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ATL Business Chronicle

In Toronto, Atlanta leaders find a city on steroids

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on May 22, 2015

Editor’s note: A group of more than 100 Atlanta business and civic leaders visited Toronto, Canada, in early May on the LINK trip coordinated by the Atlanta Regional Commission. The trip’s aim is to learn how other cities are dealing with issues and challenges like those facing Atlanta. Atlanta Business Chronicle reporter Maria Saporta traveled with the group.

Toronto is a city on steroids.

Although metro Atlanta is almost as large as Toronto (which has a population of 4.25 million compared to Atlanta’s 6 million), everything feels magnified in Canada’s largest city.


A view of downtown Toronto (Photos by Maria Saporta)

It did not take long for a delegation of 110 leaders from metro Atlanta on the 19th annual LINK (Leadership, Innovation, Networking & Knowledge) trip to realize they almost were speaking different languages when they were addressing their urban challenges. And these are both English-speaking cities.

Leaders from the Greater Toronto Area complained about how their region was not investing in transportation and transit. That sounded like an all-too familiar refrain for metro Atlanta leaders who had painstakingly just gotten a bill passed for nearly $1 billion (with only $100 million going to transit statewide in a one-time expenditure) in new transportation funding during the 2015 Georgia legislative session.

And then leaders from Toronto and the Province of Ontario were pressed about their lack of transportation funding.

Toronto reflection

Reflection of Toronto’s street life as seen on a building’s facade

The LINK delegation found out that from 2000 to 2015, the Greater Toronto Area will have spent $32 billion just on transit in the region. And it is all modes of transit – heavy rail, commuter rail, streetcars, bus rapid transit and regular bus services.

When it came to economic development, the conversation was similar. Metro Atlanta is enjoying success these days – especially after the recession that hit the region hard beginning in 2008.

But Toronto has seen its population double in the last two decades, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Currently there are 133 construction cranes gracing the city’s skyline – more than in any other North American city.

Much of that growth is coming from immigrants, and Toronto prides itself on being one of the most welcoming cities to people moving in from other places.

Nearly half of its population was born outside of Canada, and its leaders believe that is an asset.

“We embrace human rights and diversity,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said. “We embrace people living here who are black, white, gay, straight, Asian, European, African…”

LINK brings together people from throughout the region: Luz Borrero, deputy COO of DeKalb County; Emory Morsberger, a developer from Gwinnett County; Moses Brown, a consultant from Fulton County; and Chris Appleton, executive director of the artist collaborative WonderRoot in Atlanta

LINK brings together people from throughout the region: Luz Borrero, deputy COO of DeKalb County; Emory Morsberger, a developer from Gwinnett County; Moses Brown, a consultant from Fulton County; and Chris Appleton, executive director of the artist collaborative WonderRoot in Atlanta

Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange, told the LINK delegation about an effort that was launched several years ago called “DiverseCity onBoard.”

The organization cataloged all the important corporate, civic, government and nonprofit boards in Toronto that represented leadership.

“We found that there were 3,023 positions which shaped our city and influenced our lives,” Omidvar said. “What we found was that 13 percent of those positions were occupied by visible minorities while 40 percent of our population is comprised of visible minorities. We concluded that while our city was diverse, our leadership was not. There was a disconnect.”

So DiverseCity onBoard intentionally decided to change that so that “those tables of power begin to look like Toronto.” The group developed leadership training programs, networks and governance models to intentionally set up a pipeline and begin filling those seats of power with more diverse leaders. So far 730 DiverseCity candidates have been placed on boards.

Kerry Armstrong Mayor John Tory

Kerry Armstrong, chairman of Atlanta Regional Commission, speaks with Toronto’s Mayor John Tory

Leaders from the Atlanta region quickly saw how that model could be replicated in Atlanta by tweaking existing programs.

“We should leverage our international diversity,” said David Lubell, executive director of Welcoming America, which is based in DeKalb County. “The Atlanta metro region is leveraging about 5 percent of its international diversity and Toronto is leveraging about 90 percent. Atlanta can be one of the most global regions in the country.”

Another idea that hit home was CivicAction – a high-level group of leaders that addressed major issues confronting the Greater Toronto Area. Tory, the current mayor, had been one of CivicAction’s leaders, and had been working on the tough issues of transportation, regional cooperation, housing affordability, juvenile justice and quality of life before running for office.

In talking to the LINK delegation, Tory was quite open about Toronto’s problems – the increased density was putting greater demands on parks and public spaces, housing was less affordable, the disparity of incomes, the lack of investment in transit, the inability to work as a region, etc. It was forcing the city to focus on what makes a city livable – public art, active street life, parks and quality urban design.

But Tory was one of several leaders from Toronto who talked about the power of working collectively and being persistent – celebrating the incremental successes along the way.

“Relentless incrementalism – the need to get focused on something and work it and work it and work it,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “That is something I will definitely be taking home with me from Toronto.”

toronto streetcars

Streetcars are constantly running up and down the streets of downtown Toronto – often stacking up behind each other

Hala Moddelmog Stacey Abrams

Hala Moddelmog, president of Metro Atlanta Chamber, checks in with Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s House Minority Leader

toronto homeless

Homelessness is an issue in all big cities, but some folks in Toronto found some choice spots to sleep

toronto public art

Public art is everywhere. A great emphasis is made to incorporate art in front and around downtown buildings and public spaces

toronto dog park

Even dogs have been given public spaces with public art. This dog feels right at home

Toronto building cranes

Building cranes are everywhere. Currently there are 133 cranes at work in the Greater Toronto Area

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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