How Toronto Gets Urban Housing and Zoning Right

This is a guest post by Nick Norris, planning director for the city of Salt Lake City.

It was 6 a.m. and I couldn’t sleep. The outside temperature was 16 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -9 degrees Celsius). “I can do this,” I said as I put on my cold weather running gear.

Up until that point, my only experience exploring Toronto was the short walking trip from the train station to the hotel — and finding dinner the night before. As I navigated the streets of the Financial District, aiming for the waterfront, I found myself running under an elevated freeway.

I thought to myself, what great city has an elevated freeway running through their downtown? I might have actually said it out loud.

As the sun began to rise, I entered the waterfront area. The streets were full of early risers walking their dogs, workers starting their morning commute, and even some fellow runners (in shorts!). As I stood waiting to cross the street under the freeway and head back to the hotel, the full view of the Financial District became visible. Though I was standing a few feet from speeding cars (which sounds like just about every street back home), this view was the city I was expecting.

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Toronto’s Waterfront (Nick Norris)

Later that day, our cohort with the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership began a  walking tour of Old Town, King East and onto the Canary District. This is where I really began to see the impressiveness of Toronto. The first thing that jumped out was the sheer number of housing units visible in every direction — and the vast variety of housing types, old and new, in the area.


The next day, city planners mentioned that 15,000 housing units per year are built in Toronto, and that over 40,000 people have moved into the downtown area within the last five years. These numbers are mind-blowing for a medium-sized city like my hometown of Salt Lake City, where we have a goal of 10,000 people living in our downtown by 2040. Maybe that goal needs to increase?

As the Toronto Study Tour continued through the week, there were a number of “aha” moments. The first was the separation of displacement from gentrification. The perception in many parts of Salt Lake City is that we are a gentrifying city. My hometown is going through its largest period of growth in at least 50 years. As we toured the Regent Park redevelopment area and heard from different people involved in redeveloping the neighborhood, I instantly focused on our land use challenge and how we could potentially address displacement of residents and businesses — while at the same time  promote new development in underused areas of the city.

The focus area for the Salt Lake City land use challenge is our East Downtown neighborhood. The housing in this area is some of the oldest housing stock in the city and it tends to be more affordable housing. Parts of it are in local historic district, and the area has the highest transit use in the City.

Most of the area is zoned for multi-family residential, but the density requirements require more land than the typical lot size. Lowering the minimum lot size per unit would generate more housing, but it would result in new housing replacing some of the older, more affordable housing in the City and displacing current residents.  Finding a way to address the displacement of housing in this area is an important goal of our land use challenge.

The second big “aha” moment was the discussion about process, particularly design review. I was blown away by the approval process timeline in Toronto. I am a process junkie, always looking for ways to improve processes (my coworkers are sick of hearing me say “make desirable development easy to realize”). At first I thought Toronto seemed to do everything wrong from a process standpoint. But as city staff and developers talked about community benefits being the focus of the process, it made me question whether or not we are the ones doing it wrong.

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Housing types in Toronto (Nick Norris)

In almost every U.S. city, zoning ordinance are set up to prohibit those things that are unwanted — instead of focusing on what the city wants. But Toronto has turned that around with a more productive focus, which raises the question: How can we be more aspirational with our development regulations? Can we write regulations with an eye on measuring the community benefits that development can bring? Would a better design review process result in better utilization of unused spaces in the middle of our giant blocks?

As we continue to grow, addressing the potential for displaced housing and improving our processes so that the outcomes provide measurable community benefits would provide tremendous benefits to Salt Lake City. Participating in the Rose Center for Public Leadership Fellowship Program provides the city with access to innovative programs, a group of creative professionals and cohorts from other cities who can help us find workable solutions to the city’s housing issues in the East Downtown neighborhoods.

Norris_Nick.jpgAbout the Author: Nick Norris is the planning director for the city of Salt Lake City.