Urbane Urbanism

Since we’ve had a few threads (e.g. this and this) on the main BBS waylaid into intelligent discussions about different aspects of urbanism I thought I’d set up a catch-all place for those desire lines to meet.

Here’s a place to discuss: housing prices and housing stock; public transit; private corporate shuttles; automobile commutes; potholes; zoning; gentrification; municipal infrastructure; segregated neighbourhoods; dying cities and towns; reviving cities and towns; suburbs and exurbs; street furniture; homelessness; Jane Jacobs; Robert Moses; tax giveaways; sporting event and corporate beauty contests; New Urbanism; creative class enclaves; city administration; municipal taxes and fees; utilities infrastructure; garbage collection and snow shovelling; climate change; greenery; historic development; intersections of all of the above and more. You get the idea: talk about your city or town or types of cities and towns or pure theory.


You were kind enough to open a topic, so I’ll take a shot, although I’ll probably get hate-mail from my fellow Torontonians.

Background: The Ontario Municipal Board is a much-hated organization that had the power to over-rule the Toronto City Council on zoning issues, and does frequently to the benefit of developers.

I think the Ontario Municipal Board is often in the right. They are (rightfully) seen as developer friendly and often allow development that exceeded city zoning height or lot restrictions.

Toronto is massively starved of low cost housing. The sanest option would be eliminating much of the single family housing (like the one I currently enjoy) and replacing it with high-density apartment buildings (i.e. like most European cities).

While Toronto City Council adopts timid densification (maybe 4-6 stories at most) along major transit arteries in its current city plan, we’re going to need a million units to house the millions of immigrants over the next century at rents they can afford.

And these are going to have to be small-size, low-cost, non-luxury units to prevent prices being bid up and pricing the 20th percentile earner out of the market.

We also need boarding houses. They’ve been a way to house low-income earners for centuries. But nobody wants to live beside them and they’ve pretty much died in an era where local representatives had the power to ban them.

The square foot of housing per person has grown 35% in North America over the last 40 years. This has to be reversed big time and then some if we’re going to house everybody who wants to live in highly desirable metropolises.

This obviously penalizes residents, especially if we expropriate residents in order to build high density housing, so we have to be prepared to override the interests of residents and their power to control development. Unfortunate (I love my city much the way it is), but if we’re going to actually produce affordable housing, I and my ilk are going to have to be on the losing end.

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Thanks for starting this thread. Good stuff.


Thanks for responding. As you indicate, supply and demand is just the starting point for looking at housing costs and stock a highly desirable tier 1 city (especially one that’s so welcoming of immigrants).

In regard to the Ontario Municipal Board, it sounds like the question comes down to one of accountablity. The City Council is elected, but who chooses the members of the Ontario Municipal Board?

I agree with your other points in general. North American cities definitely have to start moving away from single-family McMansions and toward smaller and denser European-style urban homes in a variety of formats (e.g. high-rise, mid-rise, quad-plex etc.). We don’t need cutesy “tiny homes” or people living in 300sqf boxes with lots of built-ins and fold-outs, but we don’t need 5000 sqf homes for families of four, either.

From what I understand new construction in Toronto is, like Vancouver or NYC, mostly high-end condos rather than rental stock, so that’s another issue that needs to be addressed. I will say that, compared to major cities in the U.S. that are highly desirable, Toronto takes a more sustainable approach, balancing growth with preservation of green spaces. It looks like Toronto put limits on sprawl as well, albeit a little too late and in a way that increases prices. It also still suffers from the same car-culture maladies that most North American cities are afflicted with, although to a slightly lesser degree.

The boarding houses point is an interesting one. They went away for decades in North America, but since the 2007 crash seem to have been replaced (at least in the U.S.) by single-family homeowners offering garage and basement apartments and poolhouses for one tenant in order to help make the mortgage. The rental rates seem to be slightly below purpose-built rental apartments.

They’re also coming back in the form of co-living spaces, but those are are aimed at either young creative-class types in entry-level jobs in big cities (e.g. WeLive) or intentional senior citizen retirement buildings.

All that said, I don’t think the old-style boarding house for low-income earners and recent immigrants can come back without very heavy municipal regulation. Otherwise, you get dangerous abuses like we see in NYC, where slumlords pack a bunch of single men or women into one-room apartments in old buildings where they sleep in shifts on bunk beds.


They are, of course, appointed, and not accountable to anyone. That’s how they can get away with enraging the people who live in the affected areas buy boosting density.

Yes, which is why I like it here. But that’s also exactly what raises housing prices.

Each time I see some other improvement in the city that makes it a bit nicer to live here, some part of my brain goes “well, it’s nice for me, I’ve already bought my house. But for everyone else, it’s now just a little bit harder…”.


Well I can understand how that might be a problem in a country that, unlike the U.S., still has a plausible claim to being a liberal democracy. There are ways to balance things out. For example: changing who appoints them, requiring one member to be a representative of tenants, one to represent landlords, another to represent single-family homeowners and perhaps one to represent the environment. As it is it sounds like it’s politicians beholden to developers appointing developers and developer-friendly lawyers who want to see a sea of condos like Vancouver or Manhattan.

There’s something to be said for a highly desirable city placing limits on its size to keep it livable for current residents – that’s not necessarily NIMBYism. There’s value in preserving landmark buildings and historic neighbourhoods, in preserving green spaces, in limiting parking spaces, etc. Life is a crapshoot in so many ways that I wouldn’t begrudge you for enjoying those nice things because you had the good luck of buying your home (one you actually live in) when and where you did. And it sounds like Toronto still has some breathing space to deal with this pressing issue (though if it “wins” the Amazon HQ bid…).

What I do have a problem with is urban policies that shut people out of a city without any benefit for incumbent homeowners other than an inflated property value or, as discussed elsewhere, short-sighted NIMBYism that ends up backfiring on the NIMBY homeowner. I don’t really hear about that happening in Toronto. The Ontario Municipal Board may be going about getting higher density in the wrong way (e.g. promoting more condo stock than rental stock) because it’s dominated by developers, but it still seems to recognise the basic fact that more high density housing is needed. I suspect at least some members of the City Council would agree, albeit for more altruistic reasons than industry profits.


Dear God, let it not be so.

If Amazon is sane, they won’t (if nothing else, the White House would nuke them). Also, there are so many other cities where getting Amazon HQ would be a huge (albeit not unalloyed) plus. For Toronto (and a few other candidates), the negatives would heavily outweigh the positives.

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I’m afraid Toronto still has a real shot. It made the final 20 without offering tax breaks like the other 19 in the U.S., which means Amazon is actually looking at the host city’s quality as well as how much of its fiscal soul it’s willing to sell. If things get worse in the U.S. in regard to right-wing populism it might make sense for Bezos to risk it – after all, he didn’t limit the contest to the U.S. to begin with.

Also, that bid Toronto made can and will be repurposed for other beauty contests. Apple has announced its own HQ2 search and I doubt it will be the last as the big tech companies start repatriating assets.

The good news is that I doubt Amazon will turn Toronto into a one-company town to the same extent it did Seattle; it’s a very diversified city already. Also, I don’t mind the value of your house going up if the city gets thousands of skilled and high-paying jobs in exchange.

It could be worse. Toronto could be a contender for the Olympics or the World Cup.

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NIMBYism that you like is still NIMBYism.

Fuck 'em. The future is running late.

Today’s pretty old buildings are in the way of tomorrow’s pretty old buildings.

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As long as you think “NIMBY” is a neutral term I can see your point of view. Understand that most people view it as a pejorative, though. That’s why Jane Jacobs or Jackie Onassis aren’t generally considered NIMBYs even though the former stopped an expressway from being cut through Greenwich Village and even though the latter helped preserve Grand Central Terminal.

You’ll also find few New Yorkers who’d think that the Village would be better if it resembled the current destroyed neighbourhoods of the south Bronx or if Grand Central had been replaced by a rathole similar to the current Penn Station.

That’s a nice and compelling image, but I’d like to hear more about the story behind it. Is it an illustration from a SF story or on a futurist non-fiction piece you could cite?

I also see some buildings there at street level that could be considered pretty and old by today’s standards. The gargoyle on the left may be on a 14th century cathedral (perhaps Notre Dame judging by some of the street-level architecture in the image). Unless something else is going on it looks like some NIMBYs got their way here, too.

Don’t get me wrong: we need greener cities now, but we need to get them in a way that respects their residents and doesn’t do as much damage as good.

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No problems with urban housing accommodation for everyone will be solved while profit under the free market is the only beneficiary of the situation. Until people are housed without regard to rentiers and other variations on slumlords the problems will continue.

The fact that we still see so many people sleeping on the streets of our most prosperous cities is an indictment of a system that views the “free” market as the only force can get everyone housed. I suspect this is why there’s so much resistance to the “Housing First” approach to combatting chronic homelessness despite its documented success. If society can’t put in a relatively straightforward fix for that I doubt that the less in-your-face problem of slumlords will be addressed.


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