On June 13th, members of ULI Toronto and the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) gathered for the 6th annual WLI Championship Team Celebration.
The event, moderated by Bonny McLoud (Co-Managing Director, Gensler), featured an impressive panel comprised of Habon Ali (Associate Director, Policy & Communications, Sidewalk Labs), Meg Davis (Chief Development Officer, Waterfront Toronto), Kelly Kwan (Senior Counsel, Uber Canada), and Leslie Woo (Chief Development Officer, Metrolinx). Throughout the electric night, they shared what excites them about the future of Toronto and the key factors they believe will impact the real estate industry in the coming years.
Recurring themes during the Bousfields Inc. sponsored event were impact, courage, sustainability, affordability, and a couple of mentions of Joe Berridge’s book, Perfect City.
When discussing what excites her about the future of Toronto, Leslie Woo started off by mentioning how far our city has already come. “What excites me is the impact the city is making globally. We are the best human experiment that exists in the world right now — there is nothing quite like it,” she exclaimed. On the mobility, diversity, and livability fronts, it is true that Toronto has long been one of the world leaders, but that is far from meaning that our city is done innovating.
Toronto has entered a new phase of development where innovation, technology, and industry collaborations are on the rise. “City building is now about so many different disciplines. From technologists to planners to so many different ideas that we are seeing come together in different projects throughout Toronto,” Habon Ali said. Not only are these incredible ideas and projects being generated but Ali also adds that Toronto brings the unique opportunity for planners to pilot and test these projects in a singular environment.
Another great example of this wave of collaboration and innovation is found in Uber Elevate. With a tentative pilot of 2023, autonomous vehicles and heliports are now in the realm of possibilities for Toronto’s future. As mentioned by Kelly Kwan, “when you don’t suffer from a poverty of ambitions, you can see companies coming together to create some pretty amazing things.”
But looking beyond the groundbreaking ideas such as autonomous vehicles, collaboration and innovation within city building is really about looking at how the private and public sectors can collaborate to deliver more inclusive, interactive and responsive communities. “The thing that worries me most is that the most successful cities have a clear concept and idea about what they want to be and I think Toronto struggles a little bit with that,” said Woo. “If we don’t have a clear idea of the quality of life, how we want our next generations to experience. The concern I have in the midst of us being so diverse is that we make sure to find the space that we can agree that this is the way to move forward as a city.”
Woo and Meg Davis reminded us that as members of this industry it is imperative to keep in mind that technology is first and foremost a tool. It is a tool that should be used to create communities tailored to the needs of its residents and to assist companies in being responsive to and solve the concerns of the people in those areas. One such concern that has been rising throughout the city is housing affordability.
With the rise of technology in the industry, we are seeing a “combination of technologies, building materials, and policy changes that can lower the costs of housing or speed up the delivery and make the city more affordable and sustainable,” Davis said. She went on to recognize that purpose-built rental was making a return in a way unseen since the 1970s in the city. Davis also discussed the importance of finding a way to make the private sector reconsider affordable housing, from a performance perspective.
This mention of affordability and purpose-built rentals sparked a conversation regarding funding responsibility. Which sector — public or private — should Toronto look to for the funding of these projects moving forward? To that, the panelists agreed that the way forward was through collaboration between the two sectors.
This shift can already be observed in the approach taken by Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario, Woo explained Both these organizations are engaging in transit-oriented development — a process in which transit agencies have not historically been part of. These collaborations aim for a better integration between land use and transit as well as an understanding that opportunities for more service often translate into opportunities for development, making transit an important part of city building.
One sector could not do this alone. The way forward for the Toronto region is through a collaboration between the private and public sector and for there to be optionality with respect to which sector is to be looked to for funding based on the project.
“[We] need courage to try something new and be innovative,” Woo said. “And [bring] together not only private and public, but the non-profit sector, academia, and others to create amazing opportunities and test communities that can then be an example to the rest of the world.”