the U.S. to Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Abu Dhabi we are starting to see so-called “eco-design” being incorporated into planning and development decisions.[3] Eco-design seeks to integrate the natural environment with the built environment in a way that accommodates growth, without destabilizing our natural systems. The poster child for Eco-design in our country is downtown Vancouver, which has been transformed: with housing for different types of households, connected parks, good transit access, a full range of public amenities and walkable streetscapes. There are inspiring examples within city centres, but eco-design can and should also be part of re-inventing our suburbs. We are not “there” yet, but what I find encouraging are the success stories and the growing interest in and acceptance of the importance of eco-design.

Fourth, closely connected to the potential of eco-design to influence city building, is the renewed interest in the public realm. The term public realm, borrowed from philosophy and social science, simply refers to the spaces in a city available for public use – such as parks, streets, waterfronts, rights of way, back lanes. In Toronto, we have not given primacy to public realm space, but I think we are starting to.

The revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront – one of the largest urban redevelopment projects currently underway in North America[4] – is a significant departure from this pattern of neglect. Waterfront Toronto’s plans sets public access to the waterfront and parks and public spaces as priorities. The full plan for the 2000 acre area will take 25 to 30 years and some $17 billion to complete, but the vision is exciting – with new mixed use neighbourhoods, affordable housing, pedestrian and bike friendly streets, and public transit within a five-minute walk of all residences, schools and other facilities. The fight to stop the expansion of the Billy Bishop Island Airport – successful in the end – was really about the future of Toronto’s waterfront and the balance of uses for all users.

A much smaller but noteworthy initiative is the Under Gardiner project. This $25 million project, funded by private philanthropists, owned by the City, and built by Waterfront Toronto, will transform a 10 acre space under the Gardiner Expressway into a network of pathways for walking and cycling and gathering places for markets, meetings, and performances. Reminiscent of the High Line in Manhatten, a linear park made from an obsolete rail line that today sees some 5 million visitors annually, the Under Gardiner is a marvelous example of the new progressive thinking taking hold today.

Fifth, we are now seeing the real possibility of our federal government coming to the city building table as a significant and reliable partner.

Unlike our copycat approach to car-centred urban growth, this is an example where Canada should learn from the US. When I was at the Wilson Center in DC two years ago studying governance for regional transit systems, I was struck by the prominent and critical role that the US federal government played historically and continues to play in funding public transit. The same was true when I was chairing the Task Force on Homelessness in 1996 where the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development – HUD – was vital both in providing funds and in incenting collaboration via its funding formulae. Canadian cities won’t be able to address either our social housing or transit shortfalls without federal participation. And with promises of billions of dollars for new urban infrastructure, our new Prime Minister appears to appreciate this.

As an historian by training, I always wanted to understand the causes of things and why and how change occurred. To sum up what I learned from ten years of study in a few words: while change can occur occasionally as a result of a single event (like the attacks on 9/11), it generally happens when the climate of opinion shifts. The convergence of all of the above, I believe, is leading to just such a shift in the climate of public opinion.

Lest my incipient optimism be dismissed as “sunny days” rhetoric, I want to assure you that I am realistic about the challenges facing cities. Our Ryerson City Building Institute has played a leading role in highlighting the social, economic and political divides and disconnects in our region.[5]

However, there is both a growing sense of urgency about the need to develop our cities differently and an emerging consensus on the new models for urban planning and design that we must adopt and implement.

One thing I can predict for sure: it will be up to us, all of us, to choose the future we want. It is absolutely vital that people stay informed and stay engaged. The fact that all of you have chosen to attend this Couchiching event tells me that I am preaching to the committed.”


[1] Auto manufacturers with publicly announced AV programs include Ford and GM (US); Audi, BMW, Daimler–Benz, Volkswagen (Germany); Honda, Nissan, Toyota (Japan); Peugeot, Volvo (other European). David Ticoll, Driving Changes: Automated Vehicles in Toronto Discussion Paper for University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs, October 15, 2015.

[2] The original author of the saying is unknown, though Mark Twain is often suggested.

[3] Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley, Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs (2015). An in-depth study of how eco-design can re-shape cities and suburbs.

[4] A variety of the public space projects have already been completed including York and John Quay Promenades, Cherry Beach and Martin Goodman Trail improvements.

[5] Bridging Divides: What Cities Can Do, May 2015. In a unique public forum held by the Ryerson City Building Institute, three GTA mayors joined urban experts to discuss strategies to bridge the growing divides in our city region: access to services; housing affordability; transit; immigration and identity;income; political culture.