Doug Saunders wrote about the uniquely Canadian phenomena, in North America at least, of having so many people live in suburban apartment buildings:
Forget the U.S.-generated image of suburban lawns versus downtown density: We’re a nation of peri-urban apartment dwellers. Ottawa has more apartment buildings than Dallas, and most are midtown; Edmonton has more than Boston. Toronto’s outskirts are the North American leaders in elevator suburbia: Between Hamilton and Ajax, Ont., there are more than 2,000 of these cement towers, housing more than a million people; one in five residents of Canada’s largest urban area lives in one.
Today’s suburban condo boom is in many ways related to yesterday’s apartment boom. Many of today’s large development companies got their start in the 1960s and 1970s. Canada’s planning culture also continues to play a role in encouraging intensification and denser communities. I would argue it’s not a coincidence that the region that experienced the continents largest apartment boom in the 1960s and 1970s is experiencing the continents largest condo boom in the 2000s and 2010s.
Why did apartment buildings become so popular in Canadian cities? University of Toronto Professor Paul Hess argues that it was more lucrative to build apartments. Subdivision developers would have to build local streets, public infrastructure and sidewalks according to strict rules and regulation. But suburban apartment developers were not required to install such amenities. Apartment buildings also generated a lot more tax revenue per hectare than single-family homes.
Several years ago I examined the town of Cote Saint-Luc on the island of Montreal and found that apartment buildings brought in four times as much revenue per hectare than single family homes (see chart). Therefore, the suburban apartment became an attractive alternative for speculative builders and municipalities desperately looking to increase their taxes revenues and subsides the amenities and quality of life of the single family homes.
However, this isn’t the entire story. Apartments are just as lucrative in the US as Canada, but the US did not experience the same kind of suburban apartment boom. This is because the structure of the development industry and the planning cultures in Canada was much more favourable to high-rise living. Greg Stuttor writes, the US had more diverse range of companies in the development industry who focused mostly on suburban housing. Meanwhile, Canadian markets, such as Toronto’s, were dominated by half a dozen large companies that built apartment blocks for both the private and public sectors. Canadian developers also operated under a planning regime that was more influenced by the British vision of towers in the park. Graeme Stewart does an excellent job documenting the relationship and influence of British expats on Toronto’s post-war suburban development in his article on The Suburban Tower And Toronto’s First Mass Housing Boom.
The legacy of the first generation of builders and planners remains with us. The Canadian landscape, from Quebec to Winnipeg has been shaped by their ideas and choices. The pattern continues today. Instead of rental apartments Canadian cities have been rapidly building condominiums in the suburbs, guaranteeing that Canadian cities will continue to lead North America in elevator suburbs.