May 23, 2002
This is the third in a five-part series on what should be done about our cities. Part Three: Deregulate planning and let demand dictate development.
How many people should Toronto’s government let into the city, to live as residents? This question will become a hot issue next week, when Toronto’s chief planner will formally propose liberalizing the city’s current housing quotas, which have effectively curtailed growth in the city’s population to its current level of about 2.5 million. If he gets his way, up to 1 million more people will be allowed to make Toronto their home.
Toronto is hardly unique as a place to which large numbers of Canadians yearn to move. If they weren’t held back through similar quota systems, Canadians would also be flocking to Vancouver, Calgary, and other cities in much larger numbers. But no metropolitan region in Canada attracts more newcomers than Toronto every year – at current growth rates, Toronto’s metropolitan area will soon pass Chicago to become the fourth largest on the continent, after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. And no city at the heart of a metropolitan area is more prepared than Toronto to dramatically dismantle the wall of laws that impede newcomers from entering the city and making it their home.
Toronto’s current "official plan" is an incoherent morass of 112 different land use designations, more than 120 secondary plans, and 1,300 site specific exemptions. By controlling where housing can be built, the number of housing units permitted to be built there, and their size, the city’s population became a matter for politicians and bureaucrats to determine, rather than the laws of supply and demand operating in a free market for real estate. Under the radical planning proposals to be presented next week, this hodgepodge – whose main purpose was to preserve the status quo for those leery of change – will be swept away by a new, simplified official plan with just six land use designations. Through their more flexible, deregulated approach, Toronto’s planners hope to clear away roadblocks to the more intensive development that the Toronto marketplace demands.
Although the new official plan is a sensible retreat from planning excess, the retreat is modest. Property owners will still be barred from subdividing their land in most of the city, for example, and punitive taxes on apartment buildings will continue to discourage the higher density living that would naturally result from less government interference in people’s living decisions. With full deregulation, Toronto’s population would increase by several million, not by just one, before reaching a happy equilibrium.
But even an increase of 1 million people spread out over 30 years, as the new official plan contemplates, will draw the ire of local ratepayers, community activists and the politicians who will seek to profit from fear of change. They will argue that the city will become less livable if its neighbourhoods are swamped with people, and that their property values will be harmed. They will argue that traffic congestion will become unmanageable and that the environment will be compromised. And they will be wrong.
Affluent city neighbourhoods, including those without high-rises, tend to have high population densities. Their critical mass of people allows local bakeries and other neighbourhood shops to be viable, and their taxes make possible a choice in the local parks, schools and community centres available to their families. High population density also creates a sense of neighbourhood and the social cohesion that marks high density communities, making them especially desirable places that command high property values.
More importantly for the rest of society, high density urban communities help solve one of the most vexing problems facing cities: traffic congestion, and the environmental and economic waste it brings. People who live in central city communities have transportation choices unavailable to those who live in low-density suburbs, let alone small towns and rural areas. Only in the big city do affluent people forgo automobile ownership, because only the big city offers a richness of choice, including in transportation options.
Let me walk you through two Toronto districts: King-Parliament just east, and King-Spadina, just west, of Toronto’s downtown core. Residents of these districts – which were themselves recently deregulated to allow their factories and office buildings to be converted to housing – live in everything from modern lofts to 19th-century row houses, most within a 15-minute walk, or a 10-minute public transit ride, of some 400,000 jobs. They also enjoy nearby shopping, eating and entertainment facilities unmatched in most of the country. Because the car is dispensable, 38% don’t own or lease one. Those who do own cars often leave them at home: Only one-third of the commutes from these two districts, and less than half of other trips, occur by automobile.
Less time lost in traffic. Less pollution. Less money tied up in transportation. For the real estate marketplace, all this adds up to more efficient living arrangements and a higher quality of life that also explain the higher property values. These factors apply to Toronto and every other major Canadian city, to New York and London and major cities in every other major Western country.
Toronto’s planners, who are well ahead of the public and the politicians on this one, understand that housing in downtown residential districts is pricey because its demand outstrips its supply. They know what cities looked like before the era of planners – they resembled the dense, gentrified neighbourhoods that planners now work so hard to protect – and they know that the old city districts, in many respects, functioned much better than the modern low-density districts, planned around the automobile in a utopian belief that freedom of the road would not come with countervailing costs.
Because the marketplace isn’t allowed to operate freely, to bring modern supply in line with modern demand, the planners are attempting the next best thing. Using history as their guide, they are simulating the ideal work and living arrangements that might otherwise have resulted, had people been left to their own devices.
Other articles in this series:
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part One:
Globalization equals urbanization
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part Two:
Don’t tax, toll
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part Four:
Learning the wrong lessons from U.S. cities
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part Five:
Advice to cities: take control of your province