Toronto and Sydney: What can we learn from each other?

By Dr. Michael Brooks

Most of us know intuitively what the City of the future ought to look like.  To avoid excess air pollution from automobiles and the needless destruction of farmland, it needs to have higher densities.  In order to make use of existing infrastructure and sewer mains, water pipes and electricity grids, it should be relatively compact.  Unnecessary automobile trips should be discouraged by decentralizing shopping, restaurants and other frequently used amenity spaces.  Transportation should favour efficiency, such as bicycle, walking, and mass transit.  All that is well and good but how do we retrofit existing cities with those ideals in mind?  Where does the money come from for any major intensification infrastructures, such as mass transit?  And how do we avoid house price inflation, or escalating prices in those cities where house prices are already high? 

These are challenges facing Sydney and Toronto.  The data on Toronto’s remarkable densification is fascinating.  While some pundits might have suggested that the baby boomers suburban Toronto homes will be the dinosaurs of the future, the market economic data is saying the opposite.  While sales of condominiums boom, the supply of single family homes, particularly those on larger lots, has rapidly diminished.  Far from being a dinosaur, those suburban homes on large lots will soon be a luxury good only the relatively well-off can afford.  The entry level house is no longer a house; it’s a bachelor or one bedroom condominium.  And with a growing split between the pricing of single family homes and condominiums, we must in Toronto continue to ensure affordability and choice in all markets.

What can Sydney learn from us?  A very good question because Sydney, like Vancouver (when the sun is out) is surely is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.  The location of Sydney harbor, the ocean views, and the beaches that are a bus ride away are amenities few cities enjoy.  On the other hand, the Sydney suburbs don’t have that amenity and, it has been suggested, have a much harsher climate especially in the hot summer months.  Densities are generally lower and residents are quite concerned about the loss of neighborhoods by encroaching medium or high density uses.  Toronto has for decades had nodes of apartment complexes particularly around the Yonge Street subway line and at some stops around the Bloor Street line.  Toronto has been able to build a new downtowns: the North York City Centre, Scarborough Town Centre and in Mississauga City Centre (with Markham’s slowly developing), complete with office buildings, condominiums and apartment buildings. 

Toronto has an Ontario Municipal Board where developers can at least have their day in court based on good planning principles, often opposed by a rate payer group, a beholden local councilor, or a competitor developer appealing for tactical reasons.  The many small and medium size developers who make up the housing industry have done an excellent job, by enlarge, in meeting demand in the City and complying with the changing visions of where supply should be and at what density it should be provided.  Greenfield developers have had to increase the densities and reduce lot sizes of low rise housing to meet market price points and provincial growth policies reflected in the Places to Grow plan and conformed local plans.  All of this makes for an interesting debate on not only intensification for the core urban areas of the City of Toronto but also with respect to the 905.  Our largely hub and spoke transit system is inefficient and indeed often unworkable when considering a commute from point to point both of which are in the 905 area code, or between these new satellite city centres.  The car is the only reasonable alternative in those situations.  What is the way forward in those areas?

Dr. Michael Brooks teaches Real Estate and Commercial Development courses in the Ryerson MBA program and has worked on some of the largest and most sophisticated deals in Canada.

Dr. Brooks holds several degrees, which include a Bachelor of Environmental Studies, Honours Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Waterloo, an LLB from the University of Western Ontario, and an LLM from Osgoode Hall Law School, an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, and a PhD from the University of Waterloo, School of Urban and Regional Planning.  Professor Brooks is also a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He is also a member of American Real Estate Society, Urban Land Institute, International Council of Shopping Centre, National Association of Industrial and Office Parks and Canada Green Building Council. 

He has particular expertise in development, acquisitions, green buildings, green leases, and strata title transactions. Michael is an industry thought leader and is passionate about the issues of environmental sustainability and development, and is a popular speaker at industry panels and has been a key note speaker at many events.

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