Much of my life has been spent living in Caledon on the outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Consequently, my experiences have largely been relegated to that of a semi-rural town. I grew up with large housing and open spaces — a stark contrast to the city I now live and learn in.
Until recently, I did not find the downtown core welcoming. I was so intimidated by it that I was firmly opposed to attending the University of Toronto. I remember looking around at the tall, intimidating buildings during my first campus tour, feeling a sense of vertigo and questioning why anyone would ever want to live here.
Over time, that sentiment slowly started to change. I would tour the campus by myself, taking the time to explore the small shops and the friendly environment and exploring where the tour guides did not. Eventually, I fell in love with the city.
In the next decade, most current U of T undergraduates will graduate and establish careers. Many of us will choose to stay in Toronto. In anticipation of our futures, we should consider now what our city will hold for us.
What steps can we take in this moment to ensure the best possible future for our city? I interviewed three U of T faculty members to get insight.
Diversity: our strength
Toronto is the largest city in Canada and is well known for its multiculturalism. This diversity will only grow in the years to come, and Toronto needs to be proactive in learning how to evolve with its changing demographics. The research of Urban Studies Program Assistant Professor David Roberts — the first person I interviewed about this subject — focuses on “geographies of race and racialization, urban infrastructure planning, and the politics of public participation in urban knowledge production and policymaking.” His views on the future of Toronto focus on how, as residents and members of civil society, we will deal with oncoming population growth. “Toronto has people from every corner of the globe here, and is one of the most, if not the most, diverse cities in the world,” he told me.
When asked about the future of Toronto for people of colour and other marginalized groups, Roberts stated that “that kind of promise of multiculturalism is built into our motto: ‘diversity is our strength.’” Roberts urges conversations surrounding issues of racial inequality to be had sooner rather than later for Torontonians to improve our relationships with one another.
He praised grassroots groups such as Black Lives Matter TO for addressing topics of systemic racism and racial inequality in an influential manner in the city. However, he criticized city leaders for a lack of action, and stressed that “addressing the systemic forms of racial inequality that exist in the city” requires a greater commitment by City Council to deal with future problems that may emerge. He mentioned the uprisings on Yonge Street in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict — where four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of using excessive force in beating King, a Black man — and said that although race relations are not currently at that level of tension, it should not deteriorate to this for people to pursue urban social justice.
The current state of Toronto is, admittedly, manageable. Toronto has a relatively low crime rate compared to other Canadian cities. While we do have plenty of issues of our own, relatively speaking, Toronto is safer than many other North American cities. This, ironically, is a problem of a different sort: it breeds a complacency that presupposes that any emergent issues will be somebody else’s problem.
“I think there’s a real role for young people, too, who may be a bit less complacent about the state of affairs in the city, and so will continue to have an increasingly large voice in the city,” Roberts said.
Moving forward, the role that young people will play in bringing issues to the forefront requires us all to realize that our obligation in helping one another involves a system of reciprocity — promote the equal treatment of all and, in return, the potential of all will benefit the city. People learning from one another without restriction increases dialogue and will drastically improve relationships. In a city that is increasingly unaffordable to live in, we need as many people working together as possible.
Fighting social inequality
Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, argues that the city needs to begin addressing current problems now should it continue to grow.
“It’s an exciting time. I see the city becoming even more lively, even more diverse, being a bigger player on the global stage. But I think if we’re going to get this right we need to start now, putting in place the foundations for the next 50 years.”
Siemiatycki described other areas of the GTA, such as Milton and King City, as sites of rapid development in low-rise, single-use residential districts, which he said “is posing challenges on our infrastructure.”
He added that the congestion on our major highways in the region “is a drag on the economy.” While housing costs outside the downtown core are undeniably cheaper in comparison, the lifestyle can be taxing on commuters and especially taxing on the environment. If the cost is pollution and environmental degradation, are the percieved financial benefits truly worth it?
With regard to the role of young people in the future planning of the city, Siemiatycki has advocated for new, evidence-based planning strategies in outlets like the Toronto Star. He argues that “universities and our student organizations play a really important role in advocating for measures that are going to help youth.” Much of this advocacy work derives from our innate, perennial need to be social and centralized.
“It turns out that humans are a species that want to be around other people, that the idea of extreme isolation or being separated from others creates feelings of dislocation, and in some cases, can undermine efficiency.” The future of Toronto relies on the voices of those who will live with these changes the longest.
The problem of housing
It’s clear that the future of housing will be a problem for years to come; it’s already a serious problem we deal with today. Because of this, many people are focusing on planning and policy changes required for more affordable city living.
Shauna Brail, the Director of Urban Studies Program and the Presidential Advisor on Urban Engagement at U of T, recommends people adjust their expectations about living in Toronto in the future, particularly with the increasing unaffordability of single-family homes. She believes there will be more career opportunities than residence options for young people in the city. Brail emphasized the meaningful prospects that will emerge in the future will allow Toronto to continue as a hub of activity.
Concerning how we ought to adjust to increased growth in the city, Brail points to how Toronto could respond to it: “We know that we’ve approved tens of thousands of new residential units… [what] do we need in terms of ensuring that we have not just a city of people living in it, but a city of people who have access to jobs?”
Though some seek to address the issue of housing through increased redistribution, others question how to address the scarcity itself. Brail refuted the idea of opening the Greenbelt — a permanently protected area surrounding parts of the GTA — to housing development.
“There are many benefits to maintaining that Greenbelt as it is, and most of the recommendations suggest maintaining the Greenbelt… [because] it’s really important for people’s wellbeing, it’s important for air quality reasons, it’s important for reasons related to managing urban form, and trying to encourage higher density living.” Brail called the propositions of degrading the surrounding environment a “false trade-off” that would decrease air quality and increase health and congestion costs instead.
Nonetheless, the concerns of environmental advocates are that future policymakers might reverse the protections granted to the Greenbelt. The life of the Greenbelt relies upon advocates and academics like Brail.
Sustainability and urban planning in the future should rely upon the creation of jobs and the promotion of meaningful jobs outside of the city core. This would help reduce congestion and help with affordability issues, as well as increasing sustainability.
Planning for the future
Brail also recommended learning from other global cities to learn from their successes and determine how we can evaluate them. This includes projects like bike lanes, street vending, and other ways of creating more dynamic, lively cities.
According to Brail, the future of planning in Toronto “will be increasingly connected to partnerships… Our city is changing in ways… that really connect with people, with other organizations. The city can’t do everything themselves, the urban planners can’t do everything themselves. They really require partnerships and relationships.”
It seems evident that the problems and solutions of tomorrow begin today. Today’s issues are inextricably linked to what we will deal with, for better or worse, in the future. This includes how we treat our fellow residents, countering complacency, and interacting with our concrete and natural environments. We need to be more pragmatic about where we choose to live in the future and how we choose to learn from our global neighbours. Rallying young people in support of evidence-based policy measures is a start — since those policies will affect us more than any other demographic — however, we need to emphasize that even if we are not directly affected by these issues, our communities need to be defended by every incursion against our livelihood. If we refuse to prepare now, what will the future hold for the people of Toronto?