The "Manhattanization" of Toronto

                                July 4, 2019

Photo via Flickr user Rick Harris


“The concept of people actually being able to live downtown and get to work without driving any distance has to be the way of the future.” 1

– Carl Blanchaer, a Principal at WZMH Architects


The term “Manhattanization” is used to describe a city resembling Manhattan which is experiencing a rise in population density primarily due to increased high-rise construction. Toronto’s growth has been geographically restricted within the Golden Horseshoe causing an island effect and forcing the city to grow vertically instead of sprawling outward. This largely is due to the Greenbelt Act, which prohibits most forms of development in approximately 2 million acres of land in the Southern Ontario region. By limiting sprawl in suburban areas outside of Toronto, the core of the city must develop upwards to ensure the demand of a growing population is met.


Toronto is Canada’s most populous city and is projected to have over 3.9 million residents by 2041, an increase of 41%2. Toronto is widely known for its diversity and with its presence in the global market, it continues to grow and expand at an impressive rate. The surge of construction in the development sector is evident as 72,344 housing units were under construction in March 2018, 75% of these being condos.3 The city also experienced a period of rapid job growth from 2006 to 2016 where 67,000 new jobs were added in the downtown area alone, most of these being knowledge-based jobs. In fact, Toronto was recently named the fastest-growing tech-job market in 2017.4


With many jobs being added to the core of the city, the demand for housing for those wanting to live near their workplace is growing. The lack of transit options and traffic congestion are only some of the many reasons that living outside of the city and commuting to work downtown is no longer a desirable option. Between 2013 and 2017, a total of over 140,000 residential units were proposed in the Downtown and Central Waterfront area alone.5 Despite the negative connotations that are associated with development proposals, Toronto is in dire need of more housing and a mix of housing options. Demand is only rising due to the increasing population, which includes those relocating from outside of the city to be closer to work.


As condo units continue to be built, townhouses and single detached homes are proving to be unaffordable for most people due to their limited supply. However, building additional single-family houses instead of residential towers would only create further problems as it would limit housing supply and cause prices to rise even higher. Toronto is already struggling to accommodate its current residents, and this alternative would only make matters worse as the City’s population continues to grow. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) considers housing as “affordable” when costs are less than 30% of a household’s before-tax income. According to the Toronto Housing Market Analysis, there is currently one “affordable” unit for every four low-income households in Toronto.6

Photo via Flickr user Paul Bica

Toronto’s Official Plan has been in effect since June 2015 and is intended to act as a guide to ensure the City develops to its full potential. It is doing so by focusing density and intensification to appropriate areas, such as transit corridors, and away from the city’s green spaces and stable residential neighborhoods. Decreased development charges, lower interest rates and fewer legal roadblocks are some of the advantages that come with developing in these areas zoned by the City, such as North York Centre and Yonge-Eglinton Centre. In addition to this, it also includes strategies to encourage construction of community housing and to create community benefits for residents of the area. This helps neighbourhoods to stay diverse while facing a rapid increase of density.


There are some drawbacks to the Manhattanization of Toronto the City must address, such as traffic congestion and limited green spaces. However, there are far more positive aspects to a growing city than there are negatives. Intentionally slowing down growth is not a realistic alternative as growth is a natural part of any successful city. Moreover, with a growing city comes various benefits such as the convenience of walking or cycling to work, countless vibrant options for entertainment and cultural opportunities that one may not be able to find outside of a large city. For example, nightlife is an important aspect of any destination city. Toronto has previously considered appointing a ‘Night Mayor’ as part of a larger goal of managing the City’s nighttime economy. Some of the responsibilities of this position would include creating a safe and entertaining nightlife experience for its residents and tourists. As Toronto grows, more unique opportunities for arts and culture such as these will continue to become available.


As Canada’s largest city but only third most dense behind Montreal and Vancouver, Toronto still has a lot of room to grow. In fact, according to the Fraser Institute, Toronto has a low population density of 4,457 inhabitants per square kilometer when compared to other high-density cities such as Paris with 21,067 residents per square kilometer and Brooklyn, N.Y. with 14,541.7 The City should work towards minimizing any consequences of a high-density population and encouraging all of the positives that come with the natural growth of a successful city. As Toronto continues to grow, and is built up with strong mix of housing options, the more the city will flourish as a great place to live and work.