A Little Bit Goes a Long Way in City Building

Max Greenwald

City building is the confluence of policies, politics, institutions, inputs, and circumstances required to create a thriving city. City building is multi-faceted and aspirational, but too often we only talk about the big, expensive, flashy parts of city building: the “big things.”

City building has become increasingly important with the current majority of the global population living in urban areas, the rise of city regions as economic engines, and cities’ ability to be a powerful force in combating numerous social, economic, and environmental challenges on the ground.

When we talk about city building, though, we often place too much focus on the macro scale. A city’s airports connect it internationally, providing mobile transport of people and goods. Universities and colleges create bridges between smart people, research activity, and job creation—a challenge all great cities must tackle. Culture in a city not only sends a signal about place and character but is also a fundamental driver of the economy. Infrastructure is a city’s physical manifestation and prerequisite for greatness.

Yet city building is also about the medium things. The waterfront, schools, libraries, social services, and community centres are determinants of a city’s quality of life. It is often these medium, inter-jurisdictional elements that differentiate between cities that are desirable places to do business versus desirable places to live. In Toronto, Wychwood Barns, the Brickworks, and the Distillery District foster community and neighbourhoods. Our world-class library system is more than just a place to take out a book. Diligent work to improve the lives and livelihoods of marginalized communities contributes to a city’s social fabric.

And then there are the small things that contribute to city development: benches, bus shelters, garbage cans, public spaces, innovative street designs, Presto cards, wayfinding, accessible recreation programs, and movies in the park. These minute elements are appreciated by Spacing magazine readers, urban studies majors, policy nerds, and Toronto-philes. But when you get beyond those with a die-hard passion for all things urban and strike up a conversation about bike lanes widths, street furniture, or food trucks, many city dwellers will respond with quizzical looks and subtle accusations that you care too much about trivialities.

While some may view these small elements as inconsequentialities, they are crucial to urban development. The true test of a city may be its ability to be able to pull off big projects, but the little things matter a great deal and help to create a true sense of place. Yes, without infrastructure, universities, and airports a city is destined to mediocrity. But without expanding and improving its small and medium city building components, it will be a place I’d rather not live. It’s truly the little things that make a city unique, give it an identity, and make it our own. The finer things in the urban realm also contribute to a city’s competitiveness. In conversations about city building, these micro elements are often tossed to the wayside, while the flashy, big projects get the lion’s share of attention.

Poorly designed garbage cans mean a dirtier city. Confusing and mismatched signage results in lost tourists. Street design can slow down cars in school zones and save lives. Being able to seamlessly travel between transit encourages multi-modal transportation. Bike lanes keep cyclists safe and encourage the would-be road warrior to leave her car keys at home. Welcoming public spaces can provide a physical location for diversity to manifest and create serendipitous bump-ins with fellow residents.

City building is about cultivating big things: money, markets, power. At the same time, though, it’s about the details involved in making public space better. One of city’s biggest challenges is putting these two elements of expansion together. That means ensuring that the big and the little things are executed well.

Max Greenwald is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Public Policy and Governance Review. He is also an alumni of the School of Public Policy and Governance. Currently, Max is a Toronto Urban Fellow with the City of Toronto.

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