Editorial: Growing Up Fast

A symposium convened by the Master of Architecture students at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Department of Architectural Science asked: how can urban design and architecture in development hubs better address the growth of Toronto?

Toronto is the fastest-growing city in the developed world—a fact evidenced by real estate prices that remain well beyond affordability thresholds despite interest rate hikes, and towers that continue to crop up across the city. In late 2022, the city had 252 cranes operating on construction sites, by far the largest number in any North American city. (The runner up, Los Angeles, had 51).

Photo courtesy TMU


This rapid growth is a prime concern for architects, as well as for students of architecture in the city. A recent exhibition at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design asked: how can the suburbs absorb more density? Meanwhile, a symposium convened by the Master of Architecture students at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Department of Architectural Science asked: how can urban design and architecture in development hubs better address this growth?

For urban affairs journalist John Lorinc, one of the panellists at the TMU symposium, Toronto’s anti-density mindset dates back to the city’s roots as a colonial city which placed a high premium on homeownership and private property. “Vestiges of this are baked into how the city thinks about things,” he says, citing Toronto’s lack of major public places, and a suspicion of apartment buildings as housing lower-income folks and others who would make for undesirable neighbours. NIMBY-ism among homeowners, who dominate the tax and voter base, is rampant, and “the political system rewards politicians who defend the status quo,” he adds.

Photo courtesy TMU


Architect Peter Clewes, principal at architectsAlliance, further explains that in 2006, the Ontario government directed a large amount of the province’s growth in the coming 25 years towards the GTA, but that the City of Toronto did not enact wholesale zoning changes to accommodate this growth. “So effectively, there is no zoning regime,” he says, explaining that developers must undergo a lengthy zoning application and negotiation for virtually every individual mid-rise and high-rise building in the city. 

Graig Uens, who worked as an urban planner with the City of Toronto for 12 years before recently moving to the private sector, says that part of the solution is a need to reframe planning practice. “Politics has grown to be too great an influence in our work,” he says, describing how difficult—yet crucial—it is for city planners to provide their best professional advice to City Council, rather than defaulting to the responses that councillors would like to hear. “How can we think of housing as infrastructure, and how can we be more flexible in where we grow?” he asks, suggesting that more nodes of density would enable interesting things to happen in a greater number of places. 

Urbanist and former mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa calls for a “renovation revolution” that would allow houseowners to subdivide their properties into four units as an as-of-right, ending exclusionary zoning. He also suggests imitating the example of Melbourne, where all transportation corridors into the suburbs were densified, allowing for buildings six to 12 storeys in height. In Toronto, this would open space for 1.2 million units, he says, and making it an as-of-right would save developers two to three years of “expensive negotiations, lawyers, and banks.”

Photo courtesy TMU


The need to increase density in a systematic way is urgent, all of the panellists agree. Architect Naama Blonder, principal of Smart Density, says that “grey is green,” explaining that the greatest single thing that Toronto can do, from a sustainability perspective, is to densify. Clewes says that even with their heavily glazed façades, the typical condo unit only experiences 12 percent of the heat loss of a single-family detached home—let alone the emissions benefits that come from expending less embodied energy on construction, and less fuel on personal transportation. Blonder is living the urban lifestyle herself, raising her family, including two kids, in a 92-square-metre condo, with no car—an arrangement she notes would be very common in many of the world’s major cities.

The City has made some strides in the past few years: the removal of parking minimums is notable for several of the panellists. But the wholesale removal of swaths of regulations brought about by the recently passed Bill 23 may not be the ideal way to proceed, either; one of the effects of that legislation is to encourage growing sprawl by removing important environmental protections. 

Ultimately, the fast-growing population of Toronto may be part of the solution: 47 percent of the city’s population was born abroad, and on the whole, the city’s population is younger than the rest of Canada. The city’s new residents, like its architecture students, come with the expectation—and, indeed, the demand—that the city does better, for the envi­ronment, as well as for all those who live here.