How to Solve a Problem Like The City
A Toronto-based family business is making waves for its innovative approach to city planning, connecting purpose and profit while keeping communities at the core.
By Jonathan Openshaw
Big problems call for big solutions. From social equity to climate collapse, the world is awakening to the fact that taking a case-by-case approach is not going to cut it. What’s needed are grand, multi-generational visions that can bring about lasting change.
Few problems loom as large as cities in the 21st century. At some point around 2006 (according to the United Nations) humanity sailed over an invisible line where – for the first time in our history as a species – more people lived urban lives than rural. Since then, we’ve flooded into urban centers in our droves, with the UN forecasting that 68 percent of the world will call cities home by 2050. Not even the global pandemic seems to have slowed this long-term trend in any significant way.
Cities are the undisputed engines of our social, political and economic life, and should be celebrated as such. But they also have the potential to wreak havoc on the wellbeing of those who dwell in them.
The big battles of the 21st century – from health to equity to pollution – will be fought in urban centres, not rural hinterlands.
The problem is that cities have too often been shaped by the short-term needs of property developers and politicians, who may be looking for a quick buck or positive news story over long term investment. Much of our globalised world has become addicted to short-termism, it seems. Tied to financial quarters, annual reviews and midterm elections, we operate on the scale of hours, weeks and months, rather than decades, centuries or millennia. Can we find another way?
“The fact that we’re a family business is crucial,” says Mazyar Mortazavi, President and CEO of TAS, the Toronto-based real estate business that his parents founded as Iranian immigrants in the 1980s. “I think it really comes down to our family values: that set of ideas that underpins what we do. It takes on a multi-generational aspect.” This approach has echoes of the so-called Cathedral Challenge: a way of enacting long term change that stretches beyond the lifetime of an individual. The name references the cathedral building families of mediaeval Europe, where the grandfather would lay the foundations, the father would build the structure and the son finish the masonry. No single generation oversaw the whole, but all contributed to a singular vision. “We live in a time where capital has become about extraction rather than generation,” continues Mortazavi, “where we try to extract as much as we can, as quickly as possible, and just leave a hole for the next generation to deal with.” By taking on a multi-generational construct that attributes value to the social, environmental and cultural as well as the financial, TAS has made a mark on Toronto, and is rightly beginning to garner global attention for their approach. “Rather than calling ourselves a real estate company, we say we’re an impact company that uses real estate as a tool,” says Mortazavi.
Even over video link, Mortazavi is an impassioned and charismatic speaker, and a cynic could dismiss his vision as the kind of corporate spiel that we hear from various messianic Silicon Valley types. The difference is that TAS have been assiduous in holding themselves to account, not only obtaining B Corp certification, but launching their own Impact Framework earlier this year. Linked to the independent Future-Fit Business Benchmark (which in turn is grounded in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals) the Framework applies concrete criteria to all TAS projects. As such, it formalises the TAS family-values approach into a set of measurable environmental, social and governance criteria.
“I would stress that this is not about becoming a charity or operating purely altruistically,” explains Mortazavi. “Real estate is big business and we have a deep respect for the financial aspect of what we do. We cannot create change if we’re not financially successful, so it’s not about suddenly slashing profits from, say, 25 percent to 5 percent.
But it’s also possible to have a significant social impact from quite a subtle shift in value attribution.” Many companies tout purpose and profit, but few in the real estate sector have tied themselves quite so closely to measurable, multi-generational responsibilities.
At the core of the TAS approach sit the communities and neighbourhoods of Toronto – the type of small-scale groupings that have so often been bulldozed and displaced in cities around the world. “A great neighbourhood allows people to connect and care for one another,” says Mortazavi, “when neighbourhoods work well, cities work well, and we have models to prove this throughout history – from rural villages to mediaeval towns.”
Mortazavi has the academic training to back this statement up. As well as studying architecture, he wrote a thesis on the eastern bazaar as an enduring system of social cohesion. “If you look at the fundamental structures of a bazaar then they haven’t changed in millenia, and yet they have retained a vibrancy that comes from their incredible ability to flex and adapt,” says Mortazavi. “We used to have this in mediaeval Europe, too, but with the Renaissance came an obsession with the individual and with monolithic architecture. We lost that more organic, community-driven focus.”
This community model can still be found in successful neighbourhoods the world over, with Toronto’s own Kensington Market providing a prime example. Often cobbled together by disenfranchised groups outside the purview of city planners or politicians, such spaces were able to grow through small-scale social cohesion. Of course, it’s impossible to turn the complexity of today’s mega city over to communities alone, but the challenge as Mortazavi sees it is how to retain these social bonds within a grand city plan.
“I guess carpet weaving is in my Iranian roots,” chuckles Mortazavi, “I want to bring different threads together. The amazing thing about weaving is that you can have these very delicate strands individually, but when you combine them they become incredibly strong.” TAS has been receiving a lot of press recently for the innovative development of the Wellington Destructor, an 1920’s trash incinerator that will now take on a new lease of life as a multipurpose space that weaves culture, commerce and leisure. Just as important as these big blockbuster projects are more subtle combinations, however, such as rehousing a 10,000 square foot Salvation Army in the ground floor of a gleaming new residential development, or working with the City to bring a public library to another underserved area. “It’s about looking at what makes a community special, or identifying what a community might lack, and blending that together.”
A side-effect of the global pandemic is that it made us connect far more deeply with our immediate neighbourhoods, and it may result in a greater planning focus on walkable clusters of mixed amenities within global cities. This idea of the 15-minute neighbourhood has long been a priority for visionary planners from Jane Jacobs to Jan Gehl, but too often it got pushed aside by the more prosaic plans of politicians. “I think the pandemic has really made us focus on our core needs from the streets in which we live, and those needs may be as simple as the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” says Mortazavi. “We need to stop kidding ourselves that we know better than our communities do. It’s the job of professionals to create the fundamental infrastructure, but to leave plenty of room for the magic that is community building.”
Combining a multi-generational vision with commitment to community, TAS is showing how it’s possible to develop neighbourhoods with soul – and without impacting your bottom-line as a business. The challenge of living healthy, fulfilling, vibrant lives in high density cities is one of the biggest that lie ahead of us, but the world could do worse than look to this Toronto-based family business for some inspiration.