There is no coincidence that as the fastest growing urban region on the continent, the Toronto region is tracking to become the least affordable metropolitan area on the continent. It’s a worrying fact that every highly successful urban economy in the world has left its poorest residents on the losing side of this prosperity, not to mention its middle class. Must this be the Toronto region’s destiny? Is there a missing piece in our growth equation that can address this universal urban economic failure?
Amazing work and leadership is being undertaken by an array of organizations, progressive developers, academics and government to bend this dangerous trajectory. It’s widely recognized that there are no silver bullets, and that solutions are found in myriad actions from inclusionary zoning to community benefit agreements. But are we fully harnessing the full potential of a growth trajectory that will see Toronto’s population swell to larger than Los Angeles’s by mid-century? Do we even have a proper handle on what this potential is?
A recent panel at Ryerson University’s City Building Institute featured Vancouver’s renowned former Chief Planner, Larry Beasley. Beasley bragged that his city had the foresight to capture much of the land value increases associated with development. This has enabled Vancouver to build first rate public amenities from libraries to parks, not to mention design excellence. Much of this, he noted, was achieved through the pursuit of co-ventures between the city and the development community.
Without a doubt Toronto must learn from Vancouver. Our current approach of development charges, parks and public art levies, and Section 37 extractions is often a confrontational and reluctant dynamic. Rarely are we maximizing the full potential to advance either private or public interests. But is the Vancouver model adequate? Yes, Toronto could have done better co-venturing with the development community, but surely we do not want to follow our western sister down the housing affordability track. We can certainly take lessons from Canada’s Pacific Coast jewel, but we need to do much, much better.
We need to seize the extraordinarily limited opportunity that we have today before we implement the new provincial regional growth plan and development approval policies introduced in 2017. These reforms require all municipalities to align their official plans to direct massive increase in development and (in theory) require municipalities to implement these policies.
Add to this the $35 billion Metrolinx-led transit investments—the most significant in North America—and other major public capital investments. Taken together, we should be on the brink of the largest increase ever of private property value and development rights. What are we seeking in return?
I am calling for a macroeconomic hack-a-thon.
Let’s quantify the land value uplift that our region will experience over the coming decades, value that is above and beyond that which would be achieved under status quo policies and land rights. Next, let’s imagine a made-in-Toronto strategy to leverage this growth and maximize public benefit, including both civic amenities and affordability. This exercise must reconcile the development industry’s need for more streamlined, cost effective processes to build the housing and commercial projects, while achieving these defined public benefits.
There will always be “details” to be fussed over. But if we can prove to ourselves that a win-win scenario exists at the macro level, detailed policy work will have a map to follow. We are otherwise lost in the woods, picking our way through the trees that have trapped every other economically successful city.
We have proven to ourselves over and over that the development of land is a force that can deliver both economic vitality and public good. The exciting redevelopment of Regent Park and Alexandra Park are two great micro examples. The growing portfolio of Arstcape projects is another.