The World's Most Livable Cities
Metropolis ranks the best cities to live, work, and play in.
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Riverdale Park East is one of Toronto's most popular parks and areas for recreation. Its grounds command a breathtaking panorama of the downtown skyline.
Courtesy Nick Kozak
After four chaotic years under car-loving, crack-smoking former mayor Rob Ford, life in Toronto has returned to normal. Fortunately, the city’s “weak mayor” system gives the chief magistrate, like council’s other 44 members, just one vote. In other words, even the worst administration can only inflict limited damage. The city is no longer tearing itself apart and has returned its focus to realizing its enormous urban potential.
Indeed, Toronto is in the midst of a transformation that will make one of the most livable cities on earth even more attractive. Condo and office towers continue to pop up at a fast and furious rate as people—especially seniors and young professionals—flood into a downtown where they can enjoy Canada’s most urban environment. Growth in the inner core now outpaces suburbia for the first time since the 1970s—in 2014 alone, more than 20,000 residential units were completed.
Long-term public/private sector projects are also remaking vast swaths of the city according to principles urban guru Jane Jacobs, who lived in Toronto from 1968 until her death in 2006, would have admired. The best example is Waterfront Toronto (WT). Created in 2001 to revitalize the city’s post-industrial harbor lands, it has presided over the creation of whole new neighborhoods with parks, complete streets, ultra-high-speed Internet, five-minute access to transit, and full mixed-use zoning. Much to its critics’ chagrin, WT’s strategy starts not with necessities—roads and transit will come later—but with “frills” such as Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, and Corktown Common. Its success, however, is that the waterfront is suddenly sexy.
The city’s largest landlord, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, is rebuilding Canada’s largest social housing complex, a low-rise Pruitt-Igoe called Regent Park. The failed 1950s low-income residential complex is being torn down and replaced by a mixed-income neighborhood with cultural amenities and a stunning aquatic center. For the first time in more than 60 years, a bank has moved into the area. Oh, and Regent Park actually has a park now.
Within the next 15 years, Toronto’s population will grow to more than three million.
The last decade has seen double-digit job growth in the downtown core, greatly eclipsing the same figure for the city’s suburbs.
In 2014, the city council approved more than $20 billion in development.
Ontario’s Greenbelt, a 1.8-million-acre swath of protected farmland and green space, has encouraged high-density, high-rise development in the capital.
One of the most innovative programs, Tower Renewal, aims to find ways to reconfigure the languishing 1,000-plus residential slabs that comprise much of Toronto’s inner-suburban landscape. Built between the 1950s and the 1980s, these concrete high-rises were intended for young middle-class couples but ended up as enclaves of poor immigrants. The challenge is to upgrade the buildings to modern environmental standards and change outdated single-use zoning regulations to allow a more healthy mix of residential, retail, and recreation.
Transit remains a huge issue. Toronto has not kept up with demand, but that’s changing in a flurry of projects that will extend the subway to suburban municipalities north of the city. There’s also the Eglinton Crosstown, a 12-mile light-rail line now under construction that will provide 100 million rides annually when it’s completed in 2023. Meanwhile, the long-awaited express train connecting downtown Toronto to Pearson International Airport began operation in early June.
The most unexpected development in Toronto’s inner-suburbs is the extraordinary Ismaili Centre/Aga Khan Museum. Located in a nondescript area in the city’s North End, the two luminous structures are contained within an exquisite contemporary version of a traditional Islamic garden. This part of Toronto has never looked so beautiful, or been so enticing. The center highlights the diversity that fuels Toronto’s civic dynamism—successive waves of immigration have made the city a microcosm of the world. Though there are inevitable tensions, multiculturalism has turned a waspy colonial outpost into a model of tolerance envied globally.
The most obvious testament to the vitality of immigrant culture is Toronto’s burgeoning food scene. A city that barely knew what garlic was 50 years ago now relishes cuisines from the world over. Consider the case of Uncle Tetsu, the celebrated Japanese cheesecake maker who chose Toronto to open its first store outside Asia. The unassuming shop sells only the one item, but from the moment it appeared last April, the lineups have been blocks long.
Still, Toronto’s urban evolution hasn’t always been easy. A controversial move to demolish the eastern portion of its crumbling 50-year-old elevated highway, the Gardiner Expressway, was rejected by the city council. The speed of change has also left many feeling the city is no longer theirs. Growing economic disparity has also undermined civic confidence; lack of affordable housing is worse than ever. “I’d rather be here than just about any other place on Earth,” enthuses Richard (Creative Class) Florida, who moved north in 2007. But he warns that the city shouldn’t be “over-romanticized as an urban paradise.”
Toronto’s respected former chief planner and urban activist, Paul Bedford, doesn’t heed the advice. “Make passionate love to your city,” he likes to tell audiences. Wandering the streets here, it seems people are listening. —Christopher Hume
Courtesy Aaron Wynia
Kensington Market is one of Toronto's most successful mixed-use neighborhoods. With a vibrant arts and food scene, historic townscape, and mixed traffic, it's easy to see why so the area is beloved by so many Torontonians.
Courtesy Ben Rahn
The newly opened Union Pearson (UP) Express airlink connects Union Station in downtown to Toronto Pearson International Airport. The new rail line is the first fruit of the city’s ambitious $11.5 billion transportation rehaul, dubbed The Big Move.
Courtesy Jesse Colin Jackson
It’s estimated that some one million people live in the concrete high-rise residential towers of Toronto’s inner suburbs. Built between the 1950s and 1980s by mostly private developers, the towers were envisioned as a commodious real estate option for young middle-class couples; after canada’s liberalization of its immigration policies, the slabs quickly became enclaves for migrant populations. “They play an absolutely crucial role as entry housing for newcomers, but they weren’t designed for that,” says architect Graeme Stewart, who for the last decade has mobilized political interest in the towers to preserve their building stock and vital social role. Period zoning mandated that the slabs be set back in a field of green, effectively creating dead zones for commercial and social activity. Rezoning measures based, in part, on Stewart and partner Sabina Ali’s research, have a good chance of being passed into law.
Courtesy Nick Kozak
Toronto’s most capacious public space, Nathan Phillips Square is the site of frequent festivals, farmers markets, and protest demonstrations. An ongoing $70 million revitalization project promises to further activate the city’s foremost civic forum.
Tokyo’s approach to development tends toward impermanence and constantly new construction. Such a ravenous building cycle—homes depreciate rapidly and only have a lifespan of 30 years or so —can be chalked up to economics. This mindset, coupled with relatively lax zoning laws, has always given architects a license for experimentation, and not just in the domestic sphere. Kengo Kuma’s design for the SunnyHills cafe in Tokyo’s leisurely Aoyama neighborhood is a case in point. The project, completed in 2014, was realized for a Taiwanese bakery specializing in pineapple cakes.
Courtesy Daici Ano
Tokyo, home to 32 percent of Japan’s urban population, is the world’s largest urban area, a true megalopolis. Yet, despite its overpowering scale, density, and frenetic pace, it is consistently found at the top of leading urban and socioeconomic indices.
According to Tokyo-based architect Alastair Townsend, this success “stems from the relative safety and social order engendered by Japan’s incredibly strong cultural cohesion.” He also credits Tokyo’s excellent public infrastructure and bike-friendly roads. This, “despite having no cycle paths.”
Tokyo also gets high marks for housing. With its massive population, the city is constantly challenged to provide adequate and affordable residences. It has been able to meet these challenges—though “affordable” is a relative term—through a laissez-faire approach to development that allows some pretty interesting and dense urban configurations to arise, such as super-efficient residential architecture on tiny lots in very mixed, walkable neighborhoods.
It’s also this type of density and mixed programming that makes Tokyo one of the leading cities for “aging in place.” With one of the oldest populations in the world, Tokyo, says aging-in-place expert Mark Hager, “has committed considerable resources to rethinking how its communities are designed.” He cites centuries of multi-generational housing as one reason Tokyo has been quick to “create communities where older people can continue living where they wish, have many generations and neighbors near, and still get the care or assistance they need.” Technology-driven efforts to service this demographic—ceiling cameras to monitor movement, beds that convert into wheelchairs, high-tech chair lifts—appear far ahead of similar developments in the United States.
Sustainability may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Tokyo, but new initiatives are changing that. The city government is lowering its carbon footprint by greening existing buildings, while new structures in excess of 54,000 square feet must meet sustainable standards before receiving permits. It is also developing a 27-million-unit smart meter infrastructure to link users and utility platforms, in order to make city-wide energy management more efficient.
Clearly, Tokyo is doing a lot of things right, but there is room for improvement. “Here, 14-hour work days are normal—a badge of honor even,” Townsend says. “Would the salarymen who cram into trains every morning and stumble home exhausted late at night agree that Tokyo is the world’s most livable city?” Tradition is not easily trumped here, but one hopes Tokyo can set its considerable ingenuity to ameliorating such problems. —Guy Horton
Tokyo is the safest city in the world, despite its significant population.
Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station on earth, averages 3,640,000 passengers per day.
Cost of Living
Tokyo’s entire metropolitan area is more affordable than any other megacity (defined as cities with more than ten million residents.
The city has more Michelin-starred restaurants—267 in total —than any other city.
One of the main event venues for Helsinki Design Week in 2014 was the former abattoir—a prime example of Helsinki’s adaptive reuse movement and culinary revival. Now named Kellohalli, the historical slaughterhouse was renovated into a venue that integrates local food, pop-up eateries, and urban gardens.
Courtesy Aino Huovio
Helsinki punches above its weight. That’s how Hanna Harris, program director of Helsinki Design Week, describes the city’s success in areas ranging from maker culture and design heritage, to infrastructure and accessibility. These strengths, along with its quality of services, architecture, and ample green space, are what make the city one of the world’s most livable.
“We are using design in a very cross-sectoral way,” says Harris. “The city is working out different things, from infrastructure and planning to governance and services.” Helsinki Design Week itself is a prime example of how Helsinki is a design-driven city. The home base of the 2015 festival is the L3 harbor warehouse in Jätkäsaari, an adaptive reuse project on the former site of an inner-city commercial harbor. This rethinking of the old is evident in the team’s project with architectural collective Uusi Kaupunki that is envisioning a new future for the island of Vallisaari off the city center—intertwining the idea of manmade and nature.
he architectural collective who are doing the project with us this coming fall
“Helsinki is finding the next stage of how it will manifest itself,” Harris says. “The city also intends to develop even further the transport systems that are already very advanced.” In this vein, the city is launching an on-demand bus service, called Kutsuplus, and planning to fold car- and bike-sharing into an ambitious smartphone-enabled public-transport system by 2025—the end goal being that car ownership will be unnecessary. This idea may seem extreme, but when one considers the city’s forward-thinking attitude and accessible technology—the ubiquitous free WiFi in the city is fast enough to allow video calling and HD streaming—it suddenly doesn’t seem so unattainable. “As we question how designers are shaping, imagining, and forecasting futures,” says Harris, “Helsinki, with all that’s going on, is in a very good position to answer that.” —Shannon Sharpe