Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto now runs and has helped formulate the visions for everything from the waterfront to Regent Park and the Lower Don Lands.
As an architect and urban planner, he has worked around the world, helping bring innovative design to cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Paris and Detroit.
In his new book, he argues that the suburbs are a failed model of development, and that cities are our best resource and the most powerful engines of community, creativity and sustainability.
Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder will be released by Random House Canada on May 21.
For a book about cities, you talk a lot about yourself.
My own life, in so many ways, parallels the big story I was telling. There was a euphoria after the Second World War about the car, cheap energy, the move out to suburbia. I was born and grew up in Brooklyn but everyone couldn't wait to get on the bandwagon and move out. Somewhere at a fairly early age, I decided I really liked cities. And then I discovered there was a movement around cities and all things urban.
Do you consider yourself anti-suburbs?
To me, it's a false dichotomy. I do a lot of work in the suburbs, in Mississauga for example. You have almost 100,000 people living in high-rise buildings around the Mississauga city centre. That's a fact. It's kind of pointless to say you're against that. The trick is, how do you make it livable?
During last year's municipal election, you wrote a letter urging people to vote against Rob Ford. Why get involved?
I had never belonged to a political party, I just felt and still feel that this is a critical time for the city. I was starting to get really concerned about all of the things I was hearing. Portraying the changes that every big city in the world are making as a "war on cars" is such a piece of nonsense.
Were you surprised that he won?
Not really. I think it's part of the growing pains of the city. Change is not easy. People like progress but nobody likes change.
Do you think urban planning issues need to be taken out of the political realm?
I don't think you can take it out entirely. But it's important that things like planning and transit have a steward who is outside the three- or four-year political cycle. Every time you have an election, you can't have a radical change in direction. In most big cities, planning decisions are not made the way we make them, on the floor of council. You have a planning commission that is not so tied to elected individuals.
Is that why Mississauga is accomplishing so much change at the moment, because Mayor Hazel McCallion has been in office for a million years?
There is continuity and that's what investors are looking for. You don't want radical uncertainty or the idea that somebody's going to come along and cancel a popular idea.
Toronto's chief planner position will come open this year. Will you apply?
No, I've been there, done that. I spent 10 years with the city of Toronto. Planning in this city has become about regulation. It's not thinking ahead and doing things that are counter-cyclical to the market and trying to anticipate and give direction. One of the sad things about amalgamation is this obsession with "one size fits all." Whether it's for street design or garbage containers, it's this idea that you have this template and try and make everything behave the same way. It's exactly the wrong thing.
Who would you like to nominate?
One of the problems with our system is that in other cities, like New York, the person who's the head of planning has a direct relationship with the mayor and the council. It doesn't go through a city manager system or several bureaucratic layers. Until that changes here, you're not going to get a lot of people interested in the job.
What's the biggest obstacle to progressive urban development in Toronto?
We are caught in this morass where to try anything out becomes almost impossible. We have to do environmental assessments for every little thing. Montreal and Vancouver and even Calgary seem much more experimental. The ability for cities to try new things and see what works is so important. You need to have some failures and partial successes and temporary programs to improve your knowledge. This is how cities learn.
Do you think the new bike-sharing system, Bixi, is going to work in Toronto?
It's worked in some form in cities all over the world. But I cycle in Toronto all the time, and it's not comfortable. The organization 8-80 Cities makes a profound point: that it should be possible for eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds to share the streets equally. You shouldn't have to be kamikaze or somebody who's outfitted like a warrior and in peak physical condition to be able to cycle.
What's the overarching message of your book?
Cities are the most extraordinary human creation. They are this phenomenon which has unbelievable capacity to solve problems, to innovate, to invent, to create prosperity, to make change and continually reform. If we acknowledge and embrace that ability of cities, it's a very optimistic message.
Did you send a copy to Mayor Ford?
I think Random House probably did.