Destination of the Week: Toronto
From its farms and wilderness to its subways and streetcars, Canada's biggest city adds a touch of green to the Great White North.
Sat, May 23, 2009 at 10:16 AM
Toronto is one of North America's largest cities. Its urban attractions might not be as hyped as those in New York or Los Angeles, but as the center of culture and commerce for Canada, Toronto carries all the assets of a major global city. And global it truly is: Relaxed immigration laws have created one of the most diverse melting pots in the world (49 percent of the city's residents were born outside of Canada).
Toronto's attractiveness is about more than its size. Despite rapid population growth over the past few decades, crime rates remain almost absurdly low. The city has nearly 200 years of history and sits at the epicenter of modern Canada's art, film and music scenes. It's also quite user-friendly, with unique neighborhoods that are easily accessible via North America's third-largest public transportation network (after New York City's and Mexico City's). A respectable collection of parks and natural spaces and a renewed commitment to the environment mean that Toronto, despite experiencing growing pains familiar to any city with more than 2.5 million people, is one of North America's greenest big cities.
Toronto's subway and streetcar system makes it possible to travel to most neighborhoods and tourist attractions within the city limits by rail. Go Transit, a commuter train service run by the province of Ontario, connects the city with the farthest reaches of the sprawling metro area. The aged but far-reaching streetcar system (updates are due soon) is a reminder of what would have been had the streetcar not been killed in most major American cities. Buses round out the transportation system, making getting behind the wheel almost completely unnecessary for visitors to Toronto.
Bicycle culture is highly visible here, despite lengthy and frigid winters. A municipal project to create 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) of bike paths in the city is moving at a snail's pace (only 20 percent completed), but the city's government is championing the use of pedal power via an initiative dubbed the Toronto Bike Plan. Bikes are allowed on public transit (during nonpeak hours) and cycling on the roadways is reasonably safe throughout the city.
The Fairmont Royal York is not a budget hotel. But its green initiatives are impressive when compared with most luxury hotels in North America. Some of these ideas balance on the thin line between ingenious and drastic. For example, Saturday night is "lights out night" at the hotel's Library Bar. The dining room is illuminated solely by candlelight, significantly lessening power consumption for the entire evening. Wind-generated electricity is used for the hotel's computer system.
Toronto has managed to keep many of its natural spaces intact during its growth and is in the process of re-greening lands that were swept up in the rapid urbanization. One of the more interesting of these areas is the Toronto Music Garden. This unique park/garden along the waterfront was designed with the help of noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose plans were inspired by Bach's First Suite. Conceived with this slightly over-the-top idea, the garden's forest trails, flowers and waterways are, nonetheless, a pleasant break from the cityscapes of downtown Toronto.
Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat seeks to create an ideal butterfly habitat with native wildflowers, trees and shrubs. All the plant life is self-sustaining. The goals of this relatively new natural space (it opened in 2002) are focused on education as well as sustainability. The Toronto Parks and Recreation Division seeks to educate the public about the possibility of creating and sustaining urban wildlife habitats.
Toronto is also engaged in an ongoing project to naturalize the city's waterfront areas and create habitats that were previously destroyed by urbanization. Like the Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat, the Toronto Waterfront Naturalization Initiative aims to involve the general public in the process.
The region of Ontario surrounding Toronto is prime farmland. Therefore it's easy to find locally grown ingredients in the city's eateries. Or find them a step nearer to their source at the St. Lawrence Market in Old Town Toronto. It's actually two markets in one, with fresh produce, herbs and spices dominating the North Market Building, and meats, dairy products, baked goods and specialty items found in the southern building. Both buildings are open year-round on Saturdays. The South Market is also open during the week.
The question remains: Why visit Toronto?
Does its blossoming eco-scene warrant a spot ahead of New York, Chicago or even Montreal on your "places to go" list?
Museums like the recently redesigned Art Gallery of Toronto and the Museum of Inuit Art show the broad range of the city's arts scene. Over the past few years, the TIFF (Toronto Int'l Film Festival) has showcased the city to the world via the entertainment media. The epicenter of Canada's contemporary music scene is found in Toronto as well. The city's environmental initiatives are a positive for green-minded travelers and its relative safety and user-friendliness make it a good bet for all tourists.
But it's Toronto's role as the cultural heart of Canada — and to some extent the Americas as a whole — that truly makes it a worthwhile destination.