Downtowns that work: lessons from Toronto and Chicago.

Author:Filion, Pierre


Among downtowns of North American metropolitan regions, two have performed especially well in terms of the presence of employment, residential development and diversity of land uses over the last decades: those of Toronto and Chicago. This paper concentrates on the factors responsible for their success. It reviews the history of the two downtowns since World-War-II, giving special attention to the capacity 'macro-decisions' have of creating path dependencies. Identified macro-decisions include strategic investments in downtown-focussed public transit and improvements to the diversity and amenities of the downtowns. There are important differences in the approaches taken in the two downtowns. These relate in part to organizational specificities. If in Toronto institutional structures and political coalitions play a major role in explaining the adoption of policies favourable to the downtown, in Chicago it is the priorities of powerful mayors that loom largest. The paper proposes a multicausal model, which shows how numerous decisions of different nature, along with their interactions and consequences, have contributed to positive downtown outcomes in the two cities. The main lesson from the two cases is that downtown success cannot be improvised as it is the outcome of long chains of policies, which interact positively with market trends, favouring core areas.

Keywords: Toronto, Chicago, downtowns, history


Parmi les centres-villes des regions metropolitaines nord-americaines, ceux de Toronto et Chicago se sont distingues, au cours des dernieres decennies, par le maintien d'un fort niveau d'emploi, ainsi que par leur capacite de stimuler leur croissance residentielle et d'accroitre la diversite de leurs activites. Cet article se penche sur les facteurs qui ont contribue au succes des deux centres-villes. Il decrit leur histoire depuis la seconde guerre mondiale, pretant une attention particuliere a la mise en place de tendances a long terme. Les macrodecisions qui ont lance ces tendances comprennent la creation de reseaux de transports collectifs desservant les deux centres-villes, ainsi qu'une amelioration de la qualite de leur milieu de vie et un enrichissement de la diversite de leurs activites. Il y a d'importantes distinctions dans les mesures responsables du succes des deux centres-villes. Alors qu'a Toronto les structures administratives et les coalitions politiques ont joue un role de premier plan, a Chicago ce sont deux puissants maires qui ont ete responsables des principales strategies de revitalisation. L'article met de l'avant un modele multi-causal expliquant l'evolution des centres-villes, qui identifie les hens entre de multiples decisions ainsi que leurs consequences. Les deux etudes de cas demontrent que le succes d'un centre-ville depend non pas de strategies isolees, mais plutot d'une longue chaine d'interventions s'arrimant aux tendances du marche et se deployant sur une longue duree.

Mots cles: Toronto, Chicago, centres-villes, histoire Introduction


Two downtowns of large North American metropolitan regions, those of Toronto and Chicago, have fared exceptionally well in terms of their capacity to retain a large employment base, achieve multi-functionality and attract new residents. These downtowns have withstood the urban decentralization wave that has unfurled across the continent since World War II. The phrase 'A City That Works'has been associated with metropolitan governance in postwar Toronto as well as with Mayor Richard J. Daley's ability to get things done in postwar Chicago. We transpose this expression to the downtowns of these cities ('Downtowns that Work') to reflect their positive performance, in part a legacy of measures taken over the postwar period when the two cities 'worked'.

The paper builds a conceptual framework highlighting multiple and intersecting circumstances that promote downtown development. Narratives of the evolution of the two downtowns and planning approaches adopted to further their development are interpreted from this multi-causal perspective. Our longitudinal study responds to calls for a 'comparative (re)turn in urban studies' by highlighting similarities and differences in the histories of the two downtowns, and distills lessons relating to their success (Ward 2008: 405). The case studies stress the need for a confluence of several factors, notably past planning decisions, land-use and transportation patterns at a metropolitan and downtown scale, favourable market circumstances and proactive planning, and thus point to the absence of a single policy wand capable of assuring the success of downtowns. The study has far-reaching planning implications, as the revitalization and expansion of downtowns along with the creation of sub-centres meant to operate as small-scale downtowns, which are at the heart of many central-city and metropolitan-wide policies.

Downtowns that Work

What are the conditions for 'successful' downtown development in North America? The ability of downtowns to attract and retain people and businesses and to nurture an appealing cityscape cannot be presumed despite a much-heralded 'return to the city' (Birch 2009). Well-functioning downtowns at a minimum host dense concentrations of a wide range of activities--offices, hospitality services, retailing, institutions, cultural facilities, recreational establishments and housing--which benefit from their functional complementarity and proximity to each other. Planning attempts to improve downtowns have taken multiple forms, such as major public investments (e.g. conference centres, concert halls, parks and sports stadia), clearance and heritage preservation (Ford 2003; Levine 1987; Robertson 1995). Results have been mixed, however. In an advanced state of depletion due to the impact of urban dispersion, many downtowns have failed to respond to planning stimuli.

The downtowns of Toronto and Chicago were selected because in the early 21s' century they have maintained a high concentration of employment while becoming increasingly multi-functional. They also share sustained development over much of the 1945-2015 period despite regional sprawl. Are these same downtown outcomes the result of similar or different market trends and policies?

Our exercise will demonstrate the need for a number of favourable conditions, including past policy decisions, urban dynamics, market trends, and on-going public sector decision-making that, if aligned, can sustain downtown growth in the face of continuing suburban dispersal. We begin constructing our multi-causal model by examining the enduring influence of macro-decisions of a planning nature or otherwise. Macro-decisions have the capacity to steer other decisions in a lasting way and thus launch path dependencies. The range of possibilities available at any given time is in large part dictated by the legacy of such decisions. Their influence is extended over time through the creation and modification of institutions, laws, regulations and, with most relevance to this paper, urban form and dynamics, infrastructures and services (Pierson 2004). They open up and close down options for the future.

Macro-decisions create urban dynamics which, when validated by supportive demographic and economic tendencies, become entrenched over time. Mutually reinforcing land use and transportation interactions are resistant to modification or reversal, and can either encourage or stymie the evolution of downtowns. The predominance in North America of automobile-oriented transportation systems tends to promote decentralization and, therefore, the erosion of downtowns (Squires 2002). In contrast, a foremost comparative advantage of some downtowns is the existence of a synergy grounded in frequently repeated pedestrian-based interactions benefiting different downtown activities (Robertson 1993; Thomson 1977). Such a synergy is the offshoot of prior decisions conducive to a downtown concentration of activities and assuring that the presence of cars did not threaten the pedestrian environment.

Different market trends affect the evolution of downtowns. There is first the economic performance and specialization of a metropolitan region, increasingly a function of its insertion within global economic networks. The better the performance of a metropolitan economy and the greater its specialization in sectors that generate core-area jobs and/or employ people attracted to downtown living, the stronger is the growth potential of its downtown area (Savitch and Kantor 2002). Market trends affecting downtowns are shaped by planning decisions such as those determining urban accessibility patterns. The economic vitality of a downtown is a function of accessibility (Lang, Sanchez and Oner 2009). Equally important are supply-side mechanisms (investment in downtown real estate and activities) that both accommodate and stimulate the economic activity of downtowns.

Public sector decision-making is the final set of circumstances we discuss. Numerous variables shape public policies targeted at downtown areas and thereby affect their capacity of achieving development goals. The institutional architecture (itself a legacy of past macro-decisions), defines the role and power of different political and administrative actors (Peters 2005). As expected, the electoral process and public sector reliance on resources generated by the private economy, along with resulting sensitivity to political or economic pressures from developers, major employers and community groups, influence the nature of downtown interventions. The fiscal dependence of municipal governments has been instrumental in forging regime-type coalitions, dominated by economically powerful actors (Stone 1989). Some of the downtown-oriented public policies moulded by institutional architecture can achieve the status of macro-decisions, which tie back to the first stage of the model.

The objective of...

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