MPC in Toronto: Meeting of the Minds 2013 - Metropolitan Planning Council

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MPC in Toronto: Meeting of the Minds 2013

Evergreen Brick Works

Evergreen Brick Works provided an aesthetically engaging backdrop for the summit.

People are the driving force behind innovation. And when smart, inquisitive people from disparate experiences come together to tackle the toughest problems facing cities and regions, quantum progress is possible. Technology accelerates this phenomenon in exciting ways that allow us to visualize problems, their solutions and their measurable benefits.

These were among the reinforcing messages I took home to Chicago from Meeting of the Minds 2013 in Toronto. This annual gathering of urban entrepreneurs and technologists fits perfectly with my goal of investing more of my time to forge strategic links with city builders from around the U.S. and across the globe. To lead MPC to have a bigger impact on resolving our region's toughest challenges, it's healthy to connect with those who are taking different approaches to shared urban problems.

The conference organizers gave me the opportunity to deliver a brief TED-format speech. I decided to focus on cities’ imperative to constantly reinvent . . . and they decided to slot me as the first speaker. It was an honor to share strategies honed in the laboratory that is Chicagoland. Being a speaker made it much easier to meet trailblazers from private sector giants like Cisco, IBM and Schneider Electric. And I got to trade tactics with government and philanthropic stand-out leaders.

Here's just one of the memorable stories I heard. Like the Chicago region, and perhaps worse, Boston's transit network has suffered from years of disinvestment. Mary Skelton Roberts of the Barr Family Foundation laid out the details from their play book. They aligned advocacy for more transit resources across Boston's philanthropic, business and community voices. They invested in polling research, solid data, communications capacity and coalition staff. The result? Gridlock on what to do about a staggering $9 billion backlog was transformed into coordinated advocacy and success. That included overriding a gubernatorial veto and securing $600-800 million a year over two years for top-tier improvements to the aging transit network. In addition to this tangible impact, the partners are also achieving Placemaking and carbon reduction goals.

At grade tunnels connecting subway and station

At-grade tunnels will ease passengers' commutes.

City of Toronto, Norr Architects

Some of my learning at Meeting of the Minds happened outside the formal program. A behind-the-scenes tour is one of my favorite ways to learn, which is why I jumped at the chance to climb around the $1 billion modernization of Toronto's Union Station. While the layout of the station currently requires patrons transferring from the subway system to scramble up staircases, the reconfiguration taking place now will allow pedestrians to move easily through two concourses and glass-covered tunnels. It stunned me to learn that work on replacing massive support columns and the overhead canopy was proceeding overnight so that service was not interrupted.

High glass ceilings and natural light

Reconstruction will let in lots of natural light.

City of Toronto, Norr Architects

Certainly, the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario have a stronger federal partner on infrastructure than we enjoy in the U.S. But, they share some of our complexity—levels of government with spliced responsibilities—and yet have found a way to move major investments forward. The experience of the user is paramount, which is why these pedestrian tunnels are being built, eliminating serpentine stairs between nearby stations. As MPC works with partners on Chicago Union Station's revitalization, I'm certain we will borrow both financing and design ideas from our neighbors to the north.

My positive impressions of Toronto were shaped by the many cranes I saw around downtown, but also by the setting for the conference itself. Instead of a sterile hotel ballroom, our discussions were animated by being at Evergreen Brick Works, a converted brick factory that now serves as both a stage for events like ours and an incubator for social enterprises like a garden center and farmers market. Its natural beauty inspired all of us to take our individual insights home and drive reinvention of our cities and regions.

Evergreen Brick Works

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