How Sexy Is Your City?

Whether they know it or not, every city is in a war right now for talent. Cities all around the world, from Toronto to Tokyo, are competing for the best and brightest human capital. And since young people are, generally speaking, more likely to relocate, this competition often translates into questions like these: How can my city attract smart Millennials? How can I get young people to move to my city and start successful companies?

Does that sound familiar?

Since the first cities were created, people have always flocked to urban centres in search of wealth. And the rapid urbanization we are seeing in many countries is simply that same trend continuing. Despite higher costs of living, we recognize that our earning power also magnifies when we position ourselves within big cities with fast metabolisms. That’s a big part of the reason why cities continue to exist and why they don’t completely decentralize. We all need each other. (Affordability, however, does still matter.)

But in addition to this desire for wealth, we have come to appreciate that quality of place also matters a great deal. Unless you happen to be a city in the middle of a proverbial gold rush, it’s not enough to simply build a place where people can get rich. The talent that cities are trying desperately to attract want something more, especially since it’s now possible for many people to work and/or start a company with just a laptop and a solid Wi-Fi connection.

Sources: Altus Group
Sources: Altus Group

My favourite example of this phenomenon is the story of how the streaming service SoundCloud came to be based in Berlin — a city that has become a model for attracting young and ambitious talent. Initially, the company was based in Stockholm where the founders went to school. But in the documentary film The Startup Kids, CEO Alexander Ljung tells the story of how they decided to travel around Europe to look for the ideal city in which to launch their “global audio distribution platform.” The last city on their stop was Berlin and they deemed it the coolest place. So they set up shop and launched their first web product at midnight in a Berlin nightclub. The rest is history.

It’s for reasons like these that every conference and panel discussion, and every city, is seemingly focused on attracting talent and creating walkable mixed-use communities. People young and old are returning to cities all around the world and there’s a pretty clear preferential shift towards those types of places. Even Silicon Valley, where many fortunes have been made, is losing the battle with the city. Recently, famed investor Paul Graham delivered a talk in Pittsburgh where he describes what happened in the Bay Area: “I’ve seen how powerful it is for a city to have those [young] people. Five years ago they shifted the center of gravity of Silicon Valley from the peninsula to San Francisco,” he said. “The reason the center of gravity shifted was the talent war, for programmers especially. Most 25 to 29 year olds want to live in the city, not down in the boring suburbs.”

Pick Your Battles

But if all of this is known, why then are some cities winning and some cities struggling to achieve their talent goals? In an article titled “Unrolling the Sidewalks” (Building August-September 2015), Rhys Phillips mentions Brampton, Ont.’s frustration with not being able to draw in the same millennial demographic that nearby Hamilton is now successfully attracting. So what makes Hamilton different than Brampton? And what should your city be doing?

What most cities understand today are the elements that can be easily measured. They know that prudent investments in transportation and infrastructure are important for productivity levels and inclusivity. They know that top tier educational institutions — which are plugged into the urban fabric of the city — are important for developing human capital and spinning off innovation into private enterprise. They know that affordable housing is important for maintaining diversity. And they know that arts and culture is important for cities, even though this one is a bit harder to quantify.

But without undermining any of the above, what many cities seem to ignore during this battle for talent is this one simple, yet somewhat intangible, question: Is the city sexy? Because what Berlin taught the world is that it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, as long as you’re sexy. That alone can be a potent talent acquisition strategy for a city. And in the case of Hamilton versus Brampton, one could argue that Hamilton is winning because it is the sexier of the two.

To some, this may seem insignificant in a world of billion dollar infrastructure announcements and large university endowment funds. And this is not to say that those elements are not important. It is to say that the way in which those elements come together to form communities can and should be done in a myriad of unique ways. The value is in the execution.

Authenticity and Localness

One of the reasons that talent is eschewing the suburbs for the city is that there is a sense of authenticity found in many older urban centres. Part of this simply has to do with the age of the building stock and urban fabric, but part of it also has to do with how few suburbs have historically invested in proper architecture and urban design. When everything feels the same, nothing feels authentic. Hamilton is in a great position to capitalize on this given its rich history and existing building stock. Of course, as city centres intensify to meet growing demand, they have to be careful not to erase the qualities that made them unique and desirable in the first place.

Part and parcel to authenticity is a preference for localness. Cities, developers, and other urbanists have realized that people don’t want to move to a place that feels like every other city. And one of the ways that is manifesting itself in city building is in the preference for local businesses and retailers. Looking at Toronto’s upcoming Canary District neighbourhood — where the retail strategy was orchestrated by Live Work Learn Play Inc. — one can see a clear and deliberate strategy around local, independent businesses. National and multinational retailers would have meant a completely different community.

The new Student Learning Centre, designed for Ryerson University by Snøhetta, has one of the best business incubators in the country with the Digital Media Zone, making it a powerful piece of branding for Toronto. Photo: Doublespace Photography.
The new Student Learning Centre, designed for Ryerson University by Snøhetta, has one of the best business incubators in the country with the Digital Media Zone, making it a powerful piece of branding for Toronto. Photo: Doublespace Photography.

City Brand

Every city and community has a brand, whether it is being actively managed or not. Unfortunately, many cities fail miserably when they do try and manage it. Does anyone remember the “Toronto Unlimited” branding initiative of 2005? It resonated with no one and quickly fizzled out.

The city branding that needs to happen in this social media smartphone era is something much deeper. It spans everything from investing in great architecture to executing on well-crafted street furniture and urban signage. Every detail matters, even down to the typefaces being selected. Graphic designers are also city builders today, because our city brands are being constantly refined and distributed on every conceivable platform from Instagram to Snapchat to Beme. This is happening whether we recognize it or not.

A great case study is Toronto’s Union Pearson (UP) Express train. Despite being constantly derided in the media for mispricing and increasing public subsidies, the UP Express is actually a phenomenal city branding effort. Everything from the station architecture to the complimentary onboard books has been carefully and beautifully crafted. This is important because it is ground zero for first impressions. It is ground zero for new talent coming to the city.

Laneway home building permits issued in Vancouver (CNW Group/Square One Insurance Services Inc.)
Laneway home building permits issued in Vancouver (CNW Group/Square One Insurance Services Inc.)

Housing Supply

Of course, one cannot forget about the more prosaic elements of attracting talent. Alongside the return to cities — and bolstered by our low interest rate environment — Canadian cities are experiencing an affordable housing crunch. And at the top of this list are Vancouver and Toronto.

In fact, a 2015 Globe and Mail article talking about Vancouver’s burgeoning tech scene listed high home prices as one the major barriers to attracting top talent in the city. “It’s hard to convince people to come into this market, where they are typically paid less and the cost of real estate is higher,” says Jeff Booth, CEO of, echoing the simple truism that people move to cities in search of wealth.

As a result of eroding affordability, Vancouver has been leading the way in Canada with respect to what is known as laneway housing (sometimes called carriage homes, “detached accessory dwelling units” or DADUs in other markets). Laneway houses are a way to increase the supply of low-rise affordable housing in existing communities and, since 2009, Vancouver has issued more than 1,000 building permits for this type of housing. It’s not a silver bullet, but every bit helps. And it is a question of when, not if, other cities in Canada follow suit with similar laneway policy to Vancouver.

In addition to increasing housing supply, laneway homes also serve another important purpose: they’re sexy. In Toronto, where laneway homes are a rarity, there’s huge demand for this housing type. Recent developments, such as the Lanehouse on Bartlett by Curated Properties, quickly sell out and many young urbanites would actually prefer a laneway house to a conventional single-family home.


There’s been a lot of focus on “18-hour” and “long-day” cities as of late, including in the previously mentioned article by Phillips. But nightlife as an economic development and talent acquisition strategy still remains a glaring omission for many Canadian cities. Recently in Europe, we’ve seen the emergence of “night mayors” whose job, just as it sounds, is to be the CEO of nighttime activity in the city. The first of its kind was in Amsterdam and it has resulted in the abolition of “last call” (i.e. 24 hour venues), as well as the creation of the world’s first Night Mayor Summit.

The key here is not to think of cities in terms of a longer or extended day, but to think of the night as an entirely new opportunity to attract and retain talent. The reason Amsterdam did what it did was because it recognized that the type of creative and innovative people they were trying to bring to their city wanted nightlife. It was entirely strategic and it has already proven to be successful in cities such as Berlin.

It should be noted that the population of Amsterdam is less than 900,000 in the city proper. So there is no reason that this strategy need only be reserved for Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver. Nightlife is also a perfect opportunity to bolster an existing arts and culture scene.

The Battle for Talent

At the end of the day, these are only some of the elements that are critical to competing in today’s global battle for talent. Cities all around the world are focused on creating diverse, transit-oriented, and walkable communities. They’re carving out new bike lanes, reclaiming public space for pedestrians, and investing in transit. They’re also stitching their universities and educational institutions back into the urban fabric and creating new start up incubators and accelerators.

Indeed, all of this is important in attracting top talent. But what many cities forget is that there’s a certain cool factor that also serves as a magnet for talent. Cities need to be sexy. Talent of all ages increasingly wants to be in a place that is authentic, a place that feels “of the place” with local shops, restaurants, and shops. They want standout architecture and beautifully designed communities. They want a thriving arts and culture scene and world class nightlife that doesn’t shut down at 2:00am. And when all of these elements combine in just the right way, you get a city brand that becomes almost stronger than what is actually there. That’s the sort of phenomenon that makes your bike lane different than the next city’s bike lane. It is the sort of thing that brings talent to your city.

Brandon G. Donnelly is an architect-trained and tech-obsessed real estate developer. He is the development lead at CAPREIT and the author of a daily blog with over 11,000 readers.

He can be reached at

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