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August 15, 2010


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>But this just raises a question: why do Canadian cities sprout so many more high-rises than their American (or Mexican) counterparts?

They're less afraid of the towers falling over in an earthquake?

Paradoxically: I love being on high floors in West Coast buildings (I've never been above, say, a 16th floor in an East Coast building.) But Rincon One (http://onerinconhill.com/) went up, and when I see it from the Bay Bridge, all I can think of is how perfectly positioned that building is to fall over and land right across I-80.

Canadian central cities have larger percentage of their metropolitan areas because of mega-mergers. I think Canadian provinces are more inclined to create, abolish and change local government units as they please than in the States. For example, in 1998 the Ontario government implemented a number of mergers as a cost cutting measure. So the regional municipality (i.e. county) of Ottawa-Carleton was merged with the City of Ottawa and the other cities of Ottawa-Carleton. So now the City of Ottawa now extends all the way out into the countryside. Likewise the federal Metropolitan Toronto and its boroughs were merged into the single City of Toronto. IIRC, similar mergers occurred in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and Alberta expanded the boundaries of Edmonton and Calgary as they expanded.

The Quebec mega-mergers have an interesting history. In 2002, the PQ government passed its own batch of mergers, most predominate being the merger of the entire island of Montreal into a single City of Montreal. This obviously angered the suburbanites of the West Island, who are predominately federalist English-speaking Liberal Party supporters. So during the 2003 election, they promised to allow local "de-merger" referendums in all the former merged suburbs. They were elected, the referendums held with a good deal of them passing, both in the West Island and out.

I'm interesting in comment in Montreal being "petty American". I think if you were to ask the average Montrealer (or Canadian in general), they would say that Montreal feels more "European" than other North American cities, to which humorist Will Ferguson said "it really doesn't". I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.

Los Angeles seems like it has tall buildings spread out all over the urbanized area rather than being concentrated in just a few locations. I see, however, that the charts don't really agree.

Where in L.A. have you been? Downtown and West Los Angeles really don't have many counterparts in the rest of L.A. Once you get out of that area, most of L.A.'s burbs are pretty flat; even in the "edge cities" there aren't a whole lot of buildings over 10 stories (30 meters), which is the cut-off for these figures.

It always struck me how few high-rises there are along the southern California beachfront. In Miami, the equivalent is lined with giant hulks, save South Beach, and even there its much more built up than Santa Monica or Venice. It could be soil, but I doubt it. I also doubt that it's earthquakes, considering the safety standards of modern high-rises, so I suspect zoning.

But really impressive zoning, considering the amount of money being tossed away. (I've only been to La Jolla, but it also seemed pretty short. I'd say the same about the Sunset, but the microclimate there really sucks, beach or no beach.)

Anyone familiar with SoCal development restrictions?

Wait, what? What's so depressing about Irvine? Not that I've ever visited, but the Wiki write-up didn't seem so bad.....

Consider our revealed preference. My wife and I could easily live in the suburbs. She works in Brookline, near the Green Line, which runs out to Newton. I'm a professor, and can drive; it isn't that hard to avoid rush hour. Yet we choose to live in Cambridge. And in Central Square, at that.

Irvine is triply depressing: you need a car to do anything, it isn't green, and the homeowners' restrictions have imposed a soul-destroying uniformity on the single-family houses. (Not unlike Ajax, Ontario, pictured above, of course.)

Tastes vary. But even my brother and my cousin Larry, the two of whom went about as exurban as you can get in Greater Miami, live in places where the houses are exuberantly (and often quite distastefully) different. The rest stick to places like Victoria Park, Coconut Grove, and Miami Beach, even with the their decision to use private schools in the first two.

Boca, ugh. Irvine, plus walls and humidity! What's to like?

The reason Canadian cities (esp. Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto) are different from most American cities is that people actually live and play in them. I live in Montreal where on a Friday at midnight there are traffic jams and crowded sidewalks all over downtown as people come to party.

For the most European and the most beautiful city on the continent though you have to go to Quebec City.

I can't agree with you on that, Ricxhard. Not about Quebec City (many people tell me the same!) but that people don't live and play in American cities. Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philly, Miami Beach, even Los Angeles (on the West Side) all have "traffic jams and crowded sidewalks all over downtown as people come to party."

(OK, I'm slightly torturing geography in Miami and L.A., but the point holds. I think you might be stereotyping American cities. They aren't all like Cleveland.)

I haven't been to Montreal or Vancouver, but in all seriousness Toronto is not at all unique in this respect. Downtown Toronto doesn't feel particularly unique at all; you could easily be in the United States. (Well, not Detroit. Or even Philly. But Chicago, Boston, or New York, sure.)

The "not in America" vibe hits you out in the Toronto suburbs, not downtown.

It may be that Montreal is especially unique. I'll be able to say more after this weekend.

NYC, Boston, and Chicago are great places I agree although you dont feel the same level of personal security as you do in a Canadian city (maybe I'm stereotyping again).

Anyway Montreal has its own flavour which I think you'll like.

Since my formative years were spent in the New York City of the 1980s --- and I just spent time travelling through northern Mexico --- I am not one to judge relative levels of personal security! My standards are skewed.

I'm looking forward to the trip. Any recommendations?

Of course! For sightseeing be sure to see Old Montreal, St. Denis Street, McGill University, St. Laurent Street, Crescent Street, Sherbrooke Street, Sainte Catherine Street and Mount Royal (the park not the street). Go to Jean Talon Market or Atwater Market if you're up early.

For high-end dining there's Milos (Fish), Toque (French), Moishe's (Jewish steak house), Europa (French), Au Pied de Cochon (French-Canadian), Ferreira (Portuguese), Le Latini (Italian)(or better yet go to Little Italy where there are plenty of good and cheaper restaurants).

For cheaper eats go to Schwartz's Charcuterie Hebraique on St. Laurent and order a smoked meat (Montreal version of pastrami) platter with a black cherry coke. Also go to St. Viateur Bagel for the best bagels on Earth (although some prefer Fairmount Bagel). Try a poutine almost anywhere.

Ideally stay at a boutique hotel in Old Montreal.

Walk around or take a Bixi (city-owned bicycles stationed everywhere).

Finally practice your French. Almost everyone speaks English and French (and many speak more languages) but French-Canadians appreciate the effort.

Also if you like live music:
House of Jazz, on Aylmer St.

Well, Toronto housing is expensive, but the city (unlike outlying areas) has the second largest public transit system in N. America. This is conducive to high density. Not that apartment dwellers like living in high rises. It's the convenience of being able to get to work relatively easily. The growth of outlying communities (Milton, Ajax, Newmarket -- at various points of the compass) has been largely dictated by the availability of the "GO Train" suburban train service. (And the 401, 404, Gardiner Expressways, of course.) Probably much like NYC-Boston corridor. More surprising, I think, are the low-rise inner-city communities that have not been invaded by condos: just west of the U of Toronto, for instance (but there are many others). So I think the answer has a lot to do with the Toronto Transit Commission's network of streetcrs, buses and subway.

Chicago has more heavy rail lines than Toronto (106 miles versus 43) and far fewer high rises. Montreal, inside Canada, has about as many miles of track as Toronto, but also fewer high rises. Conversely, Vancouver has less, and is more high-rise.

I'm not sure that the availability of public transit explains the difference.

The question you're really asking is whether Metropolitan Toronto (which encompasses some 4.4 million, of which 2.5 million in Toronto proper)has a higher population density than other cities in N America, and indeed it seems to have the highest, according to (2007) stats at http://www.citymayors.com/statistics/largest-cities-density-125.html. Another table (at http://www.citymayors.com/statistics/largest-cities-mayors-1.html) confirms this, with higher, more recent figures.
There are probably a host of reasons for Toronto's high density (large financial centre, limited accessible building area, public transit, stock of educational facilities, immigration target area, perceived safety issues, etc.) In fact, I would rate transit mobility in Toronto proper a major reason for the high density. Toronto property taxes, by the way, are lower than in adjoining metropolitan municipalities (economies of scale at work). In other words, housing is expensive (av price bungalow 350 thou, compared to Chicago at 200 thou?), but there`s a high quality of life throughout its neighbourhoods. It`s a desirable place to live.

At http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/researchbulletins/CUCSRB41_Hulchanski_Three_Cities_Toronto.pdf there`s a wonkish discussion of 30-year demographic changes in Toronto, showing how the city has solidified into three distinct geographic cities: high, middle, and low-income. Previously, Toronto was considered much more of a city of mixed neighbourhoods. In your original post, you mention that from the subway you can`t really notice the high-rises. This is only partially true, I think. Yes, there are many subway stations along the east-west axis (Bloor-Danforth) where developers could never amass properties to convert into high-rises: the properties were too many, with small land-areas, such as at Danforth station and points just east of there. In these areas, what we have is a gradual process of gentrification (hgher incomes bidding out low-income households, the latter moving out to the eastern and western fringes of Toronto -- away from subways). But if you go north on the subway, you`d see, for example, at North York Central subway station (around where I live), that the large Willowdale single-family lots and small retail shops along the subway route, are rapidly being converted into residential high-rises -- 1-2 bdroom condos priced at 250-350 thou. (Comparatively, a 40-yr-old detached house in the neighborhood, with 3 bedrooms, still costs a minimum of 700 thou.) I make the wild guess that some 40,000 people have moved into this 10-block Sheppard-Finch corridor in the last 10 years, to live in these condos. The same is happening along the new Sheppard Ave subway (just 5 stations), and at the end of the Spadina line -- all areas where large-sized uptown single properties could be aggregated into sufficient area for high-rises. The common denominator in all cases is public transit, either TTC subway/bus/streetcar network in the city, or, in outlying areas, easy access to GO trains and buses.
I don`t know where else in N America similar conditions prevail. Fully 50% of Torontonians don`t have English as their first language, and Canada continues to take in some 225,000 new immigrants annually, half of whom choose Toronto as their final destination.

This deserves a longer response than I have time to write. I'd suggest you consider three things.

First, you're right that you can notice high rises near metro stops; but that makes Toronto just like D.C. or Chicago. It's the high-rises away from transit that make the place unique.

Second, immigration really isn't that much greater in Toronto than in the big American metropoli; inasmuch at it may seem to be bigger, it's due to lower native birthrates. Now, I don't know why Brazilian-Canadians who move to Toronto give birth at lower rates than Brazilian-Americans who move to Greater Boston, but they do. The end result, however, is similar rates of new household formation, which is going to drive construction. (In fact, household formation rates are higher south of the border, but not by much.)

Third, the links aren't working; I dunno why. But geographically, Toronto is less constrained than Philadelphia and about as constrained as Chicago and Los Angeles ... in other words, density is endogenous. Relatively-high density is an outcome, not an explanation.

(In fact, from glancing at a map, Vancouver looks far less geographically constrained than Seattle or San Francisco. But it's more dense.)

The explanations seem to come down to roads, race, and regulations.

But still, why is Toronto different?

No white flight.

It is fact and correct sentence that Canadian cities are so different. In last summer I visited the cities and I loved them. Your picture is also nice one.




Everyone has brought really great points up, l think one of the many reasons Canadian cities are so different also has to do with the fact we didn't experience the "white flight" of the 50's and 60's, given there was an expansion of suburban Canada after the second world war...our downtown's where still desirable places to live during that period. Furthermore, during the 50's and early 60's in Ottawa, there was still a very strong local department store presence which saw national chains like Sears and Walmart move into the area at a much slower rate. I would also disagree (being from Montreal) that the city could be American, it’s very different, something very unique onto itself, and you really have to see it. Very high street meets urban meets historical, and a bit gritty (if you’re into that!)


America has a huge Black population that live in downtown and white people that prefer living in exiles. American dream is getting married and owning a huge house. Canadian dream is to look good,single sexy and party in downtown.

American cities are dangerous. Canadian cities are clean and safe. Canada has great public transport. Public transport in American suck.

Messim, you sound like you went into a coma sometime in the mid-1970s and just woke up. You really might want to rethink this post.

Excellent content. Thank you for posting.

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