Evidence keeps coming in of an exodus from cities. A new Statistics Canada survey shows that population growth in the country’s biggest urban centres slowed in the year ending last July 1. Statscan said that many city dwellers are moving to outlying cities and towns such as Oshawa and Kitchener-Waterloo near Toronto and Farnham and Saint-Hippolyte near Montreal, where the living is good and the housing more affordable. With remote work now the norm for many, it is awfully tempting to decamp to somewhere smaller and quieter.
Downtowns, too, seem to be shedding people. Office vacancy rates have jumped across the country as employees work from home and companies try to cut back on what they are paying for all that empty space in downtown skyscrapers. In Toronto, in the last quarter in 2020, The Globe reports, rates hit their “highest level since the economic turmoil of the global financial crisis a decade ago.”
But before we start talking about hollowed out, declining cities, let’s pause to look a little more closely at what is happening. Statscan points out that, while the rate of expansion has slowed, Canada’s biggest cities continued to grow in the period it studied.
Immigration, though down because of the pandemic, continues to fuel that growth. There is every reason to think that, once the novel coronavirus is beaten, the flow of newcomers will resume and keep Canadian cities booming. What Statscan calls “the long-term trend of urbanization” is intact. Seven out of 10 Canadians live in what Statscan calls a “census metropolitan area.”
The Ontario government says that Greater Toronto is expected to be the province’s fastest growing region in the coming years. A Ministry of Finance forecast last summer said its population would increase to more than 9.5 million by 2046, up from seven million in 2019. That would take its share of the provincial population to 49.8 per cent, up from 47.9 per cent.
Toronto proper would see its population rise to 3.73 million from 2.97 million. Suburban regions such as Peel, York and Durham would positively explode, with Peel alone gaining 900,000.
The COVID pause and the Zoom boom seem unlikely to halt this spectacular expansion. Canadian cities should remain highly attractive places to live and work, their magnetism and dynamism undimmed.
In Toronto, both private and public interests have been proceeding, despite COVID, with a series of big projects designed to help accommodate all the growth. On the public side, transportation authorities are working to complete two big, expensive (and much delayed) projects: the expansion and renovation of Union Station in the heart of downtown and the construction of a new crosstown rapid-transit line. Another transit build-out, the Ontario Line, is in the works.
On the east side of Toronto Harbour, work is well under way on renaturalizing the mouth of the Don River, a mammoth engineering project that will lead to the creation of a whole new neighbourhood with leafy parks facing the river. A beautiful prefabricated bridge that is linked to the project arrived in the harbour by barge last fall, a striking harbinger of what is to come.
On the private side, real estate companies are pushing ahead with an array of ambitious plans for new office and residential development. A series of supertall condo towers are rising or set to rise around Toronto, including one, at the foot of Yonge Street, that is billed as Canada’s tallest. Another developer is proposing to rebuild Canada Square up at Yonge and Eglinton, putting up five new towers.
In Mississauga, just to the west of Toronto, plans are afoot to turn the parking lots around a shopping centre into a whole new housing district with no less than 37 towers. On the opposite side of Toronto, in Scarborough, 10 towers are proposed at the site of an old shopping centre.
There is no telling whether all the big plans being unveiled for the city will unfold as announced, given the unpredictable nature of the real estate game. But so far at least, the smart money is betting on a bright future and continuing growth. Cities are not emptying yet, not by a long shot.