TORONTO -- What explains the profound differences between cities in the United States and Canada, nations with such intimately related history and cultures?
Kenneth Greenberg, a Toronto urban planner also active in St. Paul, Detroit and other American cities, has a catchy explanation.
When Canadian towns were formed, he told the recent Conference on the New Urbanism meeting here, the Mounties went in first, staked out streets, checked out the water supply, and when they were sure everything was ''safe,'' let the settlers in.
But America's was the way of Wild West movies: Settlers moved in, everyone scrambled for property, and when things started going awry, someone would suggest, ''Maybe we need a sheriff around here.''
The story rings true for every American who's ever ventured north of the border to visit such cities as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. These places are ordered, neat, clean. They look planned -- and they are.
American cities may have more raw energy -- witness our waves of new construction, edge cities, callous demolitions. We're a nation that tears down historic buildings for parking lots.
And while we've bled our cities of people, the Canadians have given them transfusions. Center city Toronto alone gained 40,000 residents, many middle-to-high income, in the last quarter-century.
Canadian metropolises have few slums and virtually no center-city ghettoes. Their ethnic groups are spread across multiple communities, as many in the suburbs as in cities. And public transit systems thrive.
Millions of Canadians have moved to the suburbs, and the sprawl is no prettier than ours. Toronto has been jocularly described as ''Vienna surrounded by Phoenix.'' But when Canadians do select suburbia, they've mostly been seeking space and affordability, not fleeing crime or bad schools.
So what is it in the Canadian psyche that creates such different results? Canadians value peace, order and good government, says Mr. Greenberg. They never developed Americans' deep suspicion and fear of government -- perhaps because they never revolted, as we did, against the British crown.
Canadians have had deep national identity problems -- Quebec talking of secession, western provinces demanding autonomy. The Province of Ontario has recently decreed that the city of Toronto must merge with five large suburban towns, and the locals are now outraged about a forced ''megacity.''
But in day-to-day urban life, Canadians tend to value consensus, avoid extremes and respect the idea of equity -- guaranteeing everyone in the society a reasonably fair shake. They put less emphasis on the individual, more on what they call ''the collectivity.'' There's not the swashbuckling free-enterprise sentiment we Americans know.
Of course, we Americans talk a better free-market game than we play. We lavish public subsidies on urban development we want, from hotels and retail centers to sweetheart sports stadiums for privately owned teams.
The Canadians are much stingier with such subsidies: indeed, incentive payments to private firms are forbidden. Instead, the government gets its way by issuing rules galore on what can be developed where and how, and then lets the private sector do the investing unassisted.
Americans live pretty recklessly, as Mr. Greenberg sees it, starving public infrastructure or social needs for funds and then stepping in with lavish spending to repair things when the inevitable breakdowns occur.
And he thinks the United States went overboard for the auto industry, allowing General Motors to buy up street-rail companies and put them out of business, letting big freeways plow through neighborhoods and become nooses around big cities.
The Canadians, by contrast, embraced the auto age less whole-heartedly, protected their older cities, cultivated a big role for bicycle commuting. Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall boasts she hasn't owned a car in 28 years and cycles to work twice a week -- a claim one would be amazed to hear from an American office holder.
Yet it's clear that Canadians wish they could have more of the economic dynamism of the U.S. Anti-government sentiment is mounting, with the federal and provincial governments mimicking our welfare devolution by assigning social obligations to cities.
At the same time, Mr. Greenberg sees Americans turning a little less anti-urban, trying to find a rediscovered niche for downtowns in their regions, seeking to recycle old buildings and reclaim brownfields, valuing rather than scorning cities' social and racial mix. Through our New Urbanism movement, he suggests, we're trying to market the intimate, more personal city and town settings the Canadians tried not to abandon in the first place.
We should capitalize on this free-trade era to learn more from each other, says Mr. Greenberg. Canadians might use more of America's capacity to accept trenchant criticism, to keep on reinventing itself. And Americans would do well to keep checking Canada for a view of a calmer, understated, consciously urban and highly livable way of life.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.
Pub Date: 6/30/97