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Giving Thanks

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on October 06, 2015

October 10, Thanksgiving Day, 2050.

An open letter to the people of Toronto in 2015,

Thanksgiving Day is a wonderful time to pause and reflect on where we’ve come from, and where we might be going. Sitting here in Toronto on a beautiful fall day enjoying a coffee is the perfect time to give thanks; especially to those city builders who came some 35 years ago and lay the foundation for much of the city and the world we enjoy today.

Starting around 2015 a few of the leaders around Toronto – that sprawling collection of some eight million people stretching from Kitchener-Waterloo to Peterborough – did three particularly noteworthy things that in retrospect made a huge difference. The leaders included mayors, post-secondary institution presidents, and deans of engineering. Their seemingly small initiatives transformed the city and arguably the world. The three initiates were:

1. Regional Ambassadors

2. Fast track connection with all of Greater Toronto’s Schools

3. Publishing the City’s ‘Urban DNA’

Regional Global Ambassadors

Around 2016 a renewed international economic development office for greater Toronto was launched. Right from the start, the organization held true to the adage that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts. The organization made every effort to support all municipalities within the ‘Golden Horseshoe’ (Toronto urban region). The ‘stronger together’ mindset of the organization was quickly picked up by other large urban areas around the world (cities have taken on a much larger geopolitical role in the mid-21st century).

A senior ‘ambassador’ for Greater Toronto was selected. All of the 31 local governments in broader Toronto and the province participated in the selection. The City of Toronto and province were given veto rights on potential candidates (although amazingly this right has never been exercised). The ambassador was appointed for a non-renewable two-year term, with an office in the City of Toronto, and reported jointly to the Mayor of Toronto and a board of elected officials (at the leader’s annual general meeting).

The regional ambassador post was so successful in Toronto that it was quickly replicated around the world and now every one of the world’s larger cities has a global ambassador. They are appointed by different means, some by proportional voting, some take turns by municipality, and a few even have public votes. Every city is represented at the annual large-city summit meeting that now surpasses the United Nations General Assembly in terms of global importance. The ambassadors, for the most part, hold true to their statesperson role in representing what’s best for the metropolises (not surprisingly this tends to be best for all, and that pragmatism is what’s helped the world). The local mayors gave a little to get a lot.

Toronto’s ambassador was key in helping the city emerge as the global centre for resilience. Vancouver and Montreal were the next two cities to join Toronto in appointing ambassadors. Canada’s large cities launched much of the global city-agenda of pragmatism, people and profits-for-all.

‘Fast track’ Connection of the GTA’s Colleges and Universities

The second important initiative launched back around 2015 resulted from a small meeting convened by the president of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). The president organized all of the 33 colleges and universities in greater Toronto. With the extension of Highway 407 they proposed a ‘fast track’ transit line from Trent University in Peterborough to the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener-Waterloo. The transit corridor linked all campuses in between – travel times were easily cut in half. The fast track was first designed for students but quickly became the most important transportation system in the region. A region-wide ride-sharing and delivery app grew out of UOIT’s early work. Employment centres popped up around most schools as well as ‘work nodes’ at key transportation centres. The Greater Toronto Area remains one of the best cities in the world at integrating work, learning and recreation nodes. The buddy bench at the back of the bus probably also
led to a few thousand marriages.

A big catalyst for fast track was a price on carbon. With more than 1.5 million riders a day now taking the transit line and using linked commuter pools, the initiative saves some $30 million a day in carbon emissions at current carbon prices; as well as the 500,000-plus hours of commuting time saved per day. Fast track was also key for the region winning the 2028 Summer Olympic Games (the resulting carbon credits paid for much of the new transportation infrastructure).

Fast track connection of the 33 post-secondary institutions throughout the region also facilitated the creation of the UTU (Urban Toronto University), the world’s first regionally-integrated school. UTU is mostly virtual, using the facilities of the 33 schools, and only accepts 1,000 graduate students per year. Last year, for the tenth year in a row UTU was ranked first among the world’s universities. UTU helped the region to emerge as the world’s first teaching community. A lot like the 1,000-or-so teaching hospitals around the world, UTU works with local municipalities and businesses to provide real practicums in sustainable communities.

Publishing the City’s ‘Urban DNA’

The third initiative – publishing the region’s urban DNA – is one of those examples of how the devil is in the detail, but so too are our better angels. Several of the mayors in Durham Region were the unlikely catalysts that launched this effort. A key ingredient was the mayors’ desire to credibly measure greenhouse gas emissions from residents (there were several articles in the local press that demonstrated differences in emissions between various communities). The mayors were the instigators that got every local government in broader Toronto to publish audited city indicators (ISO 37120), especially greenhouse gas emissions. Toronto was the world’s first urban agglomeration to do this. This made sense as the Global City Indicator Facility and World Council on City Data (overseeing ISO 37120) were in the City and part of the University of Toronto.

Around the same time as the mayors were urging publication of credible city indicators, engineering deans and professors were calling for a stronger partnership between engineers and city-builders. Powerful city metrics, and strong engineering schools were both seen as critical aspects of sustainability. Engineering schools in the Toronto region led in sustainability metrics. In just ten years more than half the world’s urban metropolises were publishing audited city indicators and partnering with their local universities to produce their own urban DNAs (that included sustainability ratings of the city and key infrastructure). The blend of city indicators and engineers was a powerful mix – ‘In God we trust, everyone else bring data’ (ideally audited) became the hallmark of better city halls and their local engineering schools. Cities became the key reporting grounds for achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

What We’ve Lost. What We’ve Gained.

Of course, any discussion with Toronto’s residents of 2015 needs to be tempered with what we’ve lost in the 35 years since. Rhinos, tigers, gorillas and bluefin tuna are all gone from the wild. Elephants and polar bears are barely hanging on. Greenhouse gas emissions have slowed but we are at 484 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere – we still hope to remain below 500 ppm and peak before 2070 but it’s not likely. We have more than nine billion people living on the planet; two-thirds in cities. Last year we surpassed 250 billion devices on the broadnet that was built to support the Internet when it surpassed 100 billion devices in 2026. Earlier this year, Lome, Togo became the 122nd city on the planet with more than five million residents. There are more than 500 million environmental refuges in the world; just last year Miami declared strategic retreat. The city will be lost to the sea by the end of the century. At least a third of the lakes north of Toronto in Canadian Shield cottage country are now listed as ‘severely stressed’.

With all the changes in the world, Toronto is faring better than most places. Toronto was rated as the world’s most resilient global city for the tenth year running (it’s amazing what geography and good governance can get you). Shelter-in-place condominiums are more popular in Toronto than any other city. Toronto’s food and water security continue to be strong. Annual greenhouse gas emissions are down to 3.5 tonnes per person – the fastest drop in North America. Toronto was rated platinum again as a biodiversity health spot. Despite the widespread decline in hockey from lack of ice rinks (Ottawa’s Rideau Canal was last frozen for skating in 2037) the Toronto Maple Leafs have the longest winning streak in the NHL (starting with their Stanley Cup win in 2020). The Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos are the hottest teams in baseball. Last year was the first time the ‘World Series’ was completely played outside the United States (the fast train between the two cities served a record one million riders during those eight days). What a party!

Looking back, looking forward, the view changes from where you stand. Toronto is more fortunate than most cities. Many great leaders have gone before and we enjoy the differences their vision provided. Most leaders do not know how much of a difference they are making at the time. That was probably the case in the past, and is hopefully true today as well. Toronto is still one of those engaging cities where individuals make a difference, and where you can sit, enjoy a good coffee, and always give thanks.

Bloggers participating in the Meeting of the Minds event, #dear2050, were asked to write their response to the prompt and publish it on their website at exactly 9am, local time, on October 6th, 2015. For more information and to read more of the participating blog posts, please visit

Filed under: Sustainability 101