Reading my Way to a Better Toronto

Throughout my business career I had some great bosses, but I never had a mentor. So, my mentors became books. When I decided to dedicate myself to city building, my natural inclination was to immerse myself in the topic.

My Books

Book Reviews

walking home

Walking Home...The Life and Lessons of a City Builder

by Ken Greenberg

I have read a number of excellent books on city building from international authors, but it was interesting to read a book about Toronto’s urban history. The book is definitely rich in examples, good and bad, on everything from highways to waterfronts occurring in cities like New York and Copenhagen. However, if you are a student of Toronto history you might benefit from the local insights, lessons learned, and context offered in Greenberg’s book.

Greenberg writes about many of his experiences:

  • his time with the late Jane Jacobs and how she helped stop Spadina and the network of proposed intercity expressways. (I hate to think what our city would have been like if those plans had gone through).
  • what it was like to work in the city’s planning department when David Crombie was mayor; and the city had a reform council.
  • saving the St Lawrence Historical District, and the successful emergence of the “Kings” (the King street - Spadina district).
  • his work on the Lower Don Lands plan that was selected as one of the seventeen founding projects for the Climate Positive Development Program.
  • and the disastrous effect Amalgamation had on Toronto, when premier Harris uploaded revenues to the province and downloaded provincial responsibilities to the city. An act that has an incredible negative effect on basic city services to this day.

The author told another story that I found very interesting and timely given the current debate on the proposed Transform Yonge street project up in North York, and Councilor Wong-Tam’s future proposal on lower Yonge street. In 1978 Greenberg’s Urban Design Group was challenged to change the image of Yonge street. His group came up with a plan that best balanced the needs of all users and was approved by city council. However, when the city was ready to proceed Metropolitan Toronto, the regional government body, turned down the plan because they believed “the street was first and foremost a traffic carrier”. So here we are today - forty years later, and once again a layer of government is resisting designs that prioritize people and place over cars and traffic. The irony is that this time it may be our own city council who turns down this important addition to the city. I guess the old saying is true “he who forgets the past tends to relive it”.

The author had a paragraph in the book that I think is very well worth quoting:

... value is attributed to quality of life and place as much as, or more than land, labour and capital costs. Cities and regions that compete with each other primarily on cost are engaged in a losing game, since ‘beggar thy neighbour’ polices inevitably lead to a race to the bottom and impoverishment of the very public realm and services that generate wealth.

This book was written in 2011 and Ken Greenberg continues to be an important and creative Toronto city builder. Working together, Greenberg and Public Works conceived a new public space known as the Bentway. Located under the Gardiner, west of Bathurst, the Toronto Star said “the Bentway makes magic in a hostile urban space”. For more info on this new exciting additional to Toronto check out the YouTube video Exploring Toronto: The Bentway Skate Trail.

Ken Greenberg is working hard for a better Toronto.

“Read, read, read”. William Faulkner

by a trio of authors: First by Edward Keenan, Second by Gabe Klein and the third by Charles Montgomery

In 2017, I decided to learn more about what is going on in urban areas (good and bad) across the world, in Canada and in Toronto. I networked meeting planners, politicians, authors, activists and people who simply were interesting. I visited Washington, Copenhagen, London, Detroit and Malmö looking for ideas. And I read and read.

My reading wasn’t just concentrated on urbanism and city building as I continued to read books on leadership, business, history and sports. I also still. found time to read fiction. Loved King’s new book “Sleeping Beauties”. As I quoted author Dean Koontz in Lesson #10 in my book 21 Leadership Lessons: “each book is a mind alive, a life revealed, a world awaiting exploration”.

I have already reviewed “Streetfight” by Janet Sadik-Khan in this Review section and loved what she and Mayor Michael Bloomberg accomplished in NYC. Now here are three other books that helped round out more of my thinking:

“Some Great Idea” Edward Keenan

I like how Edward thinks, enjoy reading his columns in the Toronto Star; and following him on @thekeenanwire. His book does a nice job of covering the leadership approaches by post-amalgamation mayors Lastman, Miller and Ford. Three mayors that still represent the divide that’s in Toronto’s politics today. Even though the book was written a few years ago it asked a few great questions that are really pertinent in this election year: “what does Toronto even mean? What kind of city is it? What kind of city do we want it to be?” All of us get a vote on these questions come October 22nd.

“Start-up City” Gabe Klein

I also follow @gabe_klein on Twitter because he keeps up a steady stream of interesting observations and insights on city building on his account. I heard Gabe give a very good presentation at a @ulitoronto symposium last year. In his book, he captures a lot of what I heard that day which essentially was “how did we (cities) get here, and how are we going to dig ourselves out?” His content covers things like: “don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them, on empowering your team, communicating with the public and being creative.

“Happy City” Charles Montgomery

I know that the concept of “happy” can make some people’s eyes roll but I get it. I also know that during my career I worked really hard to create company environments where my employees were happy and motivated to come to work each day. Montgomery helped make his point about the important of “happy” by writing about how the past and again current mayor of Bogotá Enrique Penalosa (Gil Penalosa’s brother @penalosa_g) dramatically turned around a drug and crime infested city into one that is now consistently ranked at one of the better cities in the world. Penalosa has done a lot of things to make his citizens happier: dramatically more bike paths, parks and plazas, open streets (good model for Toronto) and improved bus services (BRT that Toronto should adopt), etc. I especially liked his belief “a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both”. In this book, the author goes deeper into what cities are doing wrong and how being closer, connected and having freedom will make their citizens much happier.

Today my coffee table is jammed packed with more books to explore. Stay tuned.

Keep reading for a better Toronto


A passionate city builder

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution

by Janette Sadik-Khan, Seth Solomonow

There are so many things I like about this book and that’s very evident by how much I marked up its dog-eared pages with pen and magic marker. It’s 350 pages explain Khan’s urban philosophy and describe ideas that Toronto could adopt immediately to make our city streets much more livable.

Sadik-Khan was the excellent Transportation Minister of New York City from 2007 to 2013. She teamed up with Mayor Bloomberg to add hundreds of kilometres of new bike lanes, and acres of public pedestrian plazas while creating safer streets. Here’s what they faced - - you will recognize Toronto in this quote:

“Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving, but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options to get around, discouraging walking, and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering; and spending that energize the world greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive”.

The entire book is worth reading and will give the reader a quick primer on how to make a city more sustainable, healthy and inclusive for all. Here are a few of the chapters that stood out a little more for me:

  • Chapter 4 “How to Read the Street” was my favourite. It was full of “traffic calming” ideas like reducing the width of streets (12 feet?) to accommodate additional options like bike and bus lanes. Designing sidewalks differently with extended curbs to prevent curb cutting by drivers. Use of lots of inexpensive “paint” to make things clearer to all users. And so on.

  • Chapter 7 “Stealing Good Ideas”. I love the concept of best practices, or as Jack Welch once called them “legitimate plagiarism”. Sadik-Khan admits that some of NYC’s best ideas were inspired, imported, borrowed or flat out stolen from other cities believing that “the public domain is the public domain”. From my perspective, Toronto seems to have a not-invented-here philosophy when it comes to adopting best practices. Instead our city council seems too often ignore the experience of other cites completely, or takes valuable time and money to prove they work in Toronto. The fact that many ideas have been proven to work in cities across the world is proof enough for me.

  • Chapter 8 “Bike Lanes and Their Discontents”. Sadik-Khan had to challenge the idea of what city streets are and who they are for — just like what is going on in Toronto right now. When she started NYC only had 220 miles of bike lanes After battling incredibly tough foes she dramatically increased the city’s bike grid and polls showed that 66% of people approved of her actions.

  • Chapter 11 “Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses”. Whatever Toronto decides to do about more subways (ugh) versus LRT the two things they have in common are huge capital costs and long lead times. At the same time the city’s transit system is swamped right now and the city’s population continues to grow everyday. Toronto needs both a short and long term fix to help people get around and that is bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT systems are working very well in Bogotá (ask @Penalosa_G for more details), Seattle, Melbourne and other cities. Today many people don’t like to ride buses but with the right BRT system on its own dedicated lines, and modern equipment Toronto can have an answer to its transit woes in a matter of months not decades.

The book also contained a number of theories and philosophies that merit mention:

  • ”public space is the space of equality”

  • ”every city resident is a pedestrian at some point in the day”.

  • ”you get what you build for. Building more (car) lanes creates more traffic”. Note: it’s called inducement and a 2009 university of Toronto study was one of the first to point this out.

  • their bias was to be innovative and while some of the ideas were not new, the speed in which they acted was unprecedented.

  • ”they had a dual objective of reducing carbon emissions 30% while improving the efficiency and quality of life”.

  • they strongly believed in using data to make decisions. “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data”.

  • ”creating “bike lanes and plazas were the budgetary equivalent of change found between the seat cushions compared to our road infrastructure investment”.

  • where there were failures the did not hesitate to re-evaluate and readjust.

In Chapter 1 Sadik-Khan shows that her own street fight philosophy can be traced back to Jane Jacobs’ time in New York battling Robert Moses for the soul of New York. So, I will leave you with Jacob’s quote to end this review:

“Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow”

For a better Toronto it is time for a fight to take back our streets from the car.


A passionate city builder

Walking with the Wind Book Cover

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

by John Lewis with Michael D'Orso

Why did I choose to review a book published way back in 1998 book, written by a U.S. congressman who was a young civil rights activist in the 1960’s?

Well for a number of good reasons.

Personally the 60’s were a very formative time for me. In 1960 my dad drove our family down to Florida for a winter vacation. On the way down we passed through the Deep South, witnessed extreme poverty and were shocked by washrooms and drinking fountains marked “coloured”. My dad used the trip as a teaching opportunity on the inhumanity of racism. In 1963 I saw news coverage of the March on Washington and Martin Luther Kings’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Later that year I heard about the assassination of JFK while in a grade 10 English class. A bit later Malcom X was assassinated. I clearly remember the 1967 Detroit Riots — watching the city burn and hearing gun shots coming from across the Detroit river. In April 1968 MLK was shot to death on a Memphis motel balcony. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in LA followed only two months later. And finally the decade seemed to be topped off by the violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. An incredible decade played out on my family’s small black & white living room tv. Years later the dark violent scenes are still etched in my memory.

Over the passing decades I have continued to follow U.S. civil rights and race relations. I wanted to believe there was some real progress, and then I was really encouraged by the election of Barack Obama as their 44th president. With his election I was hopeful that a major river had finally been crossed, but instead the election of a black man seemed to have unleashed the racism that has been part of America’s DNA since their Civil war. And then to make matters far worse along came Trump to add real fuel to the hateful fires.

Finally I chose this book because of Lewis himself. I had heard a bit about him and his courageous stand against racism. I liked and admired what I heard about the man. So when Trump came out and attacked him as being “all talk, talk, talk - - no action or results”. I knew I needed to know more about John Lewis - - a man who could clearly get under Trump’s skin.

John Robert Lewis was born poor and black in 1940. The son of an Alabama sharecropper. He grew up on his family’s very modest farm and attended segregated schools. As a very young man he became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), playing many key roles in the Civil Rights Movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation. He assumed elected office in 1987 as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional district. Lewis has also written “Across that Bridge” and more recently he teamed up with Andrew Aydin to launch a black and white comics trilogy about the civil rights movement entitled “March”. The three books are now on my coffee table awaiting to be read.

“Walking with the Wind” tells Lewis’s journey of civil rights action and the incredible courage he showed. It describes him fighting a personal head wind unlike any Trump has ever seen in his pampered life. For instance Lewis:

  • grew up in a South dominated by the Confederate flag.

  • was not allowed into white movie theatres, lunch counters, libraries, or the washrooms in bus stations.

  • at 21 was one of the first Freedom Riders to be assaulted in South Carolina.

  • was crammed into over flowing jail cells and always refused bail. By the time he was 23 he had been arrested twenty four times.

  • spent time in Parchman Farm - - Mississippi’s horrible state penitentiary.

  • went on hunger strikes.

  • numerous times was brutally beaten by whites, the police and the KKK using clubs and cattle prods.

  • experienced shootings, fire bombings of churches and homes.

  • saw snarling German shepherds loosed on teenaged boys and girls.

  • was one of the ‘Big Six” leaders who organized the March on Washington where he spoke just before Dr King gave his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech.

  • was in the front row of a long line of stoic, silent, unarmed marchers who were attacked by the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge connecting Selma to Montgomery (interestingly the bridge was named after a KKK Grand Dragon). Lewis remembers clearly the sound of a woman shouting “get’ em! Get the niggers”. That day in March is now known as “Bloody Sunday”.

  • consistently heard “not guilty” verdicts when white men stood trial for the blatant murders of blacks.

  • went through hell and experienced hatred worst than anything, but he believed that faith, hope and courage were essential ingredients for the work he was doing.

John Lewis felt like things needed to be done in his country and someone had to do them. And he did them all the while practicing a non violent approach to confrontation. He did not want violence and never advocated for it.

That’s how Lewis spent the sixties. During that time the man who criticized him for all talk, talk and no action avoided fighting in Vietnam by receiving five draft deferments, the last one being for bone spurs. On Howard Stern’s radio show Trump laughingly said that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while dating “is my personal Vietnam”. Gold Star parent Khizr Khan summed up Trump’s courage and sacrifice very well when he told him “you have sacrificed nothing and no one”.

Today Lewis is still going strong and not staying quiet or shying away from taking action. Check out the YouTube video “How many more must die” where he rails against the lack of gun control laws after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. And still to this day he makes an annual pilgrimage to Alabama to retrace the route he marched in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery.

It’s now been fifty two years since the march across the Selma bridge and to me America still has so much to resolve on matters of race. Many State governments are enacting laws to suppress non-white voters. Nazis are walking down southern streets. Riots are breaking out in Baltimore, St Louis, and Minneapolis, to protest the police killing of unarmed people of colour. While NFL players are vilified for taking a knee to condemn that police brutality. After all what Lewis, King and others fought so hard for this is where America finds itself today. “The Enormous Emotional Toll of Trumpism”, published in the Daily Beast, written by Joy Ann Reid, captures African American feelings today very well: “this awful feeling of ‘flashback’ to a time when black people could not vote or sit in the front of the bus .... Black people have always had to be vigilant living in America. Trump took it one step further. Now I feel like I’m constantly living in a state of trauma”.

Yes “Walking with Wind” is about the civil rights history of the US, but let us not think for a second that Canada’s past and present is free from racial issues. Today in Toronto, young men of colour are 17x more likely to get carded or stopped on the street by the police; and asked for personal information. African Canadians make up only 3% of our population but make up 10% of our Federal prison population. The stance of Conservative Party leaders like Kelly Leitch, Chris Alexander and Jason Kenny have often championed divisive platforms on race and immigration. Causing them to repeatedly say “I am not racist”!? And while Canadian polls indicate that most think Trump is arrogant and intolerant 22% still have confidence in him.

Clearly now is not the time for complacency.


A passionate city builder

Image of book cover of A Year of Living Dangerously

A Year of Living Generously

by Lawrence Scanlan

From a book review on an electric car and rocket guy (Elon Musk) to a review on philanthropy? And you thought I would only review books on leadership and city building? Well - - read Scanlan’s book and you get both. In this book Scanlan worked with people who were working hard to make their communities better and he was leading with his time and his voice.

I need to declare a bias right up front. Without Larry’s help my first book “Dream Job” would not have been as well written and definitely would not have been a best seller. When I first talked to my agent about writing a book he suggested I would need professional help and introduced me to Larry. Larry is a former journalist and author of many books. He also frequently helps the “literary-challenged” like me write books that people might actually want to read.

Lots of people are philanthropists by giving money - - research says that over 80% of Canadians give money to charitable and nonprofit organizations every year. However, not everyone can afford to give money so they volunteer. Many charitable organizations can only exist because of the hours those volunteers contribute. But few volunteers spend an entire year travelling across the world to volunteer their time. Now the cynics out there might say: “Scanlan did it as research to write a book that he could sell”. True, but let me tell you from experience one receives a very low financial return from writing the average book. No, I believe Larry lived and wrote this book to shine a light on various causes and to learn more about both the nature of giving and to get his hands dirty understanding philanthropy on the front lines.

The book starts with an appropriate quote from Mahatma Gandhi “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. And that’s what Larry did for twelve months from Kingston to New Orleans to Toronto to Costa Rica to Senegal to Kingston again.

His journey started in cold Kingston helping at “Vinnie’s” - St Vincent de Paul Society-Loretta Hospitality Centre. Even well off historic Kingston with its prestigious Queen’s University has a “huge disparity in income levels and shocking levels of poverty in some areas of town”. In February, he came to Toronto to work with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC). TDRC has since closed but it too tried to shine a light on the issue of poverty in Canada and especially poverty in big cities. (FACT: today over 25% of children in Toronto live in poverty). Larry concluded chapter two with “…it left me deeply ashamed for a city I grew up in, and for my country”. March saw Larry volunteering at Hospice Kingston whose simple motto is “we can help”. The idea behind hospices is it is better to die at home than in a hospital. (FACT: Toronto is going to experience a Silver Tsunami as people over 65 now make up over 15% of the population and the 85+ group is growing at over 25% per year). The aging population will put real pressure on families with aging parents, and on Toronto to provide a quality of infra structure to support this growing segment of our population.

Spring saw Larry back in Kingston volunteering at Immigrant Services Kingston and Area (ISKA). This service helps immigrants practice their English, job hunting, and getting settled (FACT: Toronto at almost 50% has the highest foreign born population in Canada. Five out of ten of them are immigrants). In May he travelled south to Costa Rica to work in an outdoor soup kitchen called Carp San Vincente. While there he also worked in a HIV/AIDS shelter called Hogr de la Esperanza - Place of Hope which helped transvestites and sex-trade workers. His discovery: “in face-to-face contact I found our common humanity”.

In June Larry was back home volunteering for the John Howard Society (JHS) that worked in the nine prisons that used to be operated by Correction Service of Canada. JHS’s mission is: “effective, just, humane responses to crime and its causes”. JHS exists to help ease the transition from prison to street — regardless of the crime. What was his take away: “…as bad as prisons are, and as bad as some of its denizens are, it’s possible to endure years and decades of such places and come out the other side with one’s humanity intact. Think Nelson Mandela and his twenty-seven years in prison”. July found him volunteering at Dare to Dream, a therapeutic horse riding program. In August, he was with the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers (LOW) near Port Hope. LOW is environmental charity that concerns itself with the quality of our wonderful Great Lakes, training volunteers to document and publicize sources of pollution. And then he wrapped up his summer at the Ongwanada Resource Centre in Kingston. Ongwanada’, an Ojibwa word that means “our home”, is a charitable organization for people with developmental disabilities.

Now in the home stretch Larry travelled down to New Orleans to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity - - specifically to build homes in the St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward that was destroyed by hurricane Katrina. My CFO at MLSE Ian Clarke lead a number of teams to New Orleans to rebuild homes. He never had trouble securing volunteer teams and money. Larry always had a desire to teach Aboriginal youth so in November he taught at the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTL) just east of Belleville. FNTl is the oldest Aboriginal post-secondary institution in Ontario. A young student, who lived for a time on the street, taught him this: ‘be kind to street people”. After I read this book I asked Larry what was his biggest take away from his twelve-month philanthropic odyssey? What he said has stuck with me to this day “I now have trouble saying no to people”,

And finally in December Larry and his wife Ulrike travelled to Senegal to help at Manoore FM 89.4, a community radio station designed to give voice to women, their rights, issues and concerns. Specifically, he went to educate their staff on how to be better reporters

That's it. Some of Larry’s friends called his year his “radical sabbatical”. Quite a sabbatical it was! To finish my review let me quote directly from Scanlan’s Epilogue:

“I did not at first feel changed in any fundamental way, just a few illusions shorter perhaps. What I felt most powerfully was anger at the disparity that I witnessed first-hand, gratitude for my own health and good fortune; and a conviction that even a small act of kindness can profoundly affect both giver and receiver”. Larry also went on to encourage all of you: “..,keep on volunteering, keep on giving. Do not stop, and in fact do more. Weave generosity into your daily life”.

Thanks Larry

Now I am not going to suggest that you all take a year off to visit and work on the front lines of philanthropy; but there sure are lots of great organizations that would welcome your help a few days of the month. In this website under “Bricks” I will regularly be shinning a light on organizations that could really use your time, or money, or voice .. or all three.

Stay tuned for my next book on city building. Lots and lots of good ones to choose from.


For a better Toronto.

Photo of book cover of Elon Musk

Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

by Ashlee Vance

I really enjoyed reading this book. But I should declare my bias. I drive a Tesla S and just recently traded my other gas driven car in for a Tesla X. I am completely into green cars now. So, I clearly I have had a Tesla bias for a while. Reading this book just reinforced my belief that Musk is an incredible futurist who is trying very hard to reinvent cars, help solve global warming and make humans multi- planetary.

In reading the book I was reminded of Walter Isaacson's book "Steve Jobs" — another great read. In a New York Times article by Tony Schwartz he talked about Musk, Jobs, and Jeff Bezos: "…the three leaders are arguably the most extraordinary business visionaries of our times. Each of them has introduced unique products that changed — or in Mr. Musk's case, have the potential to change — the way we live."

If you have read either of the two books I have written you would know that I have a real bias for having both a corporate and personal vision — a compelling, stretching, reinforcement of intent — in other words, a dream. As a young university student, I had a dream to some day run an NBA team. And when I became the first president of MLSE I had a dream to make it one of the most sophisticated, most valuable, and successful sports and entertainment companies in the world. At the time I thought those were pretty impressive dreams, but in reading "Elon Musk" I realized that I am completely minor league compared to him. Musk is a man who wants to colonize Mars!! Holy shit — talk about really reaching for the stars!

This book outlines in detail how Musk is trying to revamp the way cars are manufactured while at the same time building out a worldwide fuel distribution network. And since his days are apparently not busy enough he has also created Space X, a space rocket business, because of his vision to put a man on Mars. Throughout the book you come to realize that he is a genius chasing incredible dreams and motivating his people to make it all happen. I know that I also liked the book because some of his business approach mirrored my beliefs. Just at a much higher level:

  • Having both a clear personal and corporate vision. Vision is a place all good leaders should start.
  • His corporate values align with his personal values. Musk’s values actually come across more like personal obligations.
  • Setting tough stretch objectives. And given enough time he tends to achieve them.
  • His belief in the importance of reading. "As a youth it was not unusual for him to read ten hours a day". And read two books a day on the weekend!
  • Optimist by nature. On both the projects he chose, and their time frames.
  • Creating businesses that are synergistic and quite seamless. Each of his businesses are interconnected — Tesla, Solar City and Space X share knowledge and manufacturing technologies.
  • Hiring the most talented people in the industry(s) who outthink and outwork their competitors.

So yes, I am a huge fan of Musk, but like Jobs I have reservations about how he leads and motivates people. I think it is ok that his employees are made to sacrifice a lot to work for such a visionary. But it is clear in the book that his leadership approach is often fear-based, hurtful, and normal rules of leadership seem not to apply to him. Now I know many would say, "but look at his results" — and they make a valid point. I just believe one can inspire their staff to great things without being abusive.

Leaders like Musk don't come along very often. After reading this book I think Musk could well end up on a list of visionary leaders like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, who each have made incredible contributions to the world.