Toronto, the largest city in Canada located on the shore of Lake Ontario, has been going through a major metamorphosis, a significant one that reminds us of New York City in the mid-20th century. Indeed, its current tendency of population growth is projecting from 6.3 million in 2011 to 9 million by 2036 in the Greater Toronto Area. Without doubt, within 20 or 30 years, the GTA is expected be the fourth biggest metropolitan area in North America surpassing Philadelphia, Dallas and even Chicago with Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City on the top of the list.


Ontario (provincial) government has imposed an absolute restriction of urban sprawl beyond the “Greenbelt” a permanently protected strip of natural heritage land since 2005, including over 700 thousands hectares of nature, forest and farmlands,  in order to contain this dramatic demographic growth within existing footprint, to minimize the impact on the environment. ( Toronto has to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by mid 21st century.) Indeed, while this greenbelt is the most successful one in the world, its effective containment of urban sprawl within the limit has a direct impact on the densification of the city core. Actually, the downtown densification is merely a very recent shift in the demographic flow, since less than eight years; many decades prior, major exodus for seeking suburban life seemed to be the trend, however the vector is clearly now reversed to the opposite direction. Beyond the Greenbelt legislation, truth is that many other factors are contributing to this shift, combined with the trendy highly-educated/skilled younger population of “echo boomers” seeking for a more convenient location to live in term of easy access to transit, work and amenities, instead of more affordable housing in the outer suburbs. The new generation is more likely to change career than the baby boomers, which leads to seeking commuting flexibility. This desire for these young people or the large waves of immigrants with economic resource, to live in or nearby the city core has thus led to this demographic return to the urban core. Consequently, additional to the 50 thousands new condo units in downtown core that have all been built, sold and occupied from 2000 to 2011, from when 90 thousands extra units have been approved as of 2013.


Hence, one can easily notice all the cranes and construction sites while visiting downtown Toronto at any time, since some years. The number of construction projects is among the top-class if not the highest in North-America. In June 2014, the number of condominium construction projects has reached 154 in the city of Toronto, which is equivalent to more than 46 thousand units, while most of them belong to highrise towers. 90% of these units were already sold by then, a clear statement that it is positive tangency that is promised to be more than stable at least for another 10 years. This residential explosion also comes with growth in employment and businesses: its rate was -3.3% for downtown core, from 2000 to 2005, but, since the settlement of Greenbelt restriction from 2006, the growth rate has skyrocketed to 14.2%, an interesting correlation that justify the need to support the increasing demand for good and services.


The city has passed to a horizotal growth to vertical growth especially around the downtown core. Furthermore, the densification and the race to build in mass and higher to accommodate the “back to the core” trend in residential sector, which may be a practical solution, is a great story for developers and investors. It creates many jobs and investment; in one hand, it seem a positive development, for economy.  However, their interests does not equal to the ones of the new residents. It leads to a preparation to handle the hundreds of thousands of new residents and offer them a suitable liveability; Toronto must now face a substantial turning point, where architects and urban planners must critically plan ahead to overcome the challenges and struggles, fighting against this under planned and almost thoughtless extreme densification. Some deep thoughts for long-term effects are required.


At this rate, Toronto’s street culture is disappearing at least where the new highrise condominiums are getting built in a overhasty manner. It is disrupting the urban fabric of the city core, which is already disrupted by the railroad tracks splitting the city in north and south along the waterfront. This area of city is clearly in need of solutions for this problem, instead of blindly construct high density housings.


However, in a way, the vertical development isn’t the real problem, it lays in the quality of the neighbourhood. A neighbourhood where residents can socially engage. The mass concentration of single-use development is no different, or worse than the suburbs, where a massive amount of people are gathered in a despair way: a vibrant neighbourhood with mixed-use and mixed-income community is what should be aimed. As social beings, we need micro neighbourhoods that offers both work and housing, community and cultural spaces and retails, where sidewalks and ground floor facade are in reasonable, human scale with city street like atmosphere.


That being said, another critical problem is already surfacing in the city: urban infrastructure and public transit. As many Canadian cities, the investment in public transit is often weaker than it should be. With such unprecedented scale of obvious expansion, the city should move onto a preparation worthy of such said scale, acknowledging the fact that the current infrastructure and public transit is already meagre. The demographic growth both around and within GTA and the city core will lead to an steep increase commuters by train, bus and cars. Although the whole area of Union station with its monumental heritage building is going under a major revitalization project, one have to understand that the projected number of daily users of the station is going to triple within 20 years, from quarter of million to a three quarter of million, and that is for those using the public transit including subway, intercity trains, commuting regional trains, regional buses… Not only there is already a intense human traffic around rush hour in the narrow sidewalks around in the area and in the station, the increase in car traffic on the road is also to be expected without a doubt.


This overflow of human and vehicle traffic leads us to the problem of these highrise condominiums being constructed within the high traffic area and gridlock, many right along the major streets and expressway that also go through the downtown core. Even the construction of these buildings obliges to close the street to make the situation worse. This aspect combined with filling and packing the narrow lots and limited available lots in downtown core with super tall transparent curtain wall residences will lead to these units that are not only very few meters away from the expressway traffic at the same eye-level. Already few condo towers have units in this situation but due to the younger crowd of professional who tend to spend less time at home or some investors who never actually saw the units before purchasing them. Either way people live in these housings directly exposed to the exhaust gas emitted by the motor vehicles. They are main contributor to the air pollution that cannot be ignored. It is a serious issue, where 1300 premature deaths per year for this cause, of which 280 are due to the traffic-related pollution. Nonetheless, the densification in a walkable active core neighbourhoods with access to transit shouldn’t be ignored, especially in order to decrease the use of automobile. It has been observed that 45% of commuting within downtown is by walk, a healthier and more environmental friendly option, however, some will still have to do so within heavy traffic pollution.

Many other challenges can be listed. First, the lack of public facilities. If you carefully look at the city’s, all the new residential development around the southern core are in construction but the lack of actual space and green space in downtown with luxurious vegetation and parks is easily observable even throughout other parts of the city core. There is some large scale waterfront improvement proposals with parks and amenities, but due to the scale and disruption of the urban fabric, most of the residents will still have to walk many large blocs through awkward spaces with skyscrapers, highways and rail tracks to reach the waterfront area. Other public facilities will be required such as hospital, schools and civic centres. Moreover, there is an actual lack of skilled constructor for all the hasty constructions. Many projects are delayed and several new residents cannot move in even way after the expected date. The speedy construction also results in some faulty installation or cheap building parts. The most famous example was the balcony glass came off the railing and fell all the way to the street…


The urban centre densification is happening for the sake of sustainability. Some considerable management and planning along the growth are critically essential. However, the reality is not only that. One must not forget that the suburban expansion is existing all over the continent; Canada is still very considered a suburban nation with more than two-third of the population is living outside the main city area with majority of lower-density automobile-dependent developments. Some migration toward inner megalopolis is encouraged and happening but reversing all exodus is not an easy task. Better regional planning for sustainable suburbs will also be required…