Toronto is growing, and fast: at this point it’s an obvious fact, but UrbanToronto recently went through the laborious task of quantifying Toronto’s development boom with our Growth to Watch For series and got a glimpse at just how fast and intense this growth spurt is. The number of active developments in the city totals roughly 840, three quarters of which are towers above 13 storeys. The density is increasing, the towers are higher, and the city is gripped in a frenzy of (mostly) optimistic change.

But as any astute observer will notice, this unbounded growth is not widespread; instead, it is concentrated in select areas of the city, and manifests itself in a variety of different forms. Why, for example, is the Entertainment District experiencing a huge increase in height, yet that density has not hopped north of Queen Street or west of Spadina Avenue? Why are there virtually no tower proposals in the neighbourhoods east of the Don, while farther out areas like the Sheppard Avenue corridor and Mimico are constructing clusters of towers among some of the city’s highest? The answer isn’t necessarily as simple as ‘zoning’: there is a complex framework operating behind the scenes that manages and controls Toronto’s growth, and a host of stakeholders involved in deciding what gets built where.

Density in the Downtown Core, image by Jack Landau.

UrbanToronto is embarking on a series exploring the topic of density in Toronto: how it is controlled, who decides what gets built, and what that decision-making process entails. Over the next month or two, we will explore the various mechanisms of control currently in place to manage growth; take a trip back in time to compare the origins of contemporary density management in post-war Toronto; and speak to major players in the planning process to get their take on density. We’ve documented all the density being built in the city, it’s time to take a look at the method behind the madness.

It’s All Part of the Plan: Mechanisms Controlling Growth in Toronto

For the uninitiated, the planning process in Toronto seems like a mind-boggling labyrinth of documents, by-laws, and planning lingo that spews out a few numbers at the end which developers tend to challenge. However, this mountain of planning documents is extremely important in deciding what gets approved for construction. There is a clear hierarchy of legislation and policies, much like a teetering, sloppy layered cake, that begins at the top with our friends at Queen’s Park.

Skyline view, image by UrbanToronto Flickr Pool contributor steveve.

In 2005, the provincial government enacted the Places to Grow Act, followed closely in 2006 by the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The Growth Plan laid out a series of policies to manage the anticipated population and employment growth in the GTA and beyond, dictating density and intensification throughout the area. Density would be directed toward designated “urban growth centres”, major transit station areas, and intensification corridors, defined as corridors along major roads, arterials, or transit lines.

Of note for Torontonians in these documents is the establishment of the Greenbelt, a ring of protected natural landscapes that encircles the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and effectively constrains development to a defined area, while establishing growth targets within the city limits. Five urban growth centres were identified in Toronto, based on the City's Official Plan which will be explored in more detail later, with a density target of 400 residents and jobs combined per hectare that each of these centres must meet by 2031.

The urban growth centres in the Growth Plan, image courtesy of the Government of Ontario.

These provincial growth policies are meant to inform each of the municipalities' Official Plans. Toronto’s Official Plan, which came into effect in 2006 and was the first comprehensive plan enacted post-amalgamation, is essentially the Bible of planning in the city: it lays out a set of policies that manages everything from density, to land use, to transit, parks, infrastructure, public realm, built form, and more. It is the basis upon which all zoning by-laws, planning decisions, and development applications are judged.

Contained within the Official Plan is a set of criteria that describes recommended characteristics of neighbourhoods required to support density. These criteria, explored in detail later, are a major influence in determining Land Use Designation, an important tool that informs what can get built where in the city. Toronto’s Official Plan has eight different Land Use Designations, some of which allow and encourage density, and others which strictly forbid it. These Land Use Designations are, in no particular order: Neighbourhoods, Apartment Neighbourhoods, Mixed Use, Employment Areas, Regeneration Areas, Institutional Areas, Parks and Open Space Areas, and Utility Corridors. Mixed Use areas are the most flexible and most encouraging of height and density, while Neighbourhoods, Apartment Neighbourhoods, Parks and Open Space, and Utility Corridors, which together account for roughly 75% of the land area in Toronto, are highly restrictive and are not intended to change in any significant way.

Map showing Land Use Designations, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

Of particular use to the city is what is known as a Secondary Plan, which is a subset of the Official Plan that proposes a unique set of policies for a specific area. Secondary Plans are written through a comprehensive process that carries out in-depth studies and public consultations to determine the most appropriate built form for the area, which is then implemented through a set of zoning by-laws that quantify the allowable development. There are currently 34 Secondary Plans in the City of Toronto, with more on the way.

Map of Secondary Plans in Toronto, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The Official Plan lays out where in the city density can be allocated, but how this density is implemented is determined through zoning by-laws, which quantify the density and built form that is allowed on a property. It should be noted that our current zoning by-laws were grandfathered in from the six municipalities at the time of amalgamation. Most of these zoning by-laws have remained unchanged, and with Toronto’s current planning system, by-laws are amended on a property-by-property basis, as needed. Secondary Plans are a way of updating the zoning by-laws of an entire area at once, to allow for a more complete approach to density and development. By-laws which have not changed since the introduction of the Places To Grow Act and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe are generally considered outdated, and do not normally withstand challenges at Ontario Municipal Board hearings.

Where to Build: Dissecting the Official Plan

The Official Plan clearly outlines the City’s intentions in terms of managing growth, stating that, “growth will be directed to the Centres, Avenues, Employment Areas and Downtown”. This narrows down the development potential in Toronto to a mere 25% of the city’s land area, which is actually significantly less when considering that Employment Areas outside of the core typically don’t see much density.

Map showing the Centres, Avenues, and Employment Areas, image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

There are several reasons given for directing growth to these areas. First and foremost is an effort to use the city’s existing land, infrastructure, and services most efficiently—best bang for your buck—followed closely by proximity to transit, which goes hand-in-hand with the first statement. Proximity to transit is a big one: you’d be hard-pressed to find new density in Toronto that isn’t close to a subway, streetcar, GO station, high-frequency bus route, or highway.

The list of justifications for density includes some well-known effects of higher density: greater economic return for the City; neighbourhoods that encourage walking and cycling where people live close to where they work; opportunities for affordable housing; facilitation of social interaction, public safety, and cultural activity; and energy efficiency. An interesting but highly influential reason appears at the bottom of the list: growth is directed to these areas in order to protect the city’s neighbourhoods, green spaces, and natural heritage features from the effects of development. Protecting parks and ravines is a no-brainer, but the clear exclusion of Toronto’s swaths of single-family houses enshrines this typology as a cherished resource, and signals that, at least within the city limits, developable land is highly restricted, and the only way to build is up.

Margueretta Street, image by UrbanToronto Flickr Pool contributor Michael Monastyrskyj.

The five growth Centres laid out in the Official Plan are Downtown Toronto (including Central Waterfront), Etobicoke Centre (Dundas West around Kipling and Islington Stations), North York Centre (Yonge Street between Sheppard and Finch), Scarborough Centre (Brimley and McCowan Avenues between the 401 and Ellesmere), and Yonge-Eglinton. Downtown is treated separately from the other four Centres, but nevertheless, each one must meet the density growth target of 400 jobs and residents per hectare set out in the Growth Plan. This explains why there is such frenzied development around Downtown, Yonge-Eglinton, and North York, and Etobicoke and Scarborugh are slated for major infrastructure improvements. The designation of Scarborough Centre may also be one of the many reasons why the Province and John Tory are fighting tooth and nail, contrary to expert opinion, to build a one-stop subway extension.

View of North York Centre, image by UrbanToronto Flickr Pool contributor Sean_Marshall.

The Centres were chosen due to their proximity to public transit, and are seen as attractive development areas that offer opportunities where people can live closer to where they work. Each of the four Centres (save for Downtown) is accompanied with their own Secondary Plan, with the Land Use Designation typically Mixed Use. The Centres seem to be a way for Toronto to alleviate the commute for many of its citizens, and divert some of the attention away from Downtown in order to control and spread the density to various areas of the city.

View of Yonge-Eglinton and North York Centres, image by Jack Landau.

The Avenues are an interesting addition to the Official Plan. The City identified a wide range of arterial corridors that have the potential for reurbanization (ie. higher density). The approach to these segments is less defined as it is for the Centres: the Plan stresses that individual Avenue Studies are necessary in each case to determine the appropriate development strategy, and the amount of density permitted is assessed on a case-by-case or property-by-property basis. They also differ from the Centres in that not all of the land may be designated Mixed Use, as there may be pockets of Neighbourhoods or Apartment Neighbourhoods along these roads.

The Avenues are often the candidates for gentle density, usually manifesting themselves as mid-rises or townhouses given their immediate proximity to Neighbourhoods. This explains much of the development happening outside of the Downtown Core: the mid-rise boom in Leslieville and The Beaches, along Kingston Road and Queen Street East; the mid-rises appearing on Sheppard Avenue West, between Yonge and the Allen; and many of the smaller-scale developments materializing in the City’s west end, along Queen Street West, Ossington Avenue, and in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood.

Kingston&Co Condominiums under construction, image by Forum contributor junior43.

There are two more aspects of the Official Plan with implications for density worth mentioning, the first being the Apartment Neighbourhood designation. This is applied to Toronto’s clusters of apartment towers from the post-war era, and are not considered growth areas in the Official Plan, instead intended to remain relatively unchanged. This, however, has changed in recent years with the City’s Tower Renewal initiative, which aims to transform many of the apartment neighbourhoods into more mixed-use, community-oriented districts. This is mostly being achieved through smaller initiatives, such as retrofits of buildings or public spaces, or inserting commercial and retail units into the base of residential towers. However, in some places a new tower or two will be permitted to be inserted amongst the existing towers. This can be seen around St. James Town, High Park, and Don Mills, and often comes with community benefits and further retail. This is a simple strategy for the city to spread density around: if the infrastructure and space exists for it, the zoning already allows for the height, so adding another tower may be seen as a positive intervention to rejuvenate a neighbourhood. 

Rendering of High Park Village infill proposal, image courtesy of GWL Realty.

The second policy section of note in the Plan is Regeneration Areas. This designation is applied to “areas with significant vacant lands and/or buildings in need of revitalization as a means of fostering growth and physical change.” This has led to some of the city’s more interesting and controversial development zones, most notably the two Kings—King-Spadina and King-Parliament—which produced respective Secondary Plans that have led to the boom of growth in the Entertainment District and King East. It is also responsible for the cluster of towers on Queen West at the rail crossing, and of the flurry of development currently being proposed around Mimico GO Station. 

View of the Entertainment District, image by Forum contributor musafir.

Occasionally, outcrops of density do occur that were not foreseen in the Official Plan. These areas either gain their own Secondary Plan or are rezoned for Mixed Use, but always with the idea that the areas in question meet the criteria for density laid out in the Official Plan. This would explain pockets of density such as Liberty Village and Humber Bay Shores—both the results of Secondary Plans—or the sprouting of towers along Sheppard East at the junction of Highways 404 and 401, which is zoned as Mixed Use and Employment Lands and was deemed suitable for supporting added density.

View of Humber Bay Shores, image by Forum contributor skycandy.

That's All Great, But Now What?

This brief overview of the Official Plan gives an idea of what governs density management in Toronto; however, when it comes to implementing these policies, things tend to get a whole lot more complicated. The Plan is not set in stone, and amendments are constantly added that allow variations in the Land Use Designations and zoning by-laws to permit development. Applications for rezoning and Official Plan Amendments (OPA) have become a frequent, if not expected step in the planning process, as land-owners routinely ask the City for more height, more density, or a different use than prescribed. Given Toronto’s method of assessing each variation on a property-by-property basis, this isn’t necessarily anything new, however, the shear volume of development applications received in recent years has exacerbated the painstaking process of repeatedly re-assessing current regulations, with far-reaching consequences in both the private and public sectors.

View of the South Core, image by Forum contributor ADRM.

Next up, we take a trip back in time to explore the history of density management in Toronto, most notably the post-war boom, when Toronto catapulted into the role of Canada’s largest city. The towermania of the 21st century is certainly not Toronto’s first flirtation with density, and as we delve into the policies that managed our previous development boom, you may be surprised that things weren't necessarily so different 60 years ago. In the meantime, keep checking back for more development news as Toronto continues its growth spurt, under the auspices of the various Plans that be.

Corrections: A previous version of this article listed Zoning By-Law Categories instead of Land Use Designations, and presented a map illustrating the City-wide zoning. This has been corrected with the proper Land Use Designations listed, and a new City-wide map indicating Land Use Designations rather than zoning. As well, a previous version of this article implied that a Secondary Plan is comprised of a set of zoning by-laws when, in fact, a Secondary Plan is comprised of a subset of policies to the Official Plan, upon which the zoning by-laws are then based.