Toronto vs. Barcelona: A tale of two very different cities

Toronto and Barcelona are both aiming for great-city status, but are going about it in a very different way. Yes we need private wealth and a dynamic economy, but shared wealth is what truly makes a good, healthy and happy life possible.


By: Pierre Herman

What makes a city worth living in? The answer is certainly complex but what we know is that economic growth, high salaries and purchasing power alone won’t help a city make the grade. Dubai’s overnight success-in-a-desert isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, despite the allure of a jet-setting lifestyle.

In fact, if accompanying factors are strong enough to balance out the equation, a big pay-check might be dispensed with entirely.

So when comparing cities across the globe, where do we begin? Perhaps with the most polar opposite of examples.

There are few cities in the world so diametrically opposed, certainly in aesthetics but perhaps also in fundamental ethos, as Spain’s Catalan capital (my recently adopted home) and my former one, Canada’s financial and economic hub. At least that’s the impression I got when I came back to Toronto after a long sojourn in Barcelona.

Barcelona versus Toronto is a bit like art versus finance. Graceful elegance and refinement versus crass commercialism and Darwinian economics.  Meticulous planning versus laissez-faire development.

Neither metropolis is perfect, and they are certainly restrained on both sides by differences in the powers each has at their disposal (whether those be taxation powers, economic powers or planning powers) to shape the destiny of their city.

But what it comes down to, fundamentally, is the importance each city (and the surrounding society) places on private versus public wealth.

Toronto has put the individual on centre stage, the city becoming the canvas on which he can project his individual wealth and accomplishments. The result is, at certain angles, categorical ugliness.


Beauty is relative of course, but few could argue without a good dose of irony that Toronto’s salute to the communist-bloc, socialist housing experiment, now being reborn on the city’s waterfront (and other areas) in the form of ghastly, cookie-cutter condominium complexes, is not a regrettable eyesore especially in the bleak months of winter.



Developers got a carte-blanche on Toronto’s waterfront, while enhancements for citizens and visitors are only given an afterthought.

Jammed tightly together and straddling an ugly expressway, they were, and still continue to be built without consideration for quality of life of the inhabitants nor of those who must look at them (the buildings that is!).

The city’s architecture (with a few notable exceptions) is functional, even brutalist in its outward appearance, lacking that bit of design forethought that would have helped them define the skyline, instead of just helping to fill it in.

Toronto’s suburbs made up of interminable big-box retailers, parking lots and Los Angeles-style, spaghetti interchanges, aren’t exactly examples of good planning either.

No, Toronto is a city that wants to make money (and generate property taxes – its nearly sole form of revenue, an archaic rule which keeps Canadian cities interminably strapped for cash). And so it builds and builds, progress and wealth viewed through the narrow lens of economic growth and vertical development.

And history? Well, ask the property developers who own it. Numerous historical gems in Toronto have been sold off only to have high-rise condominiums rise ominously above them.

It’s telling evidence of the city’s priorities. In Toronto, if you can’t make money with history, you tear it down or build a skyscraper over it.

What it doesn’t build, though, is more public transport. Toronto citizens still rely heavily on private car use, and the city’s complacent approach to transit in the past decades has led to the city having one of the world’s longest average commute times – 80 minutes in each direction, longer than New York, Los Angeles and London.

The city’s somewhat limited subway and streetcar (tram) network (with major infrastructure problems – ie. crumbling stations) is only now receiving a much-needed overhaul with a new fleet after decades of neglect, while a direct train to the airport will only come online in 2015.

The new streetcars will begin to enter service in summer 2014, and the current mayor says he won't step foot on one.

The new streetcars will begin to enter service in summer 2014 after decades of neglect, and the current mayor says he won’t step foot on one.

It’s too little too late for many who rely on public transport, although in the city’s current election campaign public transit has come out as a hot button issue. The in-absentia mayor Ford has publicly stated that he won’t step foot in one of the soon-to-be debuted new streetcars (bought before his election) saying they get in the way of private vehicles. It’s testament to the lack of vision some in the city have in developing public wealth.

On the other hand, biking seems to have taken off since I was last home. Especially impressive are streets with dual-direction biking lanes and the streams of bike traffic (not seen in this photo!) on this sunny spring day.


Progress on Toronto streets: wide bike paths on either side of Sherbourne Street.

And despite the transport woes and architectural madness, Toronto is also an entrepreneur’s dream.

According to, Toronto is one of the easiest places in the world to start a business, with registration taking only one step, versus six in the US and the UK, and low small-business taxes make Toronto one of the world’s most competitive cities for new start-ups.

There’s also an undeniable buzz of freedom in the air as you walk down the city’s streets. Freedom that is exuded in its rough-around-the edges neighbourhoods that showcase a multicultural kaleidoscope of funky shops and restaurants of every cuisine imaginable.

And freedom that is found it the city’s tolerance, its appreciation of the individual, of hard work and new ideas, of creativity and of innovation.

Barcelona on the other hand, appears to have made strides in the complete opposite direction.

Battling a recession and weak economy that has left a quarter of people out of work (on paper), it has some of the lowest average salaries in the western world (roughly 15000 euros per year), makes trying to register a new a business a year-long nuisance and charges among the world’s highest payroll and small business taxes, while the social pressures of conforming to stricter social codes all but stifle the creative or entrepreneurial juices of locals.

But the city can also be considered one of the world’s wealthiest if we reconsider what wealth is.

Public wealth, in the form of shared infrastructure, promotion and access to the arts and the preservation of history, is rich in Barcelona. And unlike private wealth, public wealth is almost perfectly distributed.

Decades of careful investment in public transport might not have done away with the private vehicle (the city suffers at times from some of Europe’s worst air quality), but it has left the city with one of the world’s most enviable and modern network of subways (12 lines), trams and modern hybrid (hydrogen-electric) buses, easily superior to what is found in cities three times the size.


Barcelona tram with Agabar tower in background. Decades of support for public transport has created one of the world’s best systems, light years ahead of anything in North America.

Barcelona was also one of the earliest pioneers in the bike-share trade, having began it’s immensly successful bike-share system Bicing in 2007,  now with more than 400 stations and an extensive network of bike lanes on major streets.

The result? Barcelona has officially the world’s shortest commute times among any major city in the world with an average commute time of only 47 minutes.

Then there’s Barcelona’s careful polishing of the city’s aesthetics and historical wealth. The city began a beautification programme just before hosting the 1992 Olympic games and it hasn’t stopped since, with markets, churches, museums, city streets and beach board walks still receiving major overhauls and renovations.

While the city is low on large city parks, there are a growing number of dynamic public spaces being incorporated on former parking lots or empty lots. And wanting to ensure that what has already happened to Spain’s Costa del Sol doesn’t happen here, careful attention is paid to the architecture of new developments, how it fits with the surrounding environment, and whether it enhances the image and reputation of the city.

Barcelona may not be Rome, but the result is a  city that appreciates and understands its place in history.  It’s also created a city that looks as good in person as it does on paper and a mecca for travelers that has made tourism one of the city’s most lucrative industries.


Barcelona has carefully nurtured its history, creating a sense of identity among locals, and a mecca for tourists.

The waterfront, one of the city’s most popular areas with residents and visitors, isn’t littered with characterless condominiums, but rather a few, well designed buildings that have since become iconic symbols of the city. Toronto could learn well, given that its own tourist numbers have been dropping precipitously.


A couple of the very few buildings which line the city’s beach, now part of the city’s identity.



Barcelona’s beachfront, with the iconic “sail” hotel in the background, and modern art in the foreground.

With history and a sense of tradition all around, well-planned public spaces built on a human scale and painless commuting, it’s no wonder Barcelona attracts professionals from around the world and those in search of a better life despite the promise of low salaries and precarious opportunity (I’m sure the weather helps a bit too!).

So while Toronto may be the promised land du jour, there is still so much than can be learned from cities like Barcelona that have become magnets for the moving classes by focusing more on what is shared, and not only on what can be privately earned.  A good, healthy and happy urban life is truly priceless.



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