The Recession has Changed the Geography of Growth


The great recession appears to have had a significant affect on how North America’s major cities are growing. Since 2009, more growth is happening in walkable transit oriented communities than on the edges of metropolitan areas.

Christopher B. Leinberger & Patrick Lynch, from the George Washington University School of Business, have tracked growth in major cities the United States and have found that growth patterns have shifted significantly since the recession. For example,

“Both Metro Miami and Atlanta sprawled faster than most metro areas for decades. In this real-estate cycle, which began in 2009, these two metros indicated a fundamental shift from drivable suburban office development to walkable urban, as their [walkable neighbourhoods] are rapidly increasing their share of the office market.”

The same trends observed by Leinberger and Lynch in the United States can be observed in Toronto. People increasingly want to live in walkable neighbourhoods. The Pembina Institute in a recent survey found that an astounding 81% of people in the Greater Toronto Area would prefer to live in a neighbourhood where they can walk to stores and had frequent and reliable transit service.

This stated preference is playing out in what is happening on the ground. Construction has shifted from the drivable suburban developments to walkable urban development. For example, over the last four years, over 40% of all new units were built in the city of Toronto, a significantly higher percentage than at any time in the last 30 years.

GTA-Toronto Completions

Downtown Toronto has become the fastest growing area in the Greater Toronto Area. Between 2006 and 2011 downtown grew at four times the rate of the rest of the city of Toronto.

In addition to the significant amount of residential development, there is 5.2 million square feet of office space being built in downtown Toronto, which is slightly less then one-third (31%) of all office space currently under construction in all of Canada. This is a significant change from the early 2000s when downtown Toronto was experiencing almost no office growth. CBD Office Space Construction

Five years is not a lot of time. Yet, it is becoming clear that in Toronto, and across North America, the geography of growth has fundamentally shifted. People want to live in neighbourhoods where driving is a choice and where you can take transit or walk to work. These people are now transforming the geography of growth in the Greater Toronto Area, and across North America.


Is Vaughan a Suburb?


Is Vaughan a Suburb?

What is a suburb? This is a question that I often explore in this blog and was tackled by the Globe and Mail’s public editor, Sylvia Stead.

A resident of Vaughan wrote to the Globe arguing that Vaughan is not a suburb of Toronto but instead a city in its own right with a Mayor, and asked the paper to  print a correction. This led the Stead to ask:

So can you establish a rule for the use of the word suburb? Do we avoid the word when referring to cities, but not to towns or villages? Does this apply more to Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area than to other municipalities in the city?

Stead soon found out was that it was not a simple question, which reflects why over the last fifty years researchers, writers, and many others have grappled with defining suburbs, cities, and the places in between.

The Globe and Mail’s stylebook listed the suburbs of Vancouver in great detail as well as those of Montreal more generally, but was silent on Toronto’s (perhaps the book needs updating?). So what did Stead conclude after consulting the stylebook, dictionary, and her colleagues? She thought,

the description could have been “Vaughan, a suburb north of Toronto” or “Vaughan, a city north of Toronto. Both of those wordings are better because they do not suggest that Vaughan is part of Toronto, as in the original “the Toronto suburb of Vaughan.”

Yet, Ryerson University politics and public administration professor Myer Siemiatycki was able to convince Stead that perhaps Vaughan could be described as a suburb of Toronto. Siemiatycki’s argument was that,

“Its location, land use, auto reliance, socio-cultural texture and attachment to Toronto (they cheer for the Leafs, they rise and fall with Toronto’s economic condition) – all these qualify Vaughan and other neighbouring municipalities as Toronto suburbs.”

None of these descriptions is wrong, but they each evoke strong social and economic assumptions about a place, which is perhaps why the reader from Vaughan reacted so strongly to the Globe’s description.

Generally I feel it’s important that we move away from the  urban/suburban dichotomy because our urban areas have become far more complex then the simple urban/suburban narrative suggests.

Therefore, I would suggest describing Vaughan as a city within the Greater Toronto Area. This removes the offending word, suburb, but also firmly attaches Vaughan to the geographic, social and economic texture of the Toronto region.

Your thoughts?



A Jane’s Walk: Estonian Architects and Their Buildings in Midtown Toronto

20 Prince Arthur, Designed by Uno Prii's and Harry Hiller

20 Prince Arthur, Designed by Uno Prii and Harry Hiller

On Sunday, the Estonian Studies Centre  hosted its first Jane’s Walk, “Estonian Architects and Their Buildings in Midtown Toronto“.  The walk, led by  Toronto Architect Käbi Lokk, was an excellent sample of Estonian architecture in Toronto’s Annex and Yorkville neighbourhoods.

During the walk, we looked at the work of four Estonian architects who fled their occupied homeland in the late 1940s. These architects have had a tremendous influence  on Toronto’s postwar architectural style and midtown Toronto.

The pioneer of this group was Mihkel (Michael) Bach. Bach studied architecture in Berlin before the Second World War. In 1949, while living in Sweden, he met a visiting professor from the University  of Toronto’s School of Architecture. The professor encouraged Bach to come to Toronto to join the faculty of modern architecture, which was still in it’s formative years. Bach brought a modernist architectural style from Western Europe to Toronto and is said to have played an important role in the design of Victoria College’s Wymilwood Residence.

Bach would also recruit another Estonian architect with a modernist Scandinavian style, Ants Elken to the University of Toronto. Elken would teach architecture at the University for 33 years. Unfortunately, while Bach had some significant influence on modernism in Toronto in the 1950s, he struggled with personal issues and faded from the Toronto architectural scene in the early 1960s.

However, many Estonians followed Bach and Elken to the University of Toronto School of Architecture in the 1950s, including Uno Prii,  Elmar Tampõld, and Henno Sillaste, whose buildings Lokk highlighted during our walk.

Uno Prii graduated from the University of Toronto in 1955. Prii’s imaginative buildings are often described as “Space Aged,” and have been recognized by many architects today for their uniqueness. The City of Toronto named 13 of Prii’s buildings to to the  Inventory of Heritage Properties in 2004, including 20 Prince Arthur Ave., pictured above.

Also well known, but perhaps not as celebrated are the works of Elmar Tampõld, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1953. Working with his firm Tampõld and Wells, he was involved with numerous projects along Bloor Street West. These include the brutalist Senator David Croll apartments and Tartu College, both near Spadina and Bloor. Tartu College remains a centre for Estonian cultural life in the city and is a major student residence.

The Senator David Croll apartments, formally know as  Rochdale College, are infamous. As the nexus of hippy culture and later drug culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s the building has become an important cultural landmark. 

While I was familiar with both Tartu and the David Croll apartments, I was unaware of Tampõld’s connection to the Colonnade Building, a luxury mixed-use building along the “mink mile“.

The building was one of the first significant mixed-used projects in Toronto and perhaps Canada. The Toronto’s Star’s architecture critic, Christopher Hume, nicely summarizes what makes the building such an innovation,

“What lifted the Colonnade above the modernist orthodoxies that homogenized the face of cities around the globe was its deep sensitivity to context. A two- and three-storey podium runs along Bloor, which means a continuous streetscape, a critical element in this heavy shopping environment. It also connects Bloor to the open green space behind and Charles St.

Most of the Estonians on the tour who grew up in Toronto during the 1960s fondly remembered the Colonnade and its Estonian confectionary Amjärve. The store apparently once occupied the same space that is now home to Cartier.

During our tour we also took a look at 1132 Bay Street, which was designed by Henno Sillaste, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1960. 1132 Bay Street was a condominium built in the 1980s. While not a remarkable building, Sillaste was a well known as an expert in curtain-wall systems.

In one of those great examples of how immigration influences both the host country and country of origin,  Sillaste introduced the curtain-wall system to Estonian architects in the 1990s. As a result, the curtain wall is known as a Kanada sein (Canadian Wall) in Estonia.

Lokk ended our tour by discussing a more recent vision to raise the profile of Estonians in Toronto and preserve the legacy of the first generation of the community. The Centre for Estonian Studies is planning a Museum of Estonians Abroad (VEMU), which would be built as an addition to Tartu College.

The museum and archive could be part of the cultural corridor that stretches along Bloor from University Avenue to Bathurst Street and includes the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Royal Ontario Museum, and other cultural centres such as the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto . Thomas Tampõld, Elmar’s Tampõld son, designed the proposed addition to Tartu College. An excellent example of how a second generation of Canadian-Estonian Architects are now making their mark on midtown Toronto.

Museum of Estonian's Abroad (Väliseesti Muuseum - VEMU)

Rendering of the Proposed Museum of Estonian’s Abroad (VEMU)

Get Ready For a Planet of Suburbs

Photo by urbanfeel

The planet is going to need a lot more room for cities and suburbs. The Lincoln Institutes’s report on “Making Room for a Planet of Cities” illustrates this vividly. The report  examines where and how quickly cities have and will grow in the past, present, and future.

One of the most interesting findings is that cities all around the world are becoming less dense. In fact, average global urban densities peaked in 1894! Densities have been falling for a very long time, and many decades before the car really began to dominate.

However, not only are densities falling, but cities are growing. Almost three billion people are expected to move to cities by 2050, doubling the number of people in cities globally.

The Lincoln Institute estimates that anywhere between an extra 600,000 to 2.6 million square kilometres of land will be urbanized by 2050, up from 600,000 square kilometres today.

Looking at those numbers and the history of urban growth the authors conclude that because so many global cities are growing very quickly, growth boundaries, like green belts, are a bad idea. They may work in the rich and slower growing places, but in regions where the population of cities is expected to double and triple they make no sense. Greenbelts would only make sprawl worse by forcing people to move outside the green belt creating a city that would sprawl even more. 

One surprising recommendations for a Toronto reader to note is that the authors suggests that Toronto, a city with one of the largest greenbelts in North America, is a model for responsible sprawl because the city has grown along a regular grid of arterial streets. The report says:

For an arterial grid to function as the road network for a public transport system three conditions must hold: (1) residential densities must be sufficiently high to sustain public transport; (2) the roads need to be spaced not more than one kilometer apart, so the great majority of people can walk to a bus stop from any location in less than 10 minutes,… and (3) the width of the rights-of-way for the roads needs to be on the order of 20–30 meters.

The model:

Toronto is one city that has been able to build and maintain an effective public transportation system that extends along an arterial road grid far into the suburbs, and it now boasts the third-largest transit system in North America

Toronto a model for global suburban growth? What do you think?

Suburban Corporate Wasteland


Good piece on WNPR radio in Connecticut about the future of suburban office parks. There is a growing concern in the United States about large office parks built during the 1970s and 1980s. Many businesses are moving downtown and leaving their old headquarters vacant, leaving fears of a “Suburban Corporate Wasteland” in their wake.

While the piece focuses on a handful of sites in Connecticut, Toronto has recently seen high-profile businesses move to core from the suburbs. For example, Coca-Cola is moving downtown, leaving its “mad men” era building in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. Other companies that have made or are about to make the move include SNC-Lavalin, Google, Deloitte, and Telus. This has lead to articles such as “Why corporation are flocking back to downtown Toronto.”

The Urban Land Institute has picked up on the trend and is bearish on suburban office markets in Toronto. Their 2014 Emerging Trends in Real Estate states that:

“‘Related to the trend of urban intensification, suburban office is a declining commodity that has no staying power,’ says an interviewee. Suburban office is becoming less competitive as companies return to the urban core and companies take less space. As this space becomes vacant and needs to be refurbished to be competitive, the suburban market softens even further.”

So are Toronto’s office parks likely to become corporate wastelands?

I’m not ready to write them off yet. A recent Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) report provides a very detailed assessment of the evolution of the office market in the GTA. The CUI argues convincingly that the statistics do not prove that the 25 year trend of significant office growth in the suburbs is slowing. 

While demand is shifting to the core it hasn’t disappeared from Toronto’s suburb. Yes, vacancy rates are higher in the suburbs than downtown, 7.8% versus 4.6%. But as seen in the chart below most of the new office space built since the 1990s has been in the suburbs. With so much growth in supply it’s not surprising that vacancy rates are higher.

Cumulative Totals of GTA Office Space 1910-2010 by the Canadian Urban Institute (Click to Enlarge)

Cumulative Totals of GTA Office Space 1910-2010 by the Canadian Urban Institute (Click to Enlarge)
Note: 905 and 416 are Torono Telephone Area Codes. 905 is shorthand for those areas that have grown quickly since the 1970s. 416 for those areas that grew from the 19th century to the 1960s . 

Furthermore, while major moves to the core are attracting attention, building has continued in the suburbs. Major companies such as SNC-Lavalin, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Novartis Animal Health have been expanding or adding new offices in suburban centres such as Meadowvale and in Mississauga Town Centre.

While suburban office parks are becoming corporate waste lands in Connecticut, in Toronto it looks as if they are here to stay. The challenge in the GTA won’t become how to deal with large vacant office campuses, but how to bring transit and amenities into these areas so they can stay competitive and become more adaptable, diverse, and accessible.

Toronto in a deep freeze

Stunning image by Scott Rogers of Toronto yesterday following this weeks devastating ice storm. Ice as far as the eye can see. It’s also a quintessential image of Toronto, with its strong contrast between low rise and high rise postwar neighbourhoods.

My uncle, grandmother, and father are still without power four days later. Christmas service at my church was in the dark. Luckily we’ve been able to find a warm space for our family and we were able to enjoy a peaceful and warm Christmas. I hope power is restored soon to those without it. I am also very thankful to all the people working over the holidays to restore power.


Southern Ontario’s Geography of Innovation

Comparison of Toronto Waterloo Region and Silicon Valley San Francisco Corridors

Click to Enlarge

The cities of Southern Ontario are doubling down on innovation clusters and commuter rail to help drive the growth of downtown’s and meet the employment and density targets set out in the Places to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

A City of Guelph business case to invest in a two-way urban commuter rail line between the City of Toronto and the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener, and Guelph focuses on supporting and developing innovation clusters.

The business case draws parallels to the  Silicon Valley regional economy, which led to the very interesting map above that shows the similar geographic size and scale of both clusters.

The most significant noted difference between the two regions is that Silicon Valley has a two-way commuter rail service, while the Toronto-Waterloo corridor does not.

The City of Guleph argues that  to truly compete with Silicon Valley the Province of Ontario must invest in regional transit to improve regional connectivity:

Two-way GO Train service would be a catalyst in converting the current, disconnected startup ecosystems into one large and internationally competitive corridor of innovation. This connected supercluster would have the capacity to compete head-on with not only Silicon Valley, but other global markets. It would generate sufficient productivity and employment gains, and related corporate and personal income tax growth, to finance the capital and operating cost of the required rail infrastructure. It would also accelerate urban intensification and enhance sustainability — both key provincial objectives.

The plans below show that the cities of Guelph, Waterloo, and Kitchener expect that regional rail and the Region of Waterloo’s LRT (ION), which is now under construction, will anchor their city centres and lead to a significant redevelopment of vacant and underutilized land.

(Click the Images to Enlarge)

Why is transit and rail such an important part of the plan to support the innovation clusters?

Planning scholars Daniel Chatman and Robert Noland  have shown that there is a strong relationship between wage increases and the availability of transit. Specifically:

“wage increases range from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion per metropolitan area yearly for  a 10 per cent increase in transit seats or rail service miles per capita”

As a result the City of Guelph estimates that investing in full-day, two-way regional rail service between Waterloo and Toronto will have a regional impact of $838 million in personal income tax annually. In addition to those benefits it will help these cities develop their downtowns.

Whether that would lead to more vibrant downtown is still a matter of debate.  But overall, the business case for improving connections in the region is very compelling and worth exploring.

After the Storm: Learning from July 8th, 2013

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel transformed Toronto. The scale of the storm’s devastation forced the city, its residents, and leaders to rethink urban development regulations and to significantly invest in infrastructure to prevent a similar disaster. That investment paid off last week.

Hurricane Hazel revealed many of the city’s vulnerabilities. The lack of serious injury, loss of life, or major damage following the record rainfall on July 8th is a testament to the lessons learned, and actions taken after 1954.  Now it’s time to assess some of the lessons we can learn from this storm, so we can be prepared for the next one. Two major areas for improvement became evident last week, our hydro system and our stormwater system.

Our hydro system

The city’s hydro system is vulnerable to major weather events. During last week’s storm, tens of thousands of people had no power for 48 hours. It’s estimated that 300,000 people in the GTA were without power at one point.  The primary reason for the outage was that one of the two hydro supply points in the city, Manby Transformer Station, experienced serious flooding.


Manby and Leaside Transformer Stations are the city’s two supply points
Source: Navigant Consulting Ltd.

Policies and investments should be promoted to build resilience into the hydro system. These can include building another supply point to reduce our dependence and increase the systems flexibility. Chicago, a city of comparable size has five supply points, and Vancouver has nine supply points. I do not think it’s impossible to imagine a scenario, such as an ice storm, where both transfer stations could be compromised.

Another strategy is to produce more power locally in smaller facilities. Markham has built a four-megawatt station, which can serve the Markham-Stouffville regional hospital in case of an outage. The plant is so small the Globe and Mail writes it “looks like an extension of an adjoining parking garage.”

We are also reaching a point where in the next twenty-years when most new buildings could power themselves.  Improving the energy efficiency and adding solar panels means that new buildings could produce more energy than they use. This could add significant resilience to our power grid.

Stormwater Management System

Monday’s storm was an excellent example of having too much water flowing into our sewers and streams. The Don River rose so fast that the GO Transit system had no warning, stranding over a 1,000 people on one commuter train in the Don River Valley.


Water levels at the Don Valley East Branch hydrometric station near Thornhill July 8, 2013
Source: Globe and Mail

As we pave over more of the region we are seeing more flash floods. The July 8th storm was the second this summer that led to a flash flood in the Don Valley. Urban growth is contributing to this. In 1990, 70% of the Don River watershed was impervious. Today it’s closer to 85%. Every year, more water runs into the river instead of into the ground. As a result, the water flows faster and rises higher.

There are many ways to reduce the amount of impervious surfaces and increase the amount of water that can be absorbed by the ground. In Chicago, over 200 laneways have been retrofitted with permeable paving to let water seep into the ground.  New York is building bioswales, essentially large planter buried in the street, to soak up water before it ends up in the sewers.

New York City Bioswale by ChrisHamby

New York City Bioswale
by ChrisHamby

Seattle, echoing the innovations that will allow buildings to produce their own power, is experimenting with removing buildings from the water grid. At one school, the Seattle Times writes:

The classroom toilet composts and treats waste on site rather than flushing it into city sewer pipes. Water washed down sinks doesn’t flow into storm drains but recirculates to a 14-foot high wall filled with plants, which will eventually soak it all up. For now, excess flows through the wall.

Large-scale engineering solutions and strong land use controls significantly reduced the risk of flooding in Toronto region in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, looking forward our main challenge will be to improve resilience when these systems fail. We don’t need a couple of big solutions; we need thousands of smaller ones. They require building local capacity by educating residents, and training designers, engineers, and tradespeople to deal with water and power in our homes and neighbourhoods.  This will enable us to be better prepared us for the next storm.

Toronto is Getting Rid of Some Parking

Sheppard Restaurant

Planners in Toronto are going to have an interesting May. Council is debating whether to approve a new casino on the 21st and will also likely debate revenue tools to fund 50 years of transit expansion. While both important issues are being debated, the most significant change in Toronto’s planning system since amalgamation will quietly come into force. On May 8th, Council will enact a new consolidated zoning by-law. Almost a decade in the making, the by-law is three volumes and 1,743 pages. It’s size, complexity, and language mean it really has not gotten the attention it deserves, yet arguably it will have a far more significant impact on the city than the Casino. Generally, the document is pretty conservative and replicates many of the existing by-laws. However, on page 251, Table has a set of rules that should significantly reduce the amount of parking that the City requires, especially along major transit corridors.

The impact of the new parking regulations will be felt most in the former cities of Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough. I estimate that in places like North York, apartments and condominiums projects are going to see a significant reduction in required parking spots. The chart below shows some estimates comparing the approved spaces for six mid-rise buildings along Sheppard Avenue West with an estimate of how many would be required under the new by-law. With a below ground parking space costing $30,000, an average 15% reduction in the amount required could have a noticeable impact on affordability.

Sample Approved Parking Spots Estimated Required Parking Spots Under New By-law Reduction
Building 1




Building 2




Building 3




Building 4




Building 5




Building 6








The change should also make it easier to find better commercial tenants for mixed-use buildings. The by-law is introducing more flexible requirements for smaller retail, personal services, grocery, and eating establishments. All eating establishments, grocery stores, and retail less than 200 square metres (2,152 sq. ft.) require no mandatory parking spots! For some perspective, under the old 1952 by-law it was essentially impossible to have a restaurant in a new condo in North York without a significant parking exemption.The 1952 North York by-law requires 10.20 to 16.95 spots per 100 square metres. Therefore, the owner of a restaurant with a gross floor area of 199 square metres would need to have 21 spots. Under the new zoning by-law, the same restaurant owner can open with zero parking. See why this might shake things up?

Type Old North York By-law (spot per 100 GFA) New Consolidated By-law
Mixed-use Building (residential only)

1.50 (unit)

0.90 (1 bed)

1.00 (2 bed)

1.20 (3 bed)




Medical Office




3.57 – 6.67

0 – 6.00

Eating Establishment

10.20 – 16.95

0 – 5.00

The new by-law also establishes parking maximums. Anyone building anything in Toronto under the old by-law can propose to build as much parking as they want. For example, the owner of the 199 square meter restaurant can choose to provide 100 spots. Under the new by-law, where a maximum exists the number of spots will be capped.

It will be interesting to see how the development industry and property owners adapt to the new by-law. But one thing is certain, the city has gotten a much needed reduction in its parking minimums. Not a significant enough change to satisfy the Shoupistas, but definitely enough to effect the way the city will look, feel and move.