Downtowns that work: Lessons from Toronto and Chicago

Pierre Filion, Igal Charney, Rachel Weber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Among downtowns of North American metropolitan regions, two have performed especially well in terms of the presence of employment, residential development and diversity of land uses over the last decades: those of Toronto and Chicago. This paper concentrates on the factors responsible for their success. It reviews the history of the two downtowns since World-War-II, giving special attention to the capacity 'macro-decisions' have of creating path dependencies. Identified macro-decisions include strategic investments in downtown-focussed public transit and improvements to the diversity and amenities of the downtowns. There are important differences in the approaches taken in the two downtowns. These relate in part to organizational specificities. If in Toronto institutional structures and political coalitions play a major role in explaining the adoption of policies favourable to the downtown, in Chicago it is the priorities of powerful mayors that loom largest. The paper proposes a multicausal model, which shows how numerous decisions of different nature, along with their interactions and consequences, have contributed to positive downtown outcomes in the two cities. The main lesson from the two cases is that downtown success cannot be improvised as it is the outcome of long chains of policies, which interact positively with market trends, favouring core areas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-42
Number of pages23
JournalCanadian Journal of Urban Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2015 by the Institute of Urban Studies. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.


  • Chicago
  • Downtowns
  • History
  • Toronto

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Urban Studies


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