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A McMaster University professor recently handed his urban geography class an interesting assignment: Uncover Toronto neighbourhoods where a new resident would find just the right mix of lifestyle and value.

Prof. Richard Harris asked students to find the ideal community for a hypothetical big sister returning from a stint in Hong Kong. He sent me a batch of the resulting essays after reading a column of mine last year about a real-life reader who was moving from San Francisco to Toronto and wanted advice on choosing a neighbourhood.

House hunters boxed in by preconceived notions of Toronto's "best" neighbourhoods may find the student's outlook refreshing as we head into the busy spring real estate market. Stuck on High Park? Why not think Milliken instead? Or South Riverdale? Or the Yonge/Church corridor?

Prof. Harris, who teaches in the School of Geography and Earth Sciences, urged the students to exercise their creativity but they all started with a few details about the fictional ex-patriate: She grew up in Brantford, Ont., attended Mac, and has a job lined up in Toronto at a salary of $90,000 a year. She married while working in Hong Kong and her husband will be looking for work.

Prof. Harris advised the students to describe the couple's ages, ethnicities, immigrant status, lifestyle and commuting preferences, plans for having children or not, and political inclinations.

The professor also spoke to personal finance columnist Rob Carrick about an assignment for a different class looking at whether a potential buyer should rent or go ahead and purchase a home in the current market.

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1. South Riverdale

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

For the most recent assignment, Emily Codlin introduces a socially and environmentally responsible young couple named Paul and Meg. Meg makes a high salary as a professional and Paul is a yoga instructor and practising Buddhist. They prefer to shop in locally owned businesses and seek out free-trade and organic goods.

Ms. Codlin’s research led her to recommend South Riverdale as the target community for this married couple.

The neighbourhood contains diverse communities such as Riverside, East Chinatown, Leslieville, Port Lands and the Studio District, she says.

She points to the noticeable lack of big box stores, good supply of vegetarian-friendly restaurants and a high score for walkability.

According to a study by the University of Toronto, the real strength of the Riverdale area is its uniquely caring and concerned community, Ms. Codlin says. That means local agencies have no shortage of volunteers and residents are committed to fighting for social justice.

For Paul, a growing number of yoga studios offer job prospects and there’s a Buddhist centre within cycling distance.

Compared to other neighbourhoods so close to downtown, the average property price in South Riverdale is relatively low. She notes that the average selling price in South Riverdale in 2012 was $509,848 and compares that number to earlier years to support her view that there is a trend toward increasing affluence. She also points out that it’s possible that the neighbourhood’s industrial past dampens real estate values: problems with lead contamination and air and water pollution are improving but not completely eradicated.

Ms. Codlin figures Meg and Paul will enjoy life in South Riverdale, with its affordable housing, commitment to social action and ideal location between downtown and the beach.

2. The Danforth, Gerrard-Coxwell, Blake-Jones

D'Arcy McGovern/The Globe and Mail

Another student, Nicole Gamble, undertakes the search on behalf of 20-somethings Rachel and Tony.

She narrows the choice down to the three adjoining areas known as Danforth, Gerard-Coxwell and Blake-Jones, clustered in the East End. Danforth is a band of streets north of the Bloor-Danforth subway line, while the other two areas lie south of the subway line.

Ms. Gamble characterizes the areas as having easy access to downtown, medium density housing with a mix of types, a mixture of incomes and high “walkability.”

Tony has experience as a financial analyst so this fictional couple has a little more to spend. They also are likely willing to rent for a little while in order to save up some money. An area that includes a Chinese community is ideal but not essential.

The areas Ms. Gamble recommends have a mix of non-official mother tongue languages, including Greek, Italian and Cantonese.

The area comprised of the three neighbourhoods is a fairly multicultural community. There’s a sizable Muslim population but other notable demographics as well, including small-but-significant Cantonese-speaking populations in each of these neighbourhoods.

Also, the area is suitable because it offers a mix of housing types and average prices ranged between $400,00 and $500,000 in 2012. That gives the couple more options if they decide to purchase, points out Ms. Gamble.

The area satisfies their transit and service accessibility priorities without reaching prohibitively high levels of housing costs. She also hopes that if they invest in the community soon, they will be able to benefit from its increasing gentrification in the future. While slightly elevated crime rates make the area somewhat less attractive, this is balanced out by other factors that suit their tastes.

3. Church-Yonge Corridor

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

In Sandra Paccanaro’s scenario, Jennifer and Raymond are a married couple in their late 20s who have decided to rent rather than own.

They want to be mobile for another three to five years before they have children. They would like to be in an apartment complex for easy living. They are coming from Hong Kong, where they adopted the high level of consumerism that is associated with young, professional intellectual elite.

Belonging to a distinct Chinese or multicultural community is welcomed but is not as important as being in a more socially affluent neighbourhood.

Ms. Paccanaro points the young couple toward the Church-Yonge corridor. The area is between Yonge and Jarvis streets, bordered by Bloor to the north and Front to the south.

Ms. Paccanaro figures Jennifer and Raymond will like the lively gay village within the neighbourhood.

Arts and entertainment are also plentiful, and the Eaton Centre is close by. They also value their leisure time and being able to move around the city easily on transit is important to them.

The Church-Yonge corridor area is undergoing rejuvenation and the density is increasing. Many more condominium towers are on the drawing board.

“Jennifer and Raymond want to be surrounded by people their own age and have a genuine work ethic, like themselves.”

4. Milliken

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Elizabeth Burns also seeks out a neighbourhood for a couple in their late twenties. In this case, Andrea and Kevin are both politically liberal and would like to live with couples and families who share their Chinese ethnicity.

Ms. Burns has selected Milliken, Ont. as the ideal location.

This suburban area bordering Markham is bounded by Steeles Avenue, Markham Road east of Kennedy Road and north of Finch Avenue.

About 50 per cent of the population speaks Cantonese, Chinese or Mandarin.

The lower-income neighbourhood is a good fit, she says, because the couple will be out of the city but still able to associate with people of similar culture.

High-scoring academic schools are also in the neighbourhood.

5. Kensington Market

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Geoff Rose wrote about his imaginary sister Rachel and her husband Ri, who prefer to live near nature and don’t want a home that is too demanding of their time. They love walking and cycling and dislike all motorized vehicles.

Mr. Rose asked them to rank their preferences on a range of attributes that they might find in a neighbourhood. He found that they value good housing above all, with lack of crime, transit and shopping, entertainment, walkability, diversity and proximity to work following in that order.

Mr. Rose recommends that the couple rent a place in Kensington Market. He warns of the risk of a correction in the housing market. He also cites a McMaster prof’s thesis that it’s often better to rent than buy due to generally better returns from other investments and the propensity for homeowners to spend more freely.

Kensington Market is a very multicultural community, Mr. Rose points out. More than 15 per cent of the residents speak Mandarin or Cantonese.

The market is also a “walker’s paradise” with loads of coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Theatres, museums or art galleries are all close by. Transit links are also good.

The level of crime is one area in which Kensington Market’s score is a bit diminished, says Mr. Rose, but he points out that illegal activity tends to run to break-and-enters, assaults and drug-related charges. More serious crimes such as sexual assaults, robberies and murders are not common compared with other, more dangerous neighbourhoods.

The lack of green space also detracts from the appeal a bit.

Still, Kensington Market offers lots of character, with writers and artists in residence and a large and busy Chinatown replete with Chinese food and goods of all kinds.

6. Don Mills

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

For his assignment, Bowen Lin zeroed in on the neighbourhood of Don Mills. He believes it would suit his fictional subject, Joanne, and her husband, Leslie (Tang Yu) Chow, who expect to earn good salaries but live frugally. They are also fitness enthusiasts and grew up in families that often vote Liberal.

Don Mills offers a prosperous environment with plenty of public and private schools, Mr. Lin says. The immigrants of Don Mills are primarily from Asia, which should suit the couple well because they share this lineage. Compared with other areas of Toronto, a high percentage of the immigrants know English and/or French, according to Mr. Lin’s research.

The area provides plenty of walking trails and parkland, including Moccasin Trail Park, Duncairn Park, Southwell Park, Mallow Park, Talwood Park and Tottenham Park.

The crime rate is one of the lowest in the city, he adds, though break-and-enters do occur more often than in some parts.

Initially, the couple may face a long and time-consuming commute to downtown but that should get better because plans are in place to improve bike lanes and transit services.