Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Wed May 13th 2009 at 7:46pm UTC

Learning from Toronto

En route to obtaining his back-dated, life-long Canadian citizenship, Will Wilkinson, one of the sharpest young policy minds around, dropped by to visit at the Prosperity Institute. Back home state-side, he wrote this terrific essay on why Toronto’s largely successful experiment in immigration – its global-straddling ethnic mosaic – is a big smack upside the head for notions that immigration is eating away at core “Anglo-Protestant” values and institutions a la the late Samuel Huntington.

Here is what Toronto is not: Toronto is not dirty, dangerous, or poor. Toronto is not a hell of lost liberties or a babble of cultural incoherence or a ruin of failed institutions. Yet a popular argument against high levels of immigration suggests it should be.

In his 2004 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warned that “the United States of America will suffer the fate of Sparta and Rome,” should its founding Anglo-Protestant culture continue to wane … So we must take care to protect our precious cultural patrimony from the acid of “denationalizing” economic and cultural globalization. We must keep outsiders out.

Successful societies (so this argument goes) owe their liberty and prosperity to distinct institutions which, in turn, depend on the persistence and dominance of the culture that established and nurtured them. Should that culture fade—or become too diluted by the customs, religions, and tongues of outsiders—the foundation of all that is best and most attractive about that society cannot long last.

But somebody forgot to tell Toronto! Nearly half the denizens of Canada’s most populous metropolis were born outside the nation’s borders—47 percent according to the 2006 census, and the number is rising. This makes Toronto, the fifth biggest city in North America, also the most diverse city in North America. Neither Miami, nor Los Angeles, nor New York City can compete with Toronto’s cosmopolitan credentials.

Here is what Toronto is: the fifth most livable city in the world. So said the Economist Intelligence Unit in a report last year drawing on indicators of stability, health care, culture, environment, education, and infrastructure. … Toronto is wealthy, healthy, well-educated, and much safer than any sizable American city. In 2006, its murder rate was 2.6 per 100,000 residents, which makes it less than half as deadly as Des Moines. The most culturally mixed city on the continent truly is one of Earth’s closest approximations of urban paradise …

The United States, this fabled land of immigrants, has fallen dismally far behind countries like Australia and Canada in openness to immigration … That cultural fragility argument is false, and it deserves to die.

Toronto, which has an Anglo-Protestant heritage as strong as any, has proved it dead wrong. In fact, Toronto shows that a community and its core institutions can not only survive a massive and growing immigrant population but thrive with one. Multicultural Toronto and cities like it prove that the institutions of liberal modernity are robust. Life within them is so good that people the world over flock to them. And newcomers do not take these institutions for granted. They have a stake in seeing them last. They can and do make them stronger …

Maybe someday an American city will place in the top 10 on the list of the world’s most livable places. Maybe—if it becomes more like Toronto.

Wilkinson hits several nails directly on the head here. In Flight of the Creative Class, I argued against Huntington and offered that Canada’s and Toronto’s mosaic principle may well prove to be one of the core enduring principles of the emerging creative economy. It surely looks more robust than America’s fabled melting pot principle under the stress of economic crisis.

Just quickly: one of the guiding principles of our Prosperity Institute is to develop seamless comparable rankings of North America - at least U.S. and Canadian states, provinces, cities, metropolitan areas, and mega-regions. Wilkinson and I spent a good deal of time talking about what if we just take away the “jurisdictional border” in our analysis. What if just start writing about North America’s provinces, states, and cities? How might than improve the quality and robustness of our understanding?

The great political sociologist Seymour Marty Lipset long ago wrote that the only way to truly understand America was to study and live in and understand Canada. He could not be more right.

10 Responses to “Learning from Toronto”

  1. Wendy Says:

    When I was growing up I recall that many great comedians and satirists in the US were actually Canadian. Maybe they still are and I’ve lost track. Being half an insider, half an outsider viewing American life can make it easier to see the problems, ironies, and successes.

  2. Buzzcut Says:

    Toronto is a lot like Portland: an urban area devoid of African Americans. Thus, it’s experience can’t be extrapolated to the average American city, which is supermajority African American.

    I would specualte that Toronto has something similar going on with immigration. The type of immigration that Toronto has seen, where the immigrants are coming from, is comletely different than the US. If your immigrants are Asian, particularly Chinese and Indian, that’s a lot different than immigration from Mexico.

    Canada’s immigration policy, which is skewed towards keeping out low skilled immigrants, makes Toronto a lot different than, say, LA or San Diego. What exactly can we learn from such a different city?

  3. James Moore Says:

    I strongly disgree with the above comment. Toronto is not very much like Portland(or any American city for that matter)at all. Portland is almost completely homogeneous. Toronto is a large culturally cosmopolitan mosiac (this mosiac includes many people of African decent, especially the West Indies. True, Portland is a physically attrative city but is not at all a diverse or cosompolitan place– two of Toronto’s defining characteristics. Also, to call the “average” American city a “supermajority” of African American is hyperbolic to say the least. A more accurate comparison to Toronto might be Chicago without the U.S.’s lamentable history of targeted historical discrimation toward a particular racial group, making for the great inequality present today. That may be the true key to why Toronto is such a fine city– that is a key that separates it from Portland as well.

  4. Buzzcut Says:

    A more accurate comparison to Toronto might be Chicago without the U.S.’s lamentable history of targeted historical discrimation toward a particular racial group, making for the great inequality present today.

    Exactly what I was getting at. Canada doesn’t have the underclass that America has, historically discriminated against and brought to this country in chains. Without that underclass, Toronto is simply too different from any American city to make any comparisons. There’s nothing to learn there (just like there’s nothing to learn from Portland).

  5. James Moore Says:

    Ooooh. Thanks for the clarity. I believe you are onto to something. Although –and I may be wrong– I know that at least in recent years Canada’s immigration policy has favored skilled people (or outright moneyed elites from poorer nations: like the children of Nigerian diplomats) but for a many years it has been open to poor people, people escaping persecution. What seems to be most crucial is the way in which people become a part of a society. This is complex in ways such that people (such as Richard Florida)devote insitutes to studying. Once again thanks for the food for thought.

  6. Matt L. Says:

    Buzzcut, it’s been a long time since huge numbers of people were brought to the US in chains. As for Canada, native people would be the closest parallel — a sad story, though a different one (much smaller in number, and with a bunch of overlapping rural issues).

    But aren’t the lessons from Canadian cities like Toronto that (1) a perpetual “underclass” has a destabilizing effect on society (i.e. it’s bad for everyone, not just the underclass), and (2) that there’s more to immigration than the raw total — that the details of immigration policy greatly influence how effective and sustainable it is?

    I’m also skeptical about how easy it will be for the US to learn from these lessons. But along with those innate biases, there are also people who rationally argue that a city like Toronto couldn’t possibly exist. Isn’t pointing out how they’re wrong a good first step in helping to break down those biases?

  7. been around the block Says:

    With all due respect, Richard Florida, what flavour of Kool-Aid were you drinking when you wrote this article? It’s pretty obvious that either you’ve been talking to the wrong people or that you’ve never walked the mean streets of Toronto or lived here for any length of time. Breezing in and out of the city and staying in hotels or in the better parts of town does not the measure of a city take.

    I’m a Torontonian, living in the downtown core, and it’s not the multicultural Kumbaya Utopia you’ve described. I’m also not sure what “Anglo-Protestant heritage as strong as any” you’re talking about. This heritage is just about kaput, largely because in our multicultural stew here in Hogtown pretty much any culture OTHER than the Anglo-Protestant culture is protected by our Human Rights (sic) Commissions and other so-called “rights” legislation.

    The goose that lays the golden egg is being slowly eviscerated and we’re approaching a time when the goose will be no more, so guess what happens to the golden egg?

  8. been around the block Says:

    Buzzcut: “Toronto is a lot like Portland: an urban area devoid of African Americans.”

    You’ve got to be kidding! You’re not serious, right? It’s obvious you’ve never been to Toronto.

    Toronto’s got a sizable black population, mostly from Jamaica, and a serious black ghetto (try the Jane and Finch area), drug gang problem. Most of our frequent shootings on Toronto streets, often finding dead bodies in cars, are related to the Jamaican drug gangs, which the Toronto police seem to be having difficulty controlling.

    Sentences tend to be very lenient, a la the philosophy that “he’s depraved on accounta he’s deprived.” After an innocent 15-year-old girl was gunned down a few years ago at a busy Toronto intersection the day after Christmas, simply by being in the wrong place, Christmas shopping, at the wrong time — sorry, honey — Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, proposed the construction of more basketball courts and the development of employment programs to keep these poor, deprived, boys off the streets.

    Like, what employment program or basketball court is going to convince a guy in a drug gang, who’s making $30,000 a deal, to clean up his act?

    Employment programs. Basketball courts. LOL!!!

    Not once was there a call for stiffer sentences for these criminals, and this is one reason why Toronto is such a mess.

  9. Inmigraci Says:

    [...] Pablo el 24/05/2009 a las 06:17 PM Siguiendo los comentarios de R. Florida sobre el atractivo de Toronto, Canadá (su nueva sede de operaciones desde que es director de un Centro de Estudios), me [...]

  10. Hank Says:

    I grew up in Toronto since 1951 and have traveled to every part of the planet on business since 1971. Toronto comes second to Vancouver in my opinion. Then of course there is Hong Kong that is in it’s own class.