For millennials, living in the GTA’s suburban stretches is often unappealing.
This article is brought to you by Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation
Rachel Lissner would never live in the suburbs as they are today. “Not in a million years,” she tells me. As the founder of the Facebook group Young Urbanists League, her sentiment comes as no surprise. Lissner has an avid interest in the urban geography of the GTA and cares deeply about an affordable, sustainable future for the city. But as a member of the younger generation, her future in Toronto looks grim.
For plenty of people in their 20s and 30s—those who fall under the broad and ill-defined “millennial” category—the prospect of buying a home in Toronto’s downtown has become a little less than a pipe dream. As home values skyrocket and foreign buyers invest rigorously in luxury real estate, young Torontonians have become increasingly shut out from what’s now the least affordable housing market in the country. And while buying a home in Toronto is increasingly an impossibility for many young people, the prospect of turning to the outer-GTA’s suburban stretches is often unappealing.
“Having grown up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I counted down the seconds until I could move to the city,” Lissner says. When asked where she would move should she be unable to afford a home in Toronto, Lissner says she would consider Hamilton, which is now boasting an up-and-coming arts scene and a more affordable housing market. “But I don’t really know where else I could go,” she says.
A range of research indicates that, for many millennials, moving to commuter-oriented neighbourhood outside the downtown is unappealing.
At a local level, opinion polling on Ontario’s 2006 Growth Plan finds that urban intensification is widely supported by post-secondary students and, more generally, younger people. On a larger scale, a University of Michigan study recently found that fewer young people are choosing to get a driver’s license, some opting instead for other forms of transportation while others say that owning a car is simply too expensive (Lissner herself notes that neither she nor her friends drive regularly, either). What this growing bulk of research points to is a generation that values complete communities: more urbanized, environmentally-friendly neighbourhoods, rather than single-car, commuter-oriented sprawl.
The push to curb sprawl in Ontario began most explicitly with the Places to Grow Act (2005), the Greenbelt Act and Plan (2005), and the Ontario Growth Plan (2006). The goal was to curb sprawl, encourage sustainable development, and maintain the region’s competitiveness by guiding decisions on future growth while protecting farmland and natural heritage sites. Ideally, car-oriented communities beyond the boundaries of the old city of Toronto can access green spaces, amenities, transit services, and employment opportunities through the widespread promotion of intensification and complete communities.
Complete Communities create vibrant neighhourhoods where jobs, a range and mix of homes, services, and green spaces are all accessible and connected. The benefits are:
- Less congestion
- Better for the environment
- Improved physical & mental health
- Supports investment in transit
- Reduces sprawl, protects farmland
- Safe, diverse neighbourhoods
- Cycling networks for active transportation
For Adam Nicklin, a Toronto-based landscape architect and co-founder of Public Work, these plans are “a courageous start.” The objectives of curbing sprawl are commendable; however, when it comes to the housing market, Nicklin believes there should be a more effective method of measuring success.
“We still focus on the benchmark being the price of a single family home or a detached single family home. That’s still seen as the currency of the family unit. The only way we can really have a good conversation about affordability is to expand a dialogue about how people can live in cities,” he says, referring to the incorporation of alternative forms of housing, such as condominiums and rentals.
Toronto’s housing market, according to Lissner, excludes young people like herself from living in the downtown core.
“When you’re building a bunch of luxury or above-standard quality one-bedroom apartments and they’re at market rate, that’s not a type of housing unit that’s affordable or desirable for everybody. And it’s catering to a small population of people, and it’s effectively saying that if you can’t play—if you can’t afford this—then there’s no place for you in Toronto.”
Likewise, the challenges of living in the city loom large for young people like Lissner. “Jobs are harder to come by and increasingly precarious. The competition to rent right now is cutthroat. I really can’t imagine what kind of housing arrangement I’ll have in the future,” she says. But given the costs that accompany life in the suburbs—primarily commuter costs—Lissner says that she would ultimately choose an increasingly costly life in the city than one outside.
Landscape architects like Nicklin say that the solution to this problem lies in the development of suburban regions as complete communities. One example of this transformation is occurring along Sheppard Avenue East.
Until somewhat recently, the stretch of Sheppard Avenue East on either side of the Don Valley Parkway was little more than a space destined for suburban sprawl. An area host to a maze of residential streets with detached and deep-lot homes, the avenue has been transforming incrementally since the completion of the Sheppard subway line in 2002. As of late, developers and purchasers have been drawn to this increasingly urbanized area, making way for a multitude of condominiums that are currently in different stages of development.
Further east along Sheppard, where the avenue pivots southbound past Highway 401 and becomes Port Union Road, the City’s chief urban planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, credits the implementation of “gentle density”—an urban planning strategy used to add a mixture of housing incrementally rather than all at once—as a mechanism for gradually transforming this commuter-oriented area into an urban locale.
“What’s interesting about this area is that it’s fundamentally suburban in its character,” says Keesmaat. “It’s fundamentally oriented towards cars, and it has quite a wide street right-of-way, [but] through the adding of a variety of mid-rise developments, the area is beginning to slowly transform, and one of the reasons why the mid-rise developments work so well in that context is because many of the lots along Sheppard avenue actually have quite an exceptional depth to them.”
For other younger people, like U of T student and soon-to-be Urban Studies M.A. candidate Ayla Shiblaq, living outside the downtown core is appealing so long as the outer-area is adequately developed for community-based, environmentally friendly living. “Between depending on the TTC and it’s constantly increasing prices, I find that the transit infrastructure doesn’t really allow for places outside of the downtown core to be attractive to students, especially with a student workload,” she says. “[But] after living in other cities, I noticed that there are ways that affordable rental apartments can coincide with convenience.”
Shiblaq points to infrastructure implemented in Scandinavian countries that provide access for suburb-dwellers commuting to local municipalities for work. “When I lived in Copenhagen, I initially lived pretty far from the city centre, but because I could bike and was connected by an efficient 24-hour metro, I didn’t seem disconnected from the city at all.”
Generation Squeeze founder Paul Kershaw echoes this sentiment, arguing that the solution to the current housing crisis ultimately lies in strategic development of outer regions. “We need complete communities that offer opportunities for us to grow food and have access to jobs,” Kershaw says. “We can’t compromise those things at the expense of or in order to solve our housing squeeze.”
To do this, Kershaw says, we must first commit to the notion of “homes first, investments second”—an ideal that refutes housing as merely an opportunity for great return on investment that ultimately outpaces economic growth. By committing to this notion, he argues, “You would really encourage density. Each [would] say, ‘Look, we already have land zoned for residential use, but we’re not using that land very effectively’—especially in places like the GTA where so much of the already-zoned land for residents is already single-detached zoned.”
“But the reality is now that entire neighbourhoods throughout the GTA are pricing out hard-working, well-educated, talented young adults from ever having the chance to live there,” Kershaw concludes. “If people who’ve raised their kids in downtown neighbourhoods ever want the chance to visit their kids by hopping in a car or transit to go see their grandchildren, the only way that’s ever going to happen is if we add density.”