If Toronto wants to keep families downtown it'll take hard work, amenities

As city planners continue to work on design guidelines to make the condo towers that dominate Toronto's skyline more family-friendly, international experts are recommending a focus on zoning and amenities.

Experts from Amsterdam, New York City offer tips to make Toronto family-friendly

Toronto has some work to do if it wants families to be able to live happily in the downtown core, planners say. (John Rieti/CBC)

As city planners continue to work on design guidelines to make the condo towers that dominate Toronto's skyline function more family-friendly, international experts are recommending a focus on zoning and amenities.

Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat tabled a draft of her Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities report on Wednesday at a planning and growth committee meeting. The plan, which calls for developers to build units with stroller storage, movable walls and shadow-free playgrounds, is set to go before the full city council later this summer. 

"If we can get the neighbourhood right and the design of the unit and the design of the building right, this becomes a really great high quality of life for families in this city," Keesmaat told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

Architect Daniel Jongtien, whose firm has worked on several high-profile projects in Amsterdam, says building a downtown core with a mix of young people — typically thought of as the main market for downtown condos — as well as families and seniors would be a powerful thing for the city's economy. 

Because Amsterdam's city centre can't intensify, housing prices are only going up. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

"But that actually takes effort," he told CBC Toronto at the Urban Land Institute's Electric Cities Symposium earlier this spring. 

Jongtien says Amsterdam's historic city centre of connected mid-rise buildings arranged around canals is almost the inverse of Toronto's downtown, but there's one key similarity: sky-high housing prices. 

"Basically people with no kids and double incomes live there, and others not so much anymore," he said, referring to Amsterdam's core. 

Zoning measures can help with social mix

To counter that, the city is taking zoning measures to try to make sure young people are able to live or get downtown. Designers like Jongtien are also working to connect the city's maze of bike lanes with transit hubs for those taking longer trips. 

"We need to keep young people in the city to further develop," he said. 

New York's High Line, a converted rail track, has become one of the city's top destinations. (John Schults/Reuters)

Jamie Torres Springer, a GTA-born planner who has worked on major projects in this city, New York and Boston, says many people living in cities also rely on services like public parks, which often anchor new communities.

Springer cited the example of the High Line, Manhattan's railtrack-turned-walking path, which has not only become one of the city's top tourist destinations, it has also led to the creation of more than 1,400 housing units in the surrounding area.

Springer said the billions of dollars worth of real estate investment near the park has benefited both developers and the city, and suggests Toronto consider partnering with the private sector on major projects of that scale (think, Rail Deck Park).

Projects like that can be a "shared responsibility," between the city and developers, he said.

"Use your scarce public dollars on the thing that is hardest to do," Torres said, referring to making investments in affordable housing and protecting vulnerable groups in the city. 

Price continues to be a major challenge

Springer's other advice: plan for districts where city officials can use every tool at their disposal to ensure necessities like open spaces, schools and daycares are all there. 

Keesmaat, who recently told CBC's Dwight Drummond she's always looking abroad for ideas, said housing prices continue to be a "significant issue" in the city, something Toronto will need all three levels of government to help with in the future. 

"The affordability challenge is a really big piece of this puzzle," she said.


John Rieti

Senior producer

John started with CBC News in 2008 as a Peter Gzowski intern in Newfoundland, and holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University. As a reporter, John has covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. He now leads a CBC Toronto digital team that has won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards for overall excellence in online reporting. You can reach him at


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