With apologies to Mayor Rob Ford, speculation about his possible vices isn’t the only significant news emanating from Toronto these days. Recently released 2011 population census results from Statistics Canada moved the city up to fourth place among all urban centres in North America.

Toronto’s figure of 2.79 million people is now in excess of Chicago’s 2.71 million, a slight margin of difference, +80,000. Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles are in positions one through three. 

The shift towards downtown living, clearly apparent in the proliferation of new condominium towers, accounts for Toronto’s climb up the ladder.

(Upon hearing the news, the home town media quickly taunted the citizens of Chicago for falling behind. Now we’re singing a different tune, congratulating the Black Hawks for beating the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. In a form of second-hand revenge, it was payback for the Leafs’ first-round playoff loss when Boston eliminated Toronto in a third-period shocker.)

But not so fast! The fourth-place ranking for Toronto suggests a prominence versus U.S. cities that is somewhat exaggerated.

It should be pointed out that the 2.8 million population number is for the city “proper” – in other words, within a narrowly-defined border (e.g., nothing north of Steeles Avenue). There is a much larger grouping of residents in surrounding districts. The same also applies for U.S. cities.

When comparing city populations, there are suburbs that need to be taken into account. It’s important to have a definition that can be applied with consistency.

In Canada, the uniform designation is a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA). In the U.S., it’s a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).

A CMA is home to 100,000-plus. As one might surmise, it’s based on census divisions. There must be an urban core of at least 50,000, plus outlying regions in which 50% of the local residents work downtown or 25% of those employed in the surrounding area live in the dense centre.

The definition of an MSA is quite similar, although it is maybe expressed neater. An MSA also has 100,000 or more comprised of a least 50,000 in an urban core with adjacent territory where there is “a high degree of economic and social integration established by means of commuting ties”.

There are 388 MSAs in the U.S. compared with 33 CMAs in Canada.

Toronto’s CMA population is 6.0 million people. That yields first place in Canada, ahead of Montreal (4.0 million) and Vancouver (2.5). But it’s well behind New York (19.8 million), Los Angeles (13.1) and Chicago (9.5) and somewhat back of Dallas-Fort Worth (6.9) and Houston (6.2).

Tied with Philadelphia (6.0) for sixth place, Toronto is only slightly ahead of Washington (5.9) and Miami-Fort Lauderdale (5.8). But the city does have a jump on Atlanta (5.5), Boston (4.6) and San Francisco (4.5).

How prominent is Toronto within Canada? One in six Canadians lives in the CMA. By comparison, only one in 16 Americans resides in New York City.

On the global scene, Toronto isn’t unique in containing such a large share (16%) of its country’s citizens. Mexico City in Mexico, Tokyo in Japan and London in the U.K. (again depending on the boundary definition) are at least as dominant.

There is no denying that a population explosion is underway in Toronto’s downtown core. Gardens of newly sprouting condo towers are housing empty-nest seniors, young adult workers and well-off foreign real estate investors. 

Some design professionals are posing a difficult question. The condos may be going up fast and furious at present, but what will happen in a few years? There are particular doubts about the durability of the new structures.

With their all-glass walls and tiny or non-existent balconies, they’re not as energy efficient as they should be to withstand some ultra-cold days in winter and torrid hot spells in summer.

Some experts have commented that extensive renovation work may be required in as little as 15 to 20 years.

Will the towers then be abandoned and the city stuck with canyons of unoccupied space?

This seems unlikely, given the “pros” in favor of a downtown lifestyle. These include the ability to walk, bike or take the subway or a streetcar to work. There’s easy access to great shopping, medical attention, the theatre district, cinemas, clubs, restaurants, major sports venues and the waterfront.

Strolling among the lively crowds generates its own excitement. And it’s a thrill to rub shoulders with celebrities who are in town working on a project or are here to promote their latest song, film or book.

Toronto boosters point to success in maintaining and nurturing distinct neighborhoods such as Kensington Gardens, Queen West and Yorkville. They are a draw for those considering a move downtown.

But there’s a flip side. The new condo towers are in many ways discordant with those same neighborhoods. They cast shadows where sunlight is the best stimulant.

Toronto has become a difficult city to govern. The resurgence of the core is of benefit to those living there. At the same time, millions of people situated further away find driving downtown – as part of their commute or to enjoy some entertainment – to be a daunting task.

An increased level of mass transit construction is underway, but much more needs to be done. Largely because of the cost, but also due to opposing visions (LRTs versus subways), the Ontario government and City Hall are locking horns on this issue almost daily.

Not to sugar-coat the matter, there are also “cons” to living downtown: the expense; the constant commotion; the questions about air quality; and the shortage of green space.

There’s a reason so many people in urban Ontario love to get away to cottage country on the weekends. The northern “heavy” (i.e., quiet and pure) air helps them sleep better.

There can be no doubt that Toronto is acquiring a unique and striking skyline on account of the residential high-rise construction. Once again, this is reminiscent of New York.

There are also other ways in which the city is becoming more “urbane”. Let me relate a personal story by way of illustration.

Too many of Toronto’s parking lots are usually full to overflowing. If they’re outdoors, they may disappear overnight to become giant excavations for condo foundations.

Whenever I drive my family downtown, we have a certain parking lot as our first destination. That’s because it always has vacancies, a rare treat these days. Sorry, I’m not going to mention where it is. I’d like it to remain a tightly-held secret – known by only me and about a million others.

Once our “chariot” has come to rest, we have little hesitation in hailing a taxi ride to take us wherever we want go within a fairly generous radius. 

In this way, and keeping in mind the ubiquitous yellow Checker cabs in the Big Apple, the Carricks have adopted a New York state of mind.

We know that for many people, such an extravagance might seem decadent. But when it comes to getting around The Big Core, it does make life easier.

Alex Carrick

Find Canadian construction-related economic articles in Canadian Construction Market News and in the Economic Outlook section of Daily Commercial News.