A sustainable Toronto requires urban intensification

Torontonians must become less car-dependent and reside in higher-density housing closer to work if they want to live in a city that is environmentally and economically sustainable, say researchers from two Toronto universities.  

Professor James McKellar of York University’s Schulich School of Business and Professor David Amborski of Ryerson University’s School of Urban & Regional Planning have co-authored a report, "Building a Sustainable Toronto", to foster discussion and debate in the community among members of local governments, non-governmental organizations and the housing sector. The report sets out critically important challenges that need to be addressed.

Right: David Amborski (left) and James McKellar

“Cities traditionally relied on three factors over the past five decades to grow – an abundance of relatively inexpensive raw land, cheap fossil fuels and easy access to the automobile,” says McKellar. 

“We are now experiencing a convergence of significant local and global factors that is rapidly making this traditional growth model obsolete," says Amborski. "Cities need to significantly change how they manage growth if they hope to achieve sustainability in the future.”

The fundamental question the report asks is: “Where does Toronto want to be in the next 25 years?” While the goal is a sustainable city, the researchers found a lack of sound, empirical and objective research to guide the decision-making process needed to make this happen. Building a sustainable Toronto over the next 25 years, the authors say, will entail four key initiatives:

  • securing the long-term economic competitiveness of the city and the ability to compete globally to attract and retain the brightest people and the best firms;
  • creatively reshaping the urban fabric to accommodate new forms of growth that will be driven by demographic trends and market forces;
  • reducing the carbon footprint of the city and managing the environmental consequences of its growth;
  • and maintaining a range of housing choices, especially affordable housing for those whose services are essential to the future prosperity of Toronto.

“A large part of the solution is using existing investments in infrastructure, facilities and services to increase urban intensification,” says McKellar. “The benefits would be substantial in time, money and environmental impacts. For instance, an average household spends 17 per cent of its disposable income on transportation, mostly on a car, versus 32 per cent on housing. Reducing transportation costs could significantly improve housing affordability.”

“Toronto has the right policy framework and many of the key ingredients in place to become a sustainable city over the next quarter century,” says Amborski. “More people are returning to work in the downtown core and the city has a robust inner-city housing industry. But growth needs to be managed in order for the city to be environmentally sustainable. The city also needs to provide more choices in housing, protect its vulnerable citizens, attract knowledge workers and become an established centre for innovation and creativity.” 

The findings of "Building a Sustainable Toronto" have been presented to the Toronto Board of Trade, the Canadian Urban Institute and the City of Toronto. The report, written in conjunction with Steven Webber, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban & Regional Planning, and Cynthia Holmes, adjunct professor at York’s Schulich School of Business, was funded by Building a Sustainable Toronto, a non-profit organization that promotes academic research on topics that contribute to a sustainable future for the city.

To see a copy of the report, click here.