Famously (within Canada, at least) Toronto and the rest of Canada do not like each other. Toronto considers itself to be the best the country has to offer, while non-Torontonians perceive the city to be arrogant and too American. Prior to my trip to Toronto last summer, I was inclined to side with the rest of Canada, having travelled it fairly extensively. But, by the end of my six-week trip, I was thinking like a local, and desperate for them to accept me as one of their own.
Toronto may be a major city but it is still a Canadian major city. That means a few things. Firstly, it is diverse and tolerant: Toronto’s citizens herald from all over the globe. Immigrants have shaped the city and continue to do so, and Toronto is proud of that heritage. Secondly, it’s safe. When I expressed a concern that I might get mugged, I was soundly mocked. People in downtown Toronto leave their bikes unlocked in their front yard; crime is hardly on people’s radars. Thirdly, to the English eye, they have space. Canada is a vast country – the second biggest in the world – and with a population of only 36 million, it enjoys a lot of room. And finally, Torontonians are not exempt from the old adage, that Canadians are just really nice.
Crime is hardly on people’s radars…
Toronto is defined by its geography. It sits alongside Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes (ignorant tourist that I am, I initially believed the seemingly endless expanse of water to be the ocean). A long boardwalk runs along the shore; the only interruption in summer some brightly coloured deckchairs. Hundreds of people play volleyball on the sand alongside. It is simple, perhaps even old-fashioned, but divine. Through most of the city, meanwhile, runs a network of ravines, which remain largely undeveloped. These are a gift to pedestrians. I took a 4-kilometre walk through the heart of the city, and not once did I travel along a road. I felt as peaceful and invigorated as if I had been in the country. The myriad of other walkers, joggers and cyclists clearly felt the same.
Come out of the ravines and a similar spirit is tangible. Toronto’s sidewalks are wide, its streets clean. Built on a grid system, it is easy to navigate, even for the directionally challenged. It remains verdant, even in the more urban areas: trees line many roads and you can find a park or green space every few blocks. And each exploration brings reward. Independent shops thrive, bringing individuality to every community. Food and crafts markets appear in unexpected places. Works of art are emblazoned across unused walls. Everywhere demands attention. You cannot help but give it.
Everywhere demands attention. You cannot help but give it…
The maintenance of green space suggested to me an admirable long-term vision from those in charge. Community hubs such as the Distillery District and Evergreen Brick Works confirmed that instinct. Previously derelict industrial sites, they have been transformed into vibrant, pedestrianised, centres for retail, art and education – all while keeping their historical architecture intact. Out of a formerly arid quarry, meanwhile, has arisen a diverse, flourishing ecosystem. Wildflowers carpet the slopes, turtles paddle in ponds, paths weave through the landscape. From the top of a hill, I could see Toronto’s skyline, but I didn’t feel I was in the metropolis; indeed, with the sun blazing and insects creaking, I thought I was on a different continent.
The success of such places is testament to a city council that is willing to look beyond mere profit, and values the spiritual wellbeing of, and sense of community among its inhabitants. This is a city made for humans; Toronto is not too busy and not (yet) overbuilt. Despite all its snobbery about the rest of Canada, Toronto looks out to the world and welcomes it in, an example being the hugely successful and popular Toronto International Film Festival. It is a dynamic city, a creative city, an ambitious city that sees potential to be even better and grabs at it. A city that, on the evidence I saw, holds dear the values of its country: kindness, and valuing the outdoors, and good maple syrup. A city not just for Torontonians, but for Canada, to be proud of.