density in toronto

Should Toronto Strive For MORE Density?

Toronto Politics

6 minute read

August 1, 2018

It’s not unlike me to talk politics on an open forum.  Right?

What can I say, I’m passionate about topics in which I’m interested, and as I love the city of Toronto dearly, I hate standing by and watching when things aren’t going well, or well enough.

When it comes to the future of the city, I have a middle-of-the-pack outlook.

I’m not pessimistic, but I’m not optimistic either.

I’ve come to realize that politics is not about making major decisions on what’s best for the constituents, both present and future, but rather politics is about politicians staying in power for as long as they can.  As a result, it’s very difficult for any politician, at the municipal or provincial level, to enact meaningful long-term change.

Why would a politician spend his or her time and energy working on a 25-year-plan, when that won’t get any proverbial “likes,” but screaming about the topic du jour would?

I’ve often lamented that there is no, and has never been any, long-term plan for the City of Toronto.  The growth we’ve seen over the last decade is nothing short of shocking, and the city wasn’t in any way prepared for it.

Same goes for the province, to be fair.

And sometimes I wonder, “What would it take?”

What would it take, for example, to expand Highway 400 from 3-lanes to 6-lanes?  Just for arguments’ sake.  Every weekend, cars line up, bumper-to-bumper, and this will go on forever.  So what would it take to double the size of a highway that probably sees ten times more traffic than ever was intended?

Same argument for the Don Valley Parkway, and 401.  Residents of the GTA suffer every single day because of the archaic infrastructure that was sufficient for a population over fifty years ago, but no longer can support the demand.

What about the subway system?  It’s a joke.  It’s the worst of any world-class city.

We could do this all day, folks.  But I think you get the gist of it.

Toronto’s population is far greater than the existing infrastructure that’s mean to support it, and I don’t know if we can every truly play catch-up.

Toronto’s little mini-cities have popped up without any real plan to support them.

Take CityPlace, for example.  That’s about as dense an area in Toronto as you’ll find.

Is there enough infrastructure to support an area that’s home to 20,000 people?

Public transit is one thing.  But what about schools, parks, greenspaces, doctors, dentists, daycares, and grocery stores?  Is it possible for so many people to live in such a dense space, and still enjoy the same quality of life as an average Torontonian living in another neighbourhood?

Did the city plan for this kind of density?

Were the sewers equipped to deal with 20,000 people using them on a daily basis?  Was this ever actually the plan?

I’m asking rhetorically, but I’m going to answer, “No, probably not.”

The more important question is, “Can the city keep up?”

And not just in areas like CityPlace, but across the entire central core.  Because as we’ve discussed lately – whether it’s the lack of support to build on the greenbelt, or the NIMBY’ism that exists in most “nicer” single-family neighbourhoods, or the desire of many home-owners to get creative and build laneway housing – more density is coming to Toronto.

But is that even the right term?  “More density?”

What about simply “Density,” as if to say that Toronto isn’t dense already?

“Density is coming,” I should have said, to be correct, because if you compare Toronto to other cities around the world, you’ll see it’s not actually all that dense.

First thing’s first – how big is Toronto?  In terms of the population, that is?

Wikipedia offers the best source on this kind of data, and if we’re looking at “City Proper,” which as you might assume, is the City of Toronto, and not the GTA, then where do you think Toronto would rank around the world?

What if I told you that Toronto had a population of 2,929,886?  Where do you think that would rank?

Chongqing, China tops the list at 30,751,600, and Shanghai comes in at #2 with 24,256,800.

That leaves Toronto at 105th.

You don’t have to be a geography major to know that there are countries around the world where “people live on top of people.”  Whether you’ve travelled around, or whether you’ve simply seen a YouTube video of a subway worker pushing people into a railcar with a stick, you know that there are places on earth that closer resemble a sardine can than, say, Mimico.

So Toronto being the 105th largest city in the world shouldn’t be a surprise.

But how dense is Toronto?  Where would it rank on a list of cities around the world?

It doesn’t.

Not at all.

In all my research (and I can’t tell you how long I’ve been going this afternoon…), I can’t find any list of most-dense cities in the world that drops down as low as Toronto.

Here is Wikipedia’s List of Cities By Population Density   (Just keep in mind that some of these “cities,” like Le Pre-Saint-Gervais in France, which is home to only 18,121 people, doesn’t really give you any insight as to how dense a true world-class city is).

That’s the top 43 cities, and #43 comes in at 17,738 people per square-kilometre.

Do you know how dense Toronto is?

4,334 people per square kilometre.

In fact, Toronto is only the eighth most dense city in Canada, despite our incredible population growth, the condo boom of the last decade, and all the onlookers who deride the number of cranes in the sky:

Source(s): Census of Population, Highlights Tables (98-402-X2016001).

So with a density of 4,334 per square KM, knowing that the 43rd most dense city in the world has 17,738 people per square KM, where would Toronto rank?  Any guesses?  Maybe somewhere in the 500 range?  As I said above, many of those “cities” in the top-43 are just little locales that we would never compare to Toronto.

So I took it upon myself to dust off my World Atlas, and pick the largest cities (by population and by stature/name) in North America and Europe, and compile a list of densities so we may more accurately compare Toronto to the rest of the world.

The reason I’m choosing not to use cities in China, India, et al is simply because we have a different way of life than they do.  Comparing Toronto to New York or London makes a lot more sense than comparing Toronto to Dhaka, Bangladesh, which has the 5th highest density of any city in the world at 28,410 people per square KM.

So here’s my list, for what it’s worth:

I’m fairly certain that you could make an argument for any city above Toronto on the list, as to why that city warrants a higher density.

Paris is Paris; enough said.  San Francisco is home to emerging industries and jobs galore; people want to live there.  And on, and on, and on.

But Philadelphia is just Philadelphia.  There’s nothing special about it, save for the Liberty Bell, I suppose.

Lisbon?  Brussels?

Great cities, and famous, yes.  But Toronto is the defacto capital of Canada.  It’s a world power, and a world-class city, whether those of you that always argue “true world-class cities like London and Paris shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Toronto,” like it, or not.

Toronto is also home to high-priced real estate (not compared to the rest of the world, but on a recent appreciation basis, and in relation to income growth), and as people continue to debate, every day, and every night, how, why, or when real estate prices would become more affordable, is it possible that adding more density is the answer, at least in part?

I go back to my point about people generalizing about the “cranes in the sky,” and ask, even still, if we have enough density in the city.

One of my aunts, who must be very sheltered, told me a year ago, “I hadn’t been downtown in, well, probably a decade!  I can’t believe all the buildings!  You can barely see the skyline anymore, I didn’t even recognize the city!”

All that in a mere decade, and yet we’re still not nearly as dense as other world-class cities.

This blog post, as many of you have noticed, is continuing the theme from Monday’s conversation.  So not to bring labels into this again, but is the answer for many of you NIMBY’s to simply add more density to the downtown core?  Have people living on top of people, as we see in so many other large cities?

Should we allow 90-storey condos to be built next to 40-storey condos, that applied for 45-stories only five years ago, and got turned down?

Should we keep the residential “family” neighbourhoods, that are home to 2-storey homes, as such, and leave the density for more urban areas like downtown Toronto and Mississauga?

Would the people in charge of the City of Toronto be able to keep up with the demand for new, increased, and more efficient infrastructure if the downtown core added, say, another 500,000 people?

Because honestly, I think that’s where Toronto is going.

Despite many of the wishes to the contrary in the comments section of Monday’s blog post, I don’t see the city, or any municipality, relaxing zoning regulations so that the owner of a 3/4 acre piece of property in North York, with a single-family dwelling on it, can turn around and build structures to house twelve families.

I do believe that Toronto’s density will continue to increase exponentially over the coming years, and like it or not, I do believe it will result in a fantastic explosion in growth of the downtown core

Written By David Fleming

David Fleming is the author of Toronto Realty Blog, founded in 2007. He combined his passion for writing and real estate to create a space for honest information and two-way communication in a complex and dynamic market. David is a licensed Broker and the Broker of Record for Bosley – Toronto Realty Group

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  1. Francesca

    at 7:37 am

    I agree that Toronto could be more dense but my biggest issue is how this density is achieved. Packing more people in already over populated areas like downtown or pretty much anywhere nowadays along the Yonge Street corridor is not the solution. The existing infrastructure just isn’t there too support additional growth as we all know from packed subway trains to schools with no spaces left etc. The main issue our city has compared to say cities in Europe or Asia is that it started as a low density single family city and now it is trying to change. I have lived in Milan, Rome, Edinburgh, and visit Vancouver yearly where my in laws live and have traveled to pretty much every major Western European city and many in NA and I have to say that Toronto is one of the ugliest downtowns I have ever seen. All these high rises that have gone up in the last 20 years have made the city less liveable and uglier. Towers built in front of each other with no respect for views or no thought to where kids will go to school and condos overlooking highways. In Vancouver condos are not allowed to obstruct existing views and even through the city has grown a lot it looks nicer and feels more liveable. There are many more 3-5 floor apt buildings that line the quiet side streets of downtown neighbourhoods. All things that could work in Toronto but it seems like developers would rather build gigantic condos where they can make more profit. Even Montreal downtown and in Westmount there are many more examples of lower rise buildings and towns that line city streets. I think the city needs to focus more on better city planning before it allows more buildings to be built or as per Monday’s blog allow more intensification in less dense areas.

    1. Izzy Bedibida

      at 8:47 am

      I agree with your points. I have noticed these in many European cities that I have traveled to. These examples would go a very long way in Toronto.
      With all of the maligning of the suburbs, many downtown condo neighborhoods are no different. They are just a vertical suburb with small cramped units.
      I have never seen this in Amsterdam or Rotterdam where condo/apartment living is the norm. My brother says that those cities would have never allowed that type of development. Nor will they allow the current trend of small cramped units in large buildings to happen.

  2. Kyle

    at 9:19 am

    Toronto definitely needs more density. It’s a bit of chicken or egg, the City needs tax revenues to build out infrastructure, but the tax revenues can only (realistically) increase by increasing density (i.e. more units), because there’s only so much you can raise tax rates before the pitchforks come out.

    In many older cities, the streetscape outside looks exactly as it did hundreds of years ago, but within the buildings they have been converted to flats. In Toronto the opposite has been happening. Older houses that were once multi unit apartments are now being bought and converted back to single family homes. Density in neighbourhoods that once upon a time were popular with renters are actually losing density: Parkdale, the Annex, Harbord Village, Kensington Market, Little Italy.

    The other issue, is that there are pretty much only two types of built form in this City – residential houses (limited to 3 storeys and 0.6 coverage) or condos that are 20+ storeys and 1000x coverage. This is all because of our antiquated, zoning and official plan, that only allow deep pocketed developers to challenge the zoning and of course their going to try to maximize their investment. The City planners pay lots of lip service to the “missing middle” and “gentle density” but under their current zoning and plan, those things can’t ever happen.

    1. Izzy Bedibida

      at 9:58 am

      This “missing middle” is exactly what the city of Amsterdam enforces. From what I saw on my last visit, condo and townhouse living is the norm. Even though the total average footage is slightly smaller, there are none of the cramped,awkward, not long term livable layouts I have seen in many of the “missing middle” designs I have seen in the GTA

      1. Kyle

        at 10:17 am

        I agree. The few missing middle condos built in Toronto, tend to be targeted at down-sizing seniors who want to stay in the nieghbourhoods, think Yonge and York Mills, or Bloor and Kingsway and Old Mill area. These places may have more square footage, but aren’t at all practical long term to raise a family. Their on busy streets, far from schools, libraries, community centers, etc and they are usually laid out with a huge opulent master and a tiny office or den.

    2. TOPlanner

      at 10:01 am

      City Planning just finished creating a new 25 year plan for the downtown – it’s called TO Core:

      Revamping zoning by-laws and the Official Plan are processes that take years. Let me explain why through an example. When the City harmonized the former by-laws of the old municipalities to create a City-wide bylaw (google Zoning By-law 569-2013 for more info), it was appealed by HUNDREDS of parties. As you can imagine, many property owners have vested interests in developing or using their land a certain way and object to any change to the status quo. This amounts to years of work for City Planning to move any type of legislative or policy change forward.

      Meanwhile, the City’s budget keeps getting cut meaning that there are fewer staff to do an increasingly overwhelming volume of work. City Planning gets a very minimal 0.8% of the City’s overall operating budget:

      As we’ve been reminded of in the Doug Ford and City Council news last week, the Province has jurisdiction over cities as well as urban planning (the Planning Act, Growth Plan for the GGH, etc). The province sets out areas that are designated for growth like the downtown, North York Centre, etc, with the logic of making efficient use of the Province’s investments in infrastructure. As many of you know, until recently, the provincial OMB tribunal could overturn any decisions made by Toronto’s City Council.

      To summarize: planners would like nothing more than to be able to update zoning and plans. City Planning did that successfully with TO Core in May, and also with Midtown in Focus (new plan for Yonge and Eglinton) this month. However, the City is 1) constantly challenged when it attempts to change anything, 2) doesn’t have the resources to do the work, and 3) is governed by the province.

      1. Kyle

        at 1:00 pm

        I applaud the updated plan and the recent approval of lane way housing. A couple of points on resourcing and funding. In my view much of the work that occupies Planners’ time is dealing with variances, that arguably should be as of right in a large modern City. Fix the plan and zoning and you fix much of the resource issue. Also could things not be streamlined, by taking a NYC approach of approving blocks or zones, rather than each and every single application?

      2. Kyle

        at 2:02 pm

        Also i agree that the Province has power over the City. However as far as i’m aware the Province has been far more pro-growth and pro-density than the City. In my view the Places to Grow Act and the OMB were largely put in place to overcome the City’s pro-status quo predisposition.

      3. Carl

        at 2:07 pm

        @TOPlanner Thank you for the update. From what I have seen, city staff are doing good job with limited resources. But what good is a plan when nobody follows it? As other people have noted, many developers are not bound by the official plan and zoning; they somehow manage the negotiate exceptions.

    3. Paul

      at 1:00 pm

      Everyone complains about how difficult it is to change zoning and the official plan, but it absolutely needs to be done. I don’t care how painfully long and expensive the process is, we need to begin changing things.

  3. Toucan

    at 11:04 am

    Lisbon, Portugal.

    1. David Fleming

      at 11:54 am

      @ Toucan

      The worst part is, I actually double-checked this list to make sure I had everything right. (Sigh)

  4. Mike

    at 12:53 pm

    Our zoning bylaws and the ineptitude of City Planners & Politicians is the issue. Of course we need to be more dense, but no one has the balls to do it the right way. So instead we will just jam as many people south of Queen St. as possible.

  5. Jennifer

    at 1:19 pm

    the middle seems to be coming at danforth east and queen east. lots of building there and not a high rise in sight….yet.

    1. joel

      at 4:29 pm

      I live in the area and we could definitely use a lot more mid rise in the future. I know that it was slated as an area for growth and really hope that it happens sooner rather than later.

  6. daniel b

    at 3:24 pm

    Literally everything you listed (schools, parks, greenspace, doctors, dentists, daycares, and grocery stores) is in City Place. Schools and parks were planned for all along but only built at the end. Before you jump in saying they should be built first, think about running a half empty school for a decade.

    And i mean, obviously the infrastructure was poorly planned. The constant brownouts, sewage backups, and water outages are really annoying. Oh wait, those things almost never happen? But what did you base your clinical assessment of the lack of infrastructure on.

    I hear people crowing about how overbuilt or ‘overpopulated’ the downtown or king west are. I’ll tell you this, everyone who i know who lives there absolutely loves it. From my subjective standpoint, downtown toronto is so much better than it was 10 years ago that it’s laughable to suggest otherwise.

    I’ve had so many people tell me how queen west ‘sucks, now that it’s all big box stores’ despite the fact that it is clearly, numerically, not predominately big box or chain stores. People’s political views of development cloud there basic ability to observe reality…

    Lastly, since you brought up highways, show me the city that has built their way to free flowing traffic? It is not possible because the more highway capacity you build the more people move further out, it’s called induced demand.

    1. BJA

      at 9:59 pm

      Absolutely. Anyone who believes, against all evidence, that more/wider roads are the answer to gridlock should educate themselves via a book such as “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck.

  7. Ralph Cramdown

    at 2:01 pm

    This is the strangest article here in a long time.

    Yes, Toronto has a plan for population growth. It’s part of the province’s larger plan. It foresees the city’s population to grow by about 0.88% per year through 2041. That’s about 25,000 people per year today. No they won’t all live downtown. Yes Virginia, more people and fixed municipal boundaries means increased density, because math. But our density in 2014 would still be lower than Vancouver’s today, and anyone who’s driven around Vancouver wouldn’t say it feels crowded.

    N.B. Little known facto: Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union.

  8. Appraiser

    at 6:55 pm

    “Expect to see real estate sales in the GTA up around 15% in July (over last year) and prices up around 5%. Sales in York Region were up around 35%. While we are comparing to a weak market last year, these are still signs of a market that is recovering vs crashing.”

    Bad news for the bears … again.

  9. downtown

    at 11:28 pm

    I’d love to see more density done well. I have some experience living in both Toyko and Amsterdam. The biggest difference I noticed between those cities and Toronto was that you could easily get out of the city. In southern Ontario, it feels like we’re just paving over all the farmland, with only a token effort to preserve greenspace. It takes hours of driving to get past Toronto’s sprawl. Whereas from both Tokyo and Amsterdam, farmland and hiking trails are a short trainride away. Along with more density and a more aggressive effort to preserve greenspace comes investment in public transit and cycling. If we’re going to live closer together, we can’t all drive to the places we’re going.

    We’ve also got this strange attitude in Toronto that once you have kids, you must move to a house. Condos and apartments seem to be mainly designed for singles or couples. But they can be great places for kids to grow up, provided there are family friendly amenities such as outdoor common space for kids to run around in, and safe routes for kids to walk/bike to school.

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