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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

The Maestros

Directing the many moving parts of a great city

Frances Bula

Perfect City: An Urban Fixer’s Global Search for Magic in the Modern Metropolis

Joe Berridge

Sutherland House

200 pages, hardcover

Big, successful cities can’t survive on twee Jane Jacobs–style neighbourhood preservation alone.

That’s the essential message in Perfect City, by the prominent Toronto planner Joe Berridge, whose work with the increasingly controversial Sidewalk Labs, a project of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, exemplifies his preference for the yin of city building over the yang of lovely little urban villages. The yin, at least as he views it, is the big exoskeleton that cities need as the foundation for those well-­designed residential streets and shopping districts: the highways, the transit, the airports, the financial districts, the big master plans, the library networks, and more. In Berridge’s assessment, every great metropolis needs not just a Jane Jacobs but also a Robert Moses. Actually, Moses first and then Jacobs later.

Moses, who mowed down neighbourhoods in New York City to build its freeways in the 1950s and ’60s, is often viewed as the anti-­Christ by modern urban planners. Jacobs, who fought Moses’s plans for a highway through Greenwich Village and inspired a cult around the idea of preserving small-scale neighbourhoods, is the hero of that same group. But Berridge paints Moses as someone akin more to Baron Haussmann than to the devil. A seemingly all-­powerful bureaucrat, Haussmann transformed nineteenth-­century Paris, a hodgepodge of cramped medieval neighbourhoods, into the modern Paris of grand boulevards, roundabouts, and stylized apartment buildings — six storeys, with a high first floor for retail, a luxury second floor for the wealthy, and gradually less posh housing up to the servants’ rooms just under the roof — that typify the city to this day.

All-seeing, all-powerful planners have transformed cities around the world.

Jean-Luc Bonifay

Moses created “one million hectares of new parks in New York State, 658 playgrounds in New York City, Lincoln Center, the UN complex, the 1964 World’s Fair and tens of thousands of affordable housing units,” along with his 5,000 kilometres of freeway and thirteen bridges. And because of that, he deserves a certain amount of praise — not vilification. “He was particularly skilled in understanding how to finance city building, inherently an extremely expensive activity, and how to organize government to effectively deliver projects,” Berridge writes of Moses. “He was in many ways the inventor of the public urban development companies that have played so important a role in contemporary big city urban regeneration.”

As Berridge says early on, “Jacobs’ urban vision was ultimately grounded in and limited by the neighbourhood. It provided no basis for large-scale intervention.” What’s worse, he argues, “it lacks the confidence and competence to tackle the big ­challenges of the modern metropolis.” While Berridge does see value in much that Jacobs advocated for and wrote about, he sees many of her followers using her as a weapon to defeat any kind of city change, with “a mindset that entails reflexive hostility on behalf of the ‘community’ to any major urban initiative.” He worries that “the local concern” often trumps the larger view, “with ‘progressives’ finding in her work their justification for principled inaction.” (The current crop of young urban activists — who are increasingly labelling “progressive” boomers as the biggest barrier to solving pervasive housing ­problems — might well agree.)

What Berridge is unmistakably attracted to is the megaproject, a frequent focus on an eight-stop tour of the world: New York, Singapore, London, Manchester, Belfast, Toronto, Sydney, and Shanghai. These are places where he and his company, Urban Strategies, have done work or, in the case of Shanghai, where they wanted to work but missed the boat. He pays particular attention to big developments, including New York’s Battery Park, Hudson Yards, and Governor’s Island; London’s Canary Wharf; the massive revitalization efforts in Manchester and Belfast; Sydney’s failed attempt to develop its waterfront; and Shanghai’s almost unbelievable overnight creation of its massive Pudong financial district. In each city, Berridge admires the Robert Moses–like characters who have driven change. Interestingly, few of these change makers are actually urban planners. (In fact, we don’t hear a lot about what planners do or even very much about what Berridge and his colleagues have done in these places.)

Berridge’s attitude about what cities need comes from his mental construct of what they are. While you and I, mere city dwellers, might think of cities as the places for a wealth of activities (restaurants, street festivals, art galleries, the opera, stores, food trucks, stores, outdoor concerts, stores), he sees them as part machine. Yes, they are places where people live and have fun; that is indeed one of their functions. But they are also, he says, complex motors, churning out jobs, generating wealth, and absorbing newcomers. And they can keep running at optimum speed only if all the pipes and cables (roads, bridges, buses, subway lines) are built to capacity and function well. Quite unlike a Jane Jacobs, Berridge fears that “in our obsessive concern for home, we have neglected the machine.”

Am I making Perfect City sound turgid, preachy, or boring? It’s not. It’s one of the more readable planning books I’ve come across in my day, and it’s many light years away from the average planning report churned out by city hall.

Berridge is a close observer, and he’s a writer who can capture the sound of a voice, the taste of a great meal, the subtext of a conversation. He recounts many personal moments that don’t necessarily illuminate planning principles but are amusing to silently observe, like his account of having a momentary delusion that Jacobs — a woman with “a serious pair of legs” — once made a pass at him. (Turned out she was sending a secret signal that she wanted some cigarettes.)

Nor is Berridge afraid to expose himself, noting his “old reflexive white guy hesitation” to eat in a black New York neighbourhood, and elsewhere gently mocking himself for trying to out-name-drop the urban theorist Richard Florida.

In spite of his fondness for the grand development, he also sprinkles his travels through these cities with accounts of their small pleasures and lesser-known pillars. He may admire megaprojects, but he’s a fan of grubby side-street ethnic restaurants, too. We read about his visit to an obscure, Formica-clad restaurant, Hakka No. 1, near what he calls “the ugliest place in Toronto,” near Weston Road and Finch Avenue; the don’t-give-a-shit servers at the Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Station; and the unexpectedly raffish No Sign Board restaurant in one of the tiny areas of Singapore reserved for bad behaviour, where he swoons over pepper crab served on outdoor tables in the shadow of a former gas station. And there are lovely descriptions of small urban pockets — the once rundown area of Barking in London, for example — and fascinating characters that he sees as providing the social underpinning to cities, like Colbert Nembhard, the man who runs the Morrisania public library in the South Bronx.

But even as he describes the unsung characters, Berridge is unambiguously a devotee of the great-man theory of history. The enemy is always “the blob, the congealed mess of outdated and overlapping jurisdiction, the diffuseness of responsibility, the fact that simultaneously no one and everyone is in charge.” In this sense, Singapore, where voting is mandatory, is the perfect city because it has no blob: “Politicians are expected to know what the electorate thinks about issues and to convey public opinion to government. That is their democratic job, a role they see as more legitimate than that of responding to the concerns of the vocal and unrepresentative few who turn up at public meetings.”

Other heroes include Lee Kuan Yew, the creator of modern Singapore, who dictated everything from the correct ethnic mix in every public-­housing building to a chewing gum ban; Howard Bernstein, the former Manchester city manager who embodies “intimidating force” with an unreconstructed working-­class diet of chocolate bars and Coca-Cola; and David Pitchford, a developer in Sydney and another bundle of testosterone. (There are women in this book who steer their ships through the blob, but not as many as the men.)

In 2010, former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson got into some trouble for commenting that China was a country that knew how to get things done, unlike slow-­moving cities in Canada and the United States. Berridge subscribes to similar views, bemoaning the paralysis that afflicts North America and Europe. Cities in those places seem unable “to manage their urban machinery, to create the physical, economic and intellectual infrastructures necessary to their lives.” This, in turn, results in a steadily diminished “ability to compete and to foster the social and economic dynamism without which problems of poverty, inequality and exclusion cannot be resolved.”

Berridge’s thinking on this is persuasive, but it’s not without flaws. “If you want to know to where the European and North American middle class has disappeared,” he writes, “it is to Singapore and its colleague cities.” Of course, that applies only to an elite portion of the upper middle class: the rest of us are still slogging away on home ground here.

Belfast and Manchester provide a nice counterpoint to Singapore and the grand city makers. They are smaller places — and focused on recovering from profoundly scarring events: the Troubles, in Belfast, and the IRA’s bombing of central Manchester in 1996. It’s with Manchester that Berridge acknowledges the role that a Jane Jacobs approach can play, as planners there reimagined a hideously depressed social-­housing tract to create “small blocks, a diversity of uses, a variety of employment and living opportunities.”

Shanghai, though, is for Berridge the most perfect city. London is not bad, because its political structure seems to facilitate an ability to drive through big projects, and New York does all right because its mayor appears to have enough power to do the same (with the exception, perhaps, of the city’s much-maligned transit network). Sydney’s big waterfront development fell victim to the blob, and Toronto is always in danger of that as well, in part because both have such fractured systems of city governance. “Toronto,” he concludes, “has the weakest, least capable governance system of any of the world’s leading cities.”

But Shanghai — a jewel that is currently undergoing the largest urbanization in history — has escaped the blob. It is a city that embraces Moses-­size ideas, overlaid with some Jacobean appreciation for mixed-­use neighbourhoods, a strong transit system, a dense street grid, and good design: “Shanghai has laid its dozen transit lines roughly on a grid, spaced one-and-a-half to two kilometers apart, and at every intersection there is a ­station . . . overbuilt with offices and apartments.”

Still, the city is not yet the Platonic ideal of urban life. Glittering Pudong, for one thing, was designed by architects, who should not be allowed to do large-scale city building, Berridge argues. “Architects always get it wrong when they are given a problem that is too large,” he writes. “They treat a city district as it were merely a bigger building, an abstract code of angles and intersections, rather than as an organic place.”

In spite of that, Berridge admires Shanghai’s brand of vitality more than the surprisingly monotone place-making he sees elsewhere, what he describes as “the dominant expressions of small-scale beauty.” Having visited each of these cities, he observes, “The street and parks . . . are beginning to resemble each other to an unsettling degree, with their cafés, their streetscaping, their bike lanes, their well-­designed lamp fixtures and meaningful public art.” It’s the kind of design we’ve seen around the world, as cities from Paris to Vancouver have transformed themselves from industrial centres into tourist playgrounds. Such small-scale touches are also relatively easy to undertake, in the face of public or institutional resistance, compared with the bigger moves. (Berridge doesn’t make this point himself, but it matches his predilections.)

People love coming up with prescriptions for urban life — from Ebenezer Howard’s vision of complete, citizen-­controlled cities in former agricultural lands to Le Corbusier’s cities of towers. The comprehensive historian of all this theorizing, Peter Hall, has categorized the field’s visionaries, and Berridge is clearly a descendant of the City Beautiful camp (think the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair or Washington’s National Mall). The Haussmanns of the world have long favoured this style of planning, but so too have dictators, who are attracted to grand cities that embody control.

But cities are about more than just beautiful monuments, as Berridge says early in the book. They are also economic engines. So he also falls into the camp of the opinionators who emerged in the 1970s to exhort civic leaders to revive their failing post-industrial cities with new ways to attract business.

As he attempts to walk the path of both traditions, Berridge explains why he is so attached to Sidewalk Labs, a proposed twelve-acre redevelopment on Toronto’s former industrial waterfront. Critics are wary of the project’s creeping scope, question its actual benefits for residents, and are particularly suspicious of what Alphabet (or Google) will do with all the data it collects by tracking everything from pedestrian movement to ­garbage can use. But Berridge sees ­promise. As he tweeted in June,

#Toronto and its citizens should support the @SidewalkLabs proposal. @SidewalkToronto are proposing several significant public goods that I do not know how else #Toronto can make happen.

In other words, the project has a grand vision — one the blob will never make happen on its own.

But does Sidewalk Labs promise that other theme Berridge explores as he visits the unplanned, scrappy, grubby, local places that provide life? His descriptions of those places are more aligned with the ideals of the urban thinkers who came from the anarchist tradition, who envisioned taking cities away from the big leaders and creating their own neighbourhoods, built out of sweat equity and community needs — hardly something that sounds like Google. He comes back to those little spots and non-Moses-like citizens again and again, basking in a sense of connectedness.

Berridge ends the book with a visit to a local library, where a potluck dinner and live music have been organized. But even with this final intimate moment, he never explains how planners or city politicians or community groups can ensure the kind of urban underpinning that truly connects. Such moments appear as if by magic, but they’re not magical. They require money, a certain level of institutional support, and uncontrolled spaces for people to make their own. Unfortunately, as much as Berridge clearly admires those aspects of urban life, he doesn’t provide any hints for ensuring they are part of the perfect city.

Frances Bula has covered urban issues and city politics for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and Canadian Architect, among others.