Toronto: a unique city region with not-so-unique challenges

At first blush Toronto is any-city North America. Our commercial buildings, our leafy neighbourhoods, our housing projects and suburban cul de sacs, our vibrant marketplaces, our congested highways and car dominated streets, our parks and streetscapes, our architecture and urban design: all read very familiar to an outsider looking in. Yet closer inspection reveals a much different city: a city that has been shaped and molded by a different history and sensibility than its U.S. counterparts; a city with its eye on a very different future.

Some of Toronto’s story is more obvious and well known. Like most Canadian cities, Toronto never experienced the hollowing out associated with white-flight and the spaghetti of expressways to the suburbs. Instead, its proliferation of walkable urban neighbourhoods has attracted the widest range of old and new residents of all incomes. Toronto has its sprawling suburbs, but even these are much different than American suburbia, the result of decades of policies that ensured that outward growth was contiguous and urban intensification encouraged. Its overall population density rivals many European metros.

Toronto is an extraordinarily tall city with more residential high-rises than New York City and more active construction cranes and development applications than any other city in North America. Visibly, many of these towers are in the core, which continues to witness a near Asianic explosion of 60 to 90-plus story residential and commercial buildings. Also unique to North America are the inner and outer suburban residential towers, old and new, forming massive vertical villages across the region.

Toronto has the highest percentage of foreign born residents of any city in the world, which it has accommodated with deep urban pride, reflecting Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism (in contrast to the melting pot). Institutions like the public school and library system serve as a global model for diversity and inclusion. Failing institutions, like its half century old social housing projects are being reimagined and redeveloped on a scale beyond any other in the continent.

Toronto has a legacy of bold urbanism: the purposeful pursuit of city building designed to tackle challenges of building an economically competitive, liveable, environmentally sustainable and socially just urban society. From the institution of the world’s largest urban containment boundary (the Greenbelt) to the myriad of smaller triumphs of mixed-use genius, like the PATH system connecting the entire central business district with a maze of retail tunnels that serve a quarter million commuters daily.

Toronto has a deep track record of climate resiliency, with over a half century of policies to protect the city from severe weather events, to its deep-water cooling (of almost its entire commercial core) and suburban district energy infrastructure. The largest regional transit infrastructure expansion in North America is a decade underway. The city has quietly leaped into the forefront in its adoption of green and healthy building construction, and overall as a region it boasts the lowest dependency on carbon energy in North America, actually lowering its greenhouse gas emissions.

The city’s approach to embracing urban innovations and technology has a long history. Toronto was the first city in the world to adopt computerized traffic signaling, some 50 years ago. More recently, Sidewalk Labs is pioneering the most advanced urban innovations and smart city technologies in the world.

The list goes on, and we have much to celebrate about what is unique about Toronto urbanism. But in doing so, we must harness our urban swagger toward tackling the ever-mounting challenges that face all successful cities, including housing and living affordability, poverty and gridlock. All of these measures reveal a city in peril of decline. Through all its success, Toronto has become a poster child of Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis.

This fall, ULI Toronto will put a spotlight on Toronto urbanism, both celebrating our city region and challenging city builders to more effectively confront our urban challenges. It’s an opportunity to further prove that we are not just any city, but rather a beacon city for the world to see how urbanism can work for all. We’ve done well, but we must do better.


ULI Toronto Executive Director Richard Joy
ULI Toronto Executive Director Richard Joy


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