Detroit & Toronto

Why study cities?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities. During the industrial era, cities were seen as problems, filled with crime, pollution and decay. Today, however, we celebrate cities as sites of innovation, sustainability, economic growth, creativity and culture. But not every city is the same.

While some of growing and highly successful, others are shrinking and struggling with severe socioeconomic problems. By visiting and understanding different cities, we gain a better understanding of how the forces shaping our world affect places in different ways. Such an understanding is essential to a broad, interdisciplinary Liberal Arts and Science programme.

  • When studying cities, there are many questions we can ask:
  • Why do some cities grow while others decline?
  • How can we reduce traffic and congestion in cities?
  • Is inequality an inherent component of the city?
  • How do residents of the city experience different forms of urban change?

Questions such as these will be at the heart of this study trip. We have selected two cities which, despite being less than 400 km apart, represent the extremes of contemporary urbanism. They are microcosms of the wider political, economic and social context.


Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the fourth largest in North America. It is one of the fastest growing cities on the continent. Immigration is fuelling this growth; every year around 100,000 people move to the region. As a result, it is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet, with close to half the population born outside of Canada. But with this growth comes major challenges.

Not everyone is benefiting from the city’s economic book; social and spatial polarisation is increasing and the city (centre) is rapidly becoming too expensive for many ordinary residents. Like many other cities around the world, it is becoming increasingly divided between a rich ‘core’ and a poor ‘periphery.’ With one million people arriving into the region each decade, infrastructure struggles to keep up.

Despite having a population five times larger than Rotterdam’s, Toronto’s subway is roughly the same size as the Rotterdam Metro. In rush hour, it is filled beyond capacity, as are the city’s roads. Torontonians suffer through the worst commuting times of any city in North America.


Detroit was once home to the ‘American Dream.’ The birthplace of mass production and Fordism, Detroit gave the world the automobile, Motown music, superhighways and the suburban shopping mall. In the 1920s it was the fastest growing city in the world. Today, however, Detroit is more known for its spectacular decline, abandonment, crime and bankruptcy (in 2013 it was the largest US city to file for bankruptcy). From its peak of 1.85 million inhabitants in 1950, there are less than 700,000 who now call the city home.

As a result, Detroit has some of the largest modern-day ruins in the world. While Toronto transitioned from a largely industrial- to a service-based economy, Detroit has remained a manufacturing city built around one industry: the automobile. As this sector has grown and declined, so too has Detroit. It has felt the consequences of deindustrialisation, globalisation and suburbanisation harder than almost any city on earth.