When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet went into a huddle at this year’s cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, it was clear that housing was top of mind. When Trudeau emerged from the retreat last week, he told reporters some of the measures Canada most needs.
Among those was the need for densification, a growing topic dominating conversations at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.
“We have been working closely with provinces and municipalities on the issue of housing,” Trudeau said. “Whether it’s the Rapid Housing Initiative or the Housing Accelerator Fund, that’s $4 billion for municipalities to accelerate zoning changes, increase densification, create more affordable housing. These are the kinds of things that we’ve been doing. But yes, it is clear, there is a need for much more co-ordination.”
When asked about the Doug Ford government’s plan to build housing in Ontario’s Greenbelt, Trudeau said he saw “densification” as a better solution than building on protected lands.
“We see densification, we see proper partnerships with municipalities across provinces as being essential to do that (build more housing). And we don’t think that the only solution is to build on protected lands,” he said on Wednesday.
But what does the term really mean? What are the most impactful ways to densify neighbourhoods — and can densification be enough to fix Canada’s increasingly urgent housing crisis?
Trudeau’s comments reflect the government’s stance that densifying Canadian cities is a solution to the housing crisis, even though it’s a measure it cannot do on its own.
A spokesperson for Housing Minister Sean Fraser’s office told Global News that support from municipalities is crucial, and a key reason why the federal government is tying incentives from its $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund to promoting the densification of Canadian cities.
“To make housing more affordable, we need to eliminate the barriers to construction at the municipal level,” Shiraz Keushgerian said in a statement.
“We simply cannot achieve this unless municipalities increase density and create more homes within walking distance to high quality public transit.”
The challenge, some experts warn, is that what is needed to fix the housing crunch now is not what worked in the past.
Ken Greenberg, a Toronto-based urban designer, said Canada’s post-war housing boom was designed in a way that promoted urban sprawl. And now, densification aims to arrest the sprawl.
“We have to live in more compact, walkable, transit-oriented communities,” he said, explaining the concept of densification.
Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy consultant, said much of the sprawl has been caused by zoning laws that prohibit anything but single-family housing from being built in large parts of the country.
Urban design and policy experts refer to these areas as the “yellow belt,” in reference to the “greenbelt” terminology used for rings of protected land often in a band or ring around urban areas.
Whitzman said this has kept large groups, such as communities of colour, immigrants and non-traditional families, from being homeowners, since many of them can’t afford single-family homes within those zones, or at all.
The zoning has added to the challenges of building apartments in recent decades, leading to what Greenberg says can be described as “tall and sprawl” – huge condo buildings towering above a sea of single-family homes sprawled out below.
He said density, while necessary, is not the only goal of densification.
“Density itself is not a panacea. We need a diversity of housing. We need rental housing. We need housing that people purchase. We need housing of a variety of forms,” he said.
Experts believe the notion that density only means tall towers is part of what drives opposition to any such efforts.
This is why James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, thinks the term isn’t the best reflection of the goal.
“While I agree with the sentiment of the prime minister, it’s not a good word. I would use the word ‘livable city,’” he said. “Densification just has so many negative connotations to it. And there’s no question that we do have to build a more livable, more sustainable city.
“I don’t believe we should be building 80-storey towers. I think they are going to be the slums of the future because they don’t promote walkability. They detach people from the ground.”
Whitzman added there is a need to build the “missing middle” housing such as duplexes, triplexes, small apartment buildings and accessory apartments, and not to leave expensive luxury condos and sprawling single-family homes as the only options for potential Canadian homeowners.
Greenberg said if construction is left to the private sector, the densification that happens likely won’t be the blend of housing that is most needed.
“We will have more and more homelessness in Canadian cities. A lot of it (housing) is being built for offshore investors. A lot of it is simply unsuitable for families,” Greenberg said.
Whitzman added, “If you just talk about aggregate supply without talking about who needs what kind of housing, it could end up being condos (being built). The market for condos has fallen down a bit, partly because condos grew in the 1970s as sort of more cheap starter homes. And they’re no longer viable as that.”
Many of the solutions, however, rest on the shoulders of municipalities.
While a federal ban on single-family homes seems unlikely, Whitzman said municipalities are already taking the lead, pointing to pushes to eliminate single-family zoning in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa.
“I think single-family zoning is essentially gone in the big cities and I think that’s a good thing.”
But urban sprawl will likely be hard to reverse, the experts noted. Part of the problem, they say, is that Canadian cities were built around the personal automobile.
“One of the big areas of increased cost and sprawl is parking minimums for apartments. We subsidize cars so much more than we subsidize renters right now. It’s crazy,” Whitzman said.
McKellar said Canada is also facing the oncoming “freight train” of a rapidly ageing population and designing walkable communities for people when they are no longer able to drive will become even more crucial.
And when it comes to designing cities around cars, he was blunt: “We have got to get the car out (of urban planning).”