Ethnic and cultural diversity, combined with a reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants, has long been a strength of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)—and it has also influenced the city’s development, panelists cautioned at ULI’s 2023 Spring Meeting.

While other cities could learn from the example set by the Canadian metropolis, the area now needs to solve its own shortage of affordable and attainable housing to maintain that diversity.

“This city is built on the backs of immigrants,” explained Randy Peddigrew, an executive vice president of the land division for the Remington Group, a longtime GTA developer. “We have to keep providing . . . housing and make sure that we don’t lose sight of where we started.”

One in three immigrants who arrive in Canada settles in the Toronto region, explained Kofi Hope, cofounder of Monumental, a Toronto-based strategic advisory firm that focuses on advancing equitable urban development. He noted that one of Toronto’s defining characteristics is being an “arrival city,” a term coined by Canadian journalist and author Doug Saunders to describe areas that are magnets for urban migration, and ultimately become engines of economic and cultural growth.

Saunders used the term to refer to neighborhoods or places within cities where immigrants begin their journey of assimilation and inclusion.

“We would argue that with Toronto, it’s not just one neighborhood, actually,” Hope said. “The entire city is an arrival city.”

Hope backed up that redefinition with data.  The Toronto area has the highest percentage of foreign born residents of any major metropolitan area in North America, Europe and Australia, with nearly 47 percent–more than  Miami, the U.S. metropolis with the biggest proportion of people born in other countries.  The city of Toronto has an even higher proportion of immigrants, with 51.2 percent of residents born outside Canada.

In some ways, the city’s and the region’s welcoming reputation exemplifies Canada’s evolution from a country with restrictive immigration to a destination for immigrants from all over the globe, which resulted from an overhaul of priorities and policies during the 1970s. That shift has proved popular. Hope cited a 2019 Pew Research Center poll showing that Canadians had the most positive view of immigrants in the world, with 68 percent saying that immigrants made the country stronger, compared with 59 percent of people in the United States who held that view.

Hope and Zahra Ebrahim, CEO and fellow cofounder of Monumental, devoted a portion of the session to describing how Toronto’s development was shaped over the centuries by influxes of people from diverse ethnic and racial origins. The site of the modern city was inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years before the British Crown purchased the land in 1787 for money and goods. The city grew slowly, however, until the rise of the railroads in the mid-1800s, when the population began to grow explosively.

Unlike U.S. cities, whose populations swelled in the late 1800s and early 1900s with immigration from across Europe, Toronto’s influx during that period came mostly from England and Scotland, Ebrahim said. The mid-rise apartment houses being erected in U.S. cities did not suit the prevailing cultural values of Canada, leading to the construction of neighborhoods full of brick single-family homes and rowhouses. Meanwhile, African American, Chinese, and Jewish immigrants settled in an overcrowded central Toronto neighborhood called the Ward, which was eventually demolished and replaced by government buildings and businesses.

Starting in the 1960s, Toronto’s population began growing more diverse—a change accentuated by immigration reform—and the built environment changed with it. In North America, “by some measures, we now have the highest proportion of [apartment] towers next to New York and Mexico City,” Hope said.

Ajeev Bhatia, an urban planner and consultant, recalled growing up in an apartment building in Toronto’s Scarborough district, an immigrant haven that he described as a “gritty and resilient community, and also one with an incredible amount of diversity.” Immigrant families from different countries lived in close proximity to each other.

“There were ‘aunties’ on every floor,” he recalled. “On the third floor, we had Trinidadian food, and on the fourth it was a Jamaican family. On the seventh, it was Afghani, the 11th was Chinese.”

In the late 2000s, a locally led effort—the East Scarborough Storefront—launched a program called the Community Design Initiative that brought together design professionals and local youth in an innovative collaboration to remake a former police station into a much-needed community services facility.

“Young people like me got to decide what tiles went in the floor and what color the roof was—all sorts of stuff like that around the interior retrofit,” Bhatia recalled.

That experience helped shape his own personal direction, helping him see a pathway into the building industry, and provided him with connections who have evolved into lifelong relationships.

“It’s really important to think about how we can integrate communities into the process” of development and design, Bhatia said.

But Toronto’s prized diversity is endangered by the fast-rising price of housing, noted Alia Abaya, founding CEO of a local nonprofit organization called Circle Community LandTrust. She recalled how her own parents came to Canada from the Philippines in 1975 and lived in a purpose-built rental unit before obtaining the small semi-detached house where she grew up.

Today, “affordability has slipped so far beyond reach for so many families,” she said. “It’s pushing those families out of neighborhoods where they [have] lived for generations, and making once-affordable neighborhoods now completely inaccessible for newcomer families like mine was.”

Circle Community LandTrust aims to be part of the solution. It recently acquired more than 560 single-family homes, which will be permanently protected as affordable housing.

But Toronto needs to build more housing as well, Peddigrew noted.

“We need to get back to doing rental housing,” he said, adding that public and private cooperation is an essential part of the solution.