Joe Berridge is a storied urban planner and self-identified “city builder,” with a multinational client list and a thick personal Rolodex. Berridge’s new book, part of the inaugural list for Toronto-based non-fiction publisher Sutherland House, is a breathlessly optimistic catalogue of urban life, glittering with dropped names. But the slim volume provides little in the way of analysis or context for its Pollyanna pronouncements.
Perfect City is filled with outings and interviews with named and unnamed planners, architects, and residents. There are charming flaneur vignettes about immigrant neighbourhoods, bursting with exotic food and cultural tableaux. However, despite its efforts at charm, Perfect City misses the mark when it comes to explaining why some cities, like Toronto, fall short of perfection. As a result, Berridge misses an opportunity to point the way to change, growth, and lasting, useful urban innovation that places the well-being and longevity of cities and their residents before market concerns. More distressingly, Berridge’s enthusiasm for theoretically innovative city-building initiatives, like the Sidewalk Toronto project, seems based in a personal affection for their charismatic leaders, rather than a grounded analysis of the projects’ proposals and potential.
Some of Berridge’s analyses seem unmoored from history or modern political realities. For example, Perfect City attempts to discuss the growth and future of the city of Toronto, but makes no mention of the 1998 provincially enforced amalgamation or the city’s awkward legal position as a “creature of the province” with extremely limited powers of self-determination. Toronto’s city government is slighted for not leading effectively, but nowhere is mentioned Ontario’s unilateral halving of the size of the Toronto City Council in 2018, the threatened uploading of Toronto’s public transit system, or the province-wide rollback of meaningful rent control mere months after it had been established in the city.
Berridge makes an interesting elision between the top-down planning of Robert Moses, whom he clearly admires, and the “energizing” Dan Doctoroff, the private equity financier turned NYC deputy mayor turned “city builder” and current head of Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet). Perfect City’s description of Doctoroff’s previous project, the Hudson Yards development complex in Manhattan, is so breathtakingly direct that it is worth quoting in full: “Hudson Yards is unabashedly neo-liberal, a wealth-creating machine for metropolitan corporations and their managerial class, executed at scale, focusing extensive public resources on the glittering transformation of a district whose once gritty, if overstated authenticity is gone forever.”
To be clear: Berridge believes this is a good thing. At last count, the Hudson Yards project was the recipient of more than a billion dollars in tax breaks and subsidies and home to what has been described as the most expensive park per acre in New York City. This doesn’t seem to give Berridge much pause. Later in the book, at the beginning of a section about Amazon, Sidewalk Labs, Toronto’s MaRS Innovation complex, and New York’s Cornell Tech campus, Berridge argues that “[i]t is easy to grind one’s teeth at the ethical shortcomings of the tech and financial sectors but that is an unaffordable indulgence for any city once it realizes how important those sectors are to its economic machine.”
That might be an interesting argument if big technology and finance firms had any history of paying their taxes, but that’s not the case. In fact, the Sidewalk Toronto project, which Berridge describes in glowing terms, recently was forced to admit that its business model consists, for the most part, of intercepting property taxes and development fees that would otherwise go to the city. The MaRS project in downtown Toronto was bailed out by the province to the tune of $500 million and currently plays landlord to a number of American tech firms. Amazon recently blocked a $275-per-employee tax in Seattle that would have been dedicated to homelessness services. Amazon’s attempt to open a second headquarters in Queens stalled after it was revealed the company would have received up to $3 billion in taxpayer-funded incentives and that the site would displace hundreds of planned units of affordable housing.
Berridge appears to believe the future of cities lies in deals struck between multinational technology firms, private equity, and under-resourced city governments. Tellingly, neither San Francisco nor Seattle, two cities whose residential markets, tax bases, and political landscapes have been most deformed by the high-tech economy, appear in this book. By overemphasizing charismatic planning projects from the worlds of tech and high finance, taking proposals and promises at face value, and ignoring the real issues of power, democratic representation, and self-determination, Perfect City tries to make the deals dangled by global high-tech firms seem both inevitable and ideal. But that is far from the case.