I was in Toronto last week. I’ll discuss the reasons in a later post. My wife and I stayed out in the suburbs. Our hotel was in Scarborough, right north of Highway 401. We spent most of our time (when I wasn’t downtown at the University of Toronto) in the further suburbs of Pickering and Ajax. Most of it could be in the United States.
Downtown Toronto is about as generic as it is possible for a North American downtown to get. This is not news. And some parts of the suburbs, like Ajax (pictured above) look like the more depressing parts of Orange County, California, save for the houses being in a slightly different shade of Caucasian skin tone. But even after saying all that, when my father-in-law said that Toronto really doesn’t feel like America, we knew exactly what he meant.
He meant the high-rises. You see giant towers everywhere, where you wouldn’t expect them to be. We were in a 14-story hotel, for example, across a ten-lane freeway from a sprawling shopping center and not far away from subdivisions like the one above, where every house looked alike. But there were two ginormous 30-plus-story condo towers going up right next door. And there was nothing unique about this. High-rises sprouted in parts of the city where you would be very surprised to see them south of the border. You really need to rent a car and drive around to appreciate the difference; hanging around downtown or taking the subway won’t show it to you.
But I am skeptical of both statistics and personal observation. I won’t relax unless they agree. So I went to the Emporis website, and pulled up statistics on buildings over 35 meters or 12 floors. What do you know?Normalized by population Toronto ranks below the high-rise forests of Honolulu and Vancouver, but looks more like the megalopolis of New York (and the D.C.-Arlington core of Greater Washington) than other mid-sized North American cities. Chicago and Philadelphia don’t come close.
Still, the above chart is misleading, because Toronto proper contains 45% of the metropolitan population. In other cities, like San Francisco or Miami or Seattle, the central city is just a sideshow — an important neighborhood, but not representative of the metropolitan area. Miami-Dade, which I know very very well, has a high-rise core and a couple of clumps elsewhere, but nobody would call the place a high-rise city. Ditto San Francisco — Marin and the East Bay and San Mateo are all low-slung places. So I cut out all the places where the center city holds less than a quarter of the metropolitan population.
The result is even more dramatic. Toronto is up there with NYC as an outlier. In fact, all Canadian cities are outliers, even the ones that look like they aren’t. Why? Well, central Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary contain respectively 67%, 63%, and 85% of their metropolitan populations. Chicago, Las Vegas, Philly, Houston, and Los Angeles, on the other hand, only contain respectively 30%, 29%, 26%, 38%, and 30% of their metropolitan populations. Their central municipalities are a big part of the metropolis, but the cities as a whole feel a lot more low-slung than the central city figures indicate. Central Calgary and Edmonton, on the other hand, feel like parts of much bigger metropoli than they are when you visit, because they’ve got these big crowded bustling and disorderly urban cores than you don’t associate with North American cities that have only a million or so people in them.
Canadian cities really are different, and it really is something that you can’t fail to notice without needing to look very hard. The only way you’d fail to notice is if your only exposure to America consisted of Honolulu and New York. Now, that isn’t hard to imagine, but it’s gotta be rare.
But this just raises a question: why do Canadian cities sprout so many more high-rises than their American (or Mexican) counterparts?
ADDENDUM: Another way to slice the data below the fold.
Taking only those cities where at least a quarter of the population lives in the central city, you can calculate the number of high-rises per square mile:
Toronto is still an outlier. Less built-up than the five boroughs or Vancouver, but that is no surprise. On the other hand, it casts doubt on my personal observation that the cities of Alberta feel much more urban than the downtowns of otherwise similar American cities. Either way, Montreal looks pretty American; I will be able to say more after I visit it later this month.
But still, why is Toronto different? We have “No fear of earthquakes.” True that. Any other ideas? I am curious as to the reason; one would think it should be more like Chicago or Philly and less like New York. And Vancouver ... that is just foreign.