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The future of housing in Toronto

On Monday evening I gave a 45 minute talk at the Rotman School to a delegation of about 70 people from Portland. The talk was about Toronto housing, but more specifically about the history and possible future of high-rise housing in this city. 

Thanks to everyone who commented on my lead-up post over the weekend. It was really helpful to hear what other people in this city (as well as people not from this city) are thinking. Many of the comments also echoed my own beliefs.

The narrative I told in my presentation was about two significant, yet very different, periods of time when Toronto built more high-rise than low-rise housing. The first was our post-war suburban slab tower boom. And the second, which we are currently living through, is really the outcome of the Places to Grow Act (2005).

But as I mentioned over the weekend, the really interesting question is: what’s next?

In my view, what we are seeing today is fundamentally different than what we saw in the post-war years. Despite the fact that we were building towers then and we are also building towers now (albeit much taller ones), the ideology behind them has changed. It has gone from suburban to urban.

Toronto’s post-war towers were built upon a particular dream. The dream of getting in your car, escaping the decay of the city, whisking up the Don Valley Parkway (nobody whisks on the DVP), and being rejuvenated by all the light, air, and green space afforded to you in your Ville Radieuse.

But it turns out that people of means didn’t want that back then. They wanted a suburban house. That was the dream.

Today, however, cities are back in vogue

Companies are moving into city centers to compete for the best talent. Retailers are moving downtown to capture disposable income. And the most pressing problems are no longer about decay and urban blight, they are about housing affordability, gentrification, and too many rich people pushing out the poor.

The narrative has changed.

So in the context of Toronto, I feel as if we are at an inflection point when it comes to housing. The multi-family dream may not have stuck decades ago, but I believe it will stick for many, though not all, today. And this will happen for a variety of reasons ranging from sheer preference to sheer necessity. The alternative is no longer an affordable bungalow on a 50′ x 150′ lot that happens to be 10 minutes from the subway.

But as a result of this shift, I also think a number of other things will happen. 

Eventually, Toronto will look to loosen some of the land use restrictions on its single family neighborhoods. This could mean “gentle” low-rise intensification (new planning buzzword, take note), as well as the acceptance of laneway or accessory dwelling housing. This won’t be popular, as one person said in the comments over the weekend, but eventually the pressures will become too great.

At the same time, I think we’ll be brought full circle with respect to our suburban towers. The suburban ideals in place at the time means that many of these tower communities have relatively low densities. That represents a tremendous opportunity for this city and it’s only a matter of time before we truly figure out how to unlock them.

But for all the change and disruption that’s happening in Toronto, I think it’s also worth saying that those of us who live here should consider ourselves a lucky bunch.

One of the things I actually asked the delegation from Portland was, what struck you the most when you arrived in Toronto? The response I got was: its vibrancy. 

Everywhere you walk downtown, they said, people are on the streets – walking, cycling, and hanging out. In fact, some said it’s almost hard to remember which street is which because every street seems to be so full of activity. Most North American cities do not have this kind of sustained vibrancy in the core, I was told. And so that makes us a pretty special place. We must be doing something right.

It’s easy to take those sorts of things for granted when you live somewhere. So today I’m trying to do the exact opposite of that. I’m trying to stop and appreciate the place I call home.

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