Urban Talks: Richard Florida and Brent Toderian

Thursday night's urban talk was between Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto and at New York University and Senior Editor at the Atlantic, and Brent Toderian, city planner and urbanist, founder of Toderian Urban Works, and former Vancouver Chief Planner.

The two urbanists started the conversation by discussing the idea of "Cities for Life," a core theme of WUF7. Mr. Toderian emphasized that this means designing cities for people as opposed to cars, buildings, or objects. Dr. Florida added that this term also refers to warmth: what residents want most in their city is a "quality of place," which includes investments in communities, green space, and so on.

On the idea that the "struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities," as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said, Mr. Toderian noted that cities are not only our greatest challenge, but also our great success and opportunity. Dr. Florida explained that it used to be thought that technology and knowledge (human capital) creates growth, but since Jane Jacobs' work, we know that it's the clustering of people that creates growth. And yet, this clustering, this spatial segmentation of concentrated wealth next to concentrated poverty, also divides us. And according to Mr. Toderian, "the fight for sustainability will be won or lost in the suburbs." Car-oriented suburbs are growing quickly, and cities may not be able to counterbalance.

Both urbanists agreed that cities in the global South have much to teach those in the global North, especially regarding bottom-up approaches to change. Mr. Toderian said that when he was first invited to speak in Medellín, his first thought was "Oh, you want to learn from Vancouver? I want to learn from Medellín!"

Much of the discussion revolved around transportation: Mr. Toderian described a surprising conclusion of his work in Vancouver: deprioritizing cars actually helps drivers — if cities are designed for walking, biking, and public transit, everyone wins. Medellín is at a pivotal moment, as only 14 percent of residents own cars. Cars are seen as a measure of success here in Colombia, but the global North has started to reject this notion. Dr. Florida echoed this concept of a tipping point, but globally: more cities will be built in the next 50 to 100 years than have been built in human history. Which model will we build them on: the old model, with a separation of home and work and with plans charted from above, or the new model, with home and work located closer to each other, visions coming from the bottom up, increased density, and a focus on environmental issues?

This focus on transportation is not just because cars are dangerous (both in terms of accidents and lack of physical exercise), but because of livability: according to recent studies, the number one factor affecting happiness is having a long and arduous commute! Dr. Florida confirmed the key to happiness, for rich and poor alike: being in a livable city, in a thriving neighborhood with public space, green space, and quality of space.

Dr. Florida defined the three factors that have been found to affect happiness and quality of life: (1) the density of social engagement, (2) diversity and tolerance toward other groups, (3) aesthetic beauty. This idea that "beauty matters" is seen quite evidently here in Medellín: as Dr. Florida put it in reference to the colorful, owner-designed homes of Communa 13, "painting those roofs matters." Cities are about more than infrastructure, buildings, and jobs, they're about heart. Mr. Toderian stressed the importance of good design — it creates value.

Finally, the speakers examined the "not in my backyard" phenomenon, as in "I don't want the health clinic in my neighborhood because of the kind of people it'll bring here." Dr. Florida argues that as residents of the city, we can't stop the city from developing. Mr. Toderian points out that this is one of the reasons "you have to be careful with empowerment" — change is hard, so these concerns are useful in figuring out what people are afraid of. The trick is then to balance the debate with other voices, including those of future generations.

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