Canada's major cities could densify without sacrificing quality of life: study
Published Tuesday, January 9, 2018 6:02PM PST
Canada's largest cities could densify significantly and still offer a high quality of living, a study comparing 30 major municipalities suggests.
The report, published by the Fraser Institute, an independent right-leaning think-tank, says major Canadian cities are much less dense than those south of the border and overseas.
Titled "Room to Grow: Comparing Urban Density in Canada and Abroad," the study ranked cities by number of people per square kilometre.
Policy analyst Josef Filipowicz, who wrote the report, said the results suggest Vancouver and other cities facing a shortage of affordable housing have room to grow while still being desirable to residents.
Increasing housing supply could make real estate and rentals more affordable without sacrificing living standards, he said in a statement announcing the report's release.
Based on the 2016 census, 631,486 people live in the 114.97-square-kilometre City of Vancouver, making Canada's third largest city its most dense.
But Vancouver only has 5,493 residents per square kilometre, a far cry from the 10,935 in New York City, and 21,067 in Paris. San Francisco has an average of 7,171 per square kilometre, and London has 11,054. (See Table 1 below for ranking of all 30.)
Vancouver ranked 13th most dense of the 30 locations included in the study.
Montreal ranked 16th with 4,916 people per square kilometre, Toronto was in 19th place with 4,457, and the suburb of Mississauga, Ont. was in 23rd with 2,468. Calgary came right after Mississauga with 2,112 per square kilometre.
"Because Canada's major cities have relatively low population densities… it is clear that the country's most desirable urban areas have the physical capacity to comfortably accommodate far more housing units and residents than they have now," the study said.
Filipowicz’s report suggested cities should continue to examine how density might or might not affect living standards as they grow, and "urged policy-makers to rethink their perceptions of urban living."
The author compared Vancouver to other coastal cities. San Francisco has a density 1.31 times greater than the B.C. city, and Barcelona is nearly three times as dense. He also compared Toronto to the economic hubs of New York, Chicago and London, which are 1.03, 2.45 and 2.48 times as dense, respectively.
While Filipowicz focused on how many desirable cities have a higher population density, major U.S. hubs including Boston, Chicago, Washington and Dallas are less dense than Vancouver.
Seattle has 3,244 people per square kilometre, and Portland only has 1,851 – nearly three times less than Vancouver's density.
More supply, more affordability?
Many have suggested that increasing a city's housing supply could be a solution for areas like Vancouver, where real estate prices are sky-high and the rental vacancy rate is near-zero.
In the Vancouver-San Francisco comparison, the cities' urban land areas are similar, but there are an average of about 1,700 more people per square kilometre in the California city.
But a denser urban area does not necessarily mean cheaper housing.
The median sale price of all home types in San Francisco was US$1.38 million in 2017, according to the California Association of Realtors. A market forecast suggested about 12 per cent of the population could afford to buy a home at the median price.
Meanwhile, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service estimated that the median price for all home types in Seattle, a city with a density of 2,249 fewer people per square kilometre, was only US$725,000 last month.
Not just a numbers game
A former chief planner for the City of Vancouver said it's difficult to compare urban areas because each is unique.
"We could spend hours talking about how the methodology of these kinds of comparisons are flawed… Some (cities) are old, some are young, some have suburbs inside them, some don't," urbanist Brent Toderian told CTV News Tuesday.
Toderian used the Vancouver-San Francisco comparison as an example.
"It's not just about whether they're west coast cities or not… San Francisco's a much older city, a much denser city, because it built up a lot before the car."
Other places that made the list of 30 are significantly older than Canadian cities, and have been densifying for 100 years or more, he said.
Filipowicz said his study did not take age of cities into account, and it did not make specific suggestions on how density should take place.
Toderian said he agreed with the study's conclusion that Canada's cities should consider densification, and that the move can be a good thing. However, he said strategies need to be based on conversations with residents of the areas, not just on mathematical comparisons.
"I don't feel as a city planner that we have room to grow because I'm comparing us to Paris or San Francisco," he said.
"I'm saying that if we do density well, we can be more sustainable. We can be healthier as individuals and as a society. We can lower our carbon footprint. We can lower our operating costs as a city and save public money."
And Toderian said the focus of plans for the future should be on quality of cities, including livability, affordability and equitability.
"Density can play a role in all of that, if you do it well, but if you're just doing a numbers game, if you're just counting bodies, it doesn't add that much to the conversation."
Demand for higher-density residences unmet
A real estate industry expert said there is still demand for multi-family developments that isn't being met.
"We're essentially providing the same amount of supply that we were more than two or three years ago," Urban Analytics' managing principle Michael Ferreira said.
Urban Analytics prepared a state of the market report in December that found that demand is exceeding supply, and has been for years.
He said one of the issues has been that cities are slow to change zoning policies to allow for a greater range of types of homes developments.
One of the largest gaps in supply and demand is townhouses, he said.
But he believes cities are "starting to turn the corner.
"We're seeing more product approved and we anticipate a greater supply getting released to the market later this year which should help ease some of the pressures on pricing."
With files from CTV Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber