The Best Places to Live in the City: A (Mostly) Scientific Ranking of All 140 Neighbourhoods in Toronto
In Toronto, we develop stubborn loyalties to where we live. We grow familiar with a couple of blocks and identify as west- or east-enders, or as the sort of person who can only live above or below Bloor. We brag that our neighbourhood has the friendliest people, the biggest backyards, the most coveted French immersion school, the greengrocer with the juiciest peaches. But what if we’re wrong? In a city with so many great pockets, and many more improving faster than you can say gentrification, the competition for the title of Number One is cutthroat.
To end the uncertainty, Toronto Life presents the ultimate ranking of the city’s neighbourhoods. We examined 10 factors for each, assigning them a score out of 100: housing (which considers year-over-year appreciation and the ratio of average price to household income), crime, transit, shopping, health and environment, entertainment, community engagement (which factors in voter turnout and beautification projects), diversity, schools and employment.
A team of researchers at U of T’s Martin Prosperity Institute think tank—who have an abiding interest in the growth of cities—helped crunch the data, pulling from a wealth of sources, including Statistics Canada, the city’s exhaustive statistical research, the Toronto Police Service, the Centre for Research on Inner City Health and the Fraser Institute (you can read the Institute’s explanation of their research process here). The goal was to be thoroughly objective, but we also took into account that some factors will always be subjective when measuring the quality of a neighbourhood. To some of us, a truly great neighbourhood has a dozen nightclubs, while to others it has the cheapest houses. We conducted an online poll of Toronto Life readers, who told us what they prioritize when choosing where to live, and adjusted the rankings accordingly: housing is weighted highest, at 15 per cent, crime at 13 per cent, transit and shopping at 11 each, health and entertainment at 10 each, community and diversity at eight each, and schools and employment at seven each.
The results are bound to be controversial. The top 10 are a surprisingly varied group, ranging across the city, from some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods to some of the most modest. What all 10 share is the right combination of covetable qualities. Here are the best places to live in Toronto today.
The idea of Rosedale exerts a powerful effect on the city’s psychology—for a certain type of Torontonian, moving into the neighbourhood, perched just above downtown, is an incontrovertible signal that they’ve made it. The average household income is a tidy $386,076, and few detached homes go for less than $1.5 million. But Rosedale is not monolithic. Its winding streets, which seem designed to baffle outsiders, are divided into countless little pockets: there are the secluded mansions of Drumsnab Park, the family-friendly enclave of Nanton Avenue, the remnants of the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Chorley Park. (Then there’s Summerhill and Moore Park, both lovely and part of the same official City of Toronto neighbourhood boundary, but neither is quite Rosedale, if you ask most Rosedalers.) Nearly half the residents are renters, which means there are grad students and artists mixed in with the bankers and trust-funders. Low- and mid-rise apartment buildings poke out between the oaks and maples from Bloor up to St. Clair, and strolling along streets like Elm Avenue in South Rosedale, it’s hard to tell which of the grand old homes have been subdivided.
The area is notoriously resistant to change and proud of its understated elegance, especially compared with the flashier Forest Hill and the blinged-out Bridle Path. (David Thomson, Canada’s richest man, needed four separate zoning variances to build a two-storey addition to connect his two neighbouring homes on Roxborough Drive.) For the most part, the people who live in Rosedale value their privacy, but there are a couple of organizations that draw them out of their Edwardians. Mooredale House, one of the city’s first community centres, is the weekend hot spot. During soccer season, 1,700 little players from the centre’s house league swarm Rosedale Park (their parents, meanwhile, circle around Roxborough and Edgar Avenues in their SUVs, desperately looking for a place to park). Every spring, Mooredale also hosts Mayfair, a fundraiser where power-brokers kibitz in the beer garden as their kids scramble into bouncy castles and onto merry-go-rounds (Ben Johnson officiated the track and field events a couple years ago). And down in the valley is Rosedale’s new communal backyard, the Brick Works Park. Every Saturday in the summer, half the city seems to descend on the bustling farmers’ market, but throughout the week, it belongs to Rosedale and Governor’s Bridge dog walkers, who wend their way through ravine paths to reach the boardwalks around the ponds. The entire project first got off the ground thanks to a $3-million donation from the Hamilton Group’s David Young and his wife, Robin, who live right up the hill.
E. P. Taylor, one of Toronto’s greatest tycoons, started amassing the land to build Don Mills in 1947, and by the time construction was completed two decades later, he’d laid down the template for suburban development in Toronto and all across Canada. While his bold plan for a new community had many imitators, it has had few equals. Instead of completely razing the land, Taylor built the rambling, discontinuous residential streets around existing trees and green spaces, with generous square lots for the detached homes. The houses themselves are set back at varying distances from the main streets, and feature quirky mid-century design touches like gabled roofs sloping off the sides to form carports. Behind the streets, a maze of paths form an internal walkway system (typically filled with tykes on bikes), and nearly 20 per cent of the area is given over to parkland.
In 2009, the original Don Mills Centre reopened as the more upscale Shops at Don Mills, an open-air mall with its own network of streets and a central square with a sculptural clock tower designed by Douglas Coupland. The development has quickly transformed a sleepy suburban mall into a destination. Toronto’s most entrepreneurial chef, Mark McEwan, chose the setting for his first gourmet grocery shop, a giant toy store for foodies with wallets to match their tastes. (It also doesn’t hurt that the new LCBO is three times the size of the one it replaced.) In 2013, Taylor’s suburban idyll is still one of Toronto’s most desirable places to live.
In a city not given to grand civic gestures, High Park is an anomaly. First open to the public in 1873, the magnificent park’s 164 ecologically significant hectares are an urban paradise of hills teeming with cyclists in spandex, picnic areas filled with extended families and fitness boot camps, a giant pond around which fetching couples nuzzle unabashedly on the weekend and, of course, a zoo. East of the park, on the nearby Roncesvalles strip, a hip new restaurant, fishmonger or knick-knack shop seems to open up every five minutes. Tellingly, even some of the stolid citizens who reside in the stately set-back mansions along High Park Boulevard have laid claim to Roncey.
The area is heaven to left-leaning, Birkenstock-wearing professionals who abhor the flashiness of, say, Yorkville, but nevertheless pull in enough to afford the $2-million detached homes. You can’t walk a block without tripping over a toddler, particularly as you approach Smock, a new café where young mothers sip pinot grigio while their tots play with craft kits. On the other side of the park is Swansea, a secluded redoubt that was amalgamated into Toronto in 1967 and still has its own little town hall, which now serves as a community centre. The houses on this side of the park are a mishmash of styles—a Tudor here, a ’90s McMansion there. Near the bottom is the area’s culinary gem: the Cheese Boutique, an old-fashioned palace of fine foods run by the affable Pristine family, where regulars stop by for marcona almonds, dry-aged rib-eye or perfectly creamy chèvre.
Filled at the top and bottom with thick forests of apartment buildings from the 1960s, Mount Pleasant West’s population density surpasses that of urban Paris. A visitor to Toronto peering southwest from the corner of Yonge and Eglinton could be forgiven for thinking he’d found the city’s downtown. Every morning, streams of young professionals emerge from their apartments and filter onto the subway to head to their jobs in the real downtown, and every evening they return to fill the shops and restaurants along Yonge Street. (Welcome new additions to the strip: Boar, a sandwich shop from the owners of Rosedale’s beloved Black Camel, and Lil’ Baci taverna, an outpost of the Leslieville Italian restaurant.) Even the schools here have taken advantage of the neighbourhood’s staggering verticality: North Toronto Collegiate traded its old, rundown premises for a new $52-million glass and steel complex by selling off a parcel of its land to Tridel, which built a pair of condo towers there.
The new facilities are so good that one gym teacher postponed his retirement. Set against this resolutely modern cityscape, the charming, tree-lined central section of the neighbourhood feels like a time warp to 1930. Edwardian and English Cottage–style homes radiate out on narrow lots from the Church of the Transfiguration, and the quiet streets are filled with dog walkers. Old North Toronto meets up with modern-day Mount Pleasant at June Rowlands Park, a green space with a baseball diamond, a new splash pad and a weekly farmers’ market. But the future of the area will always be up: in 2004, Minto began construction on its Quantum towers, kicking off a development rush to rival the mid-century one. Yonge, Glebe and Eglinton are all preparing to sprout condo towers and townhouse blocks, and a new class of owners is getting set to move in and remake Mount Pleasant West once again.
Big changes are coming to the sleepy neighbourhood sandwiched between the Junction and the park. Ever since this western stretch of Bloor was designated by city hall as ripe for intensification, developers like Daniels and Great West Life have been assembling parcels of land and preparing to turn them into—what else?—new condo buildings with breathtaking views of the park below. Existing residents, perturbed by the prospect of three glass and steel behemoths along Bloor, have rallied to “save” the street by lobbying the builders to lop a few storeys off the planned mid-rises and replace the modern cladding with red brick. And they’re right—this is a substantial transformation. But it’s also an exciting one.
The buildings themselves—10, 11 and 14 storeys—are stepped back from Bloor and beautifully designed, with streetside courtyards and wood accents. However these fights turn out, it’s easy to see why people would kill to squeeze themselves into the neighbourhood, with its winding, hilly avenues full of old Victorians and Edwardians. It’s also home to Humberside Collegiate, with its popular French immersion program; the innovative Ursula Franklin Academy, where students take over the curriculum on Wednesdays; and the radically democratic Student School, which holds a bi-monthly general council meeting of students and staff. A budding community association has christened the zone between Keele and the CP railway line the West Bend. The name is starting to catch on with the young professionals who have been moving in and planting community gardens by the railway tracks. The other advantage of High Park North is its proximity not just to the park, but also to the ever-gentrifying Junction, with its taquerias, craft breweries and decor shops, and to the more sedate charms of Bloor West Village.
At Al Premium, the gleaming new 75,000- square-foot grocery store at Eglinton and Warden, bags of Filipino jute leaves share the aisles with sacks of Vietnamese glutinous rice flour, Caribbean spices and Halal meats. The cafeteria counter transitions seamlessly from shawarma to mutter paneer to pho to dim sum, and the bubble tea station, staffed by a teenager in a hijab, abuts the espresso machine. The store caters to the mind-boggling diversity of the westernmost bit of Scarborough, which fulfills Toronto’s promise as a multicultural city in a way that no downtown neighbourhood has in decades—nearly half of the residents here are visible minorities. The diversity is vividly realized at the annual three-day Taste of Lawrence festival, for which the local BIA manages to close off a six-lane suburban arterial to traffic (downtowners would be surprised at how many people opt to walk).
In contrast to the hectic excitement of the main streets, all is placid on the inner residential lanes, where pretty post-war bungalows on perfectly kempt lots go for less than $500,000. There are even a few reminders of the mid-1850s village that used to stand here, like the old Anglican Church of St. Jude in Wexford and a copse of gnarled, hundred-year-old oaks and sugar maples that somehow survived clear-cutting at the top of Wexford Park. Further north on Pharmacy Avenue is Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts, the east end’s magnet for budding singers, actors and artists, whose alumni include sculptor Shary Boyle, Canada’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale; and Degrassi’s Nina Dobrev—and yes, the school’s “Gleeks” recently sang an earth-to-orbit duet with Chris Hadfield.
The snaking paths that connect the remains of the great and good in Mount Pleasant Cemetery are also some of the city’s most picturesque running routes, passing by fountains, gardens and hundreds of rare trees from around the world. It’s because of those trees that the midtown neighbourhood in which the cemetery sits has the city’s densest, plushest canopy. Unlike renter-dominated Mount Pleasant West next door, Mount Pleasant East feels like a small town full of professionals drawn by the quiet, leafy streets and central location. Housing stock here is a mix of brick semis and detached homes from the 1920s, with the occasional mansion and modern glass and brick stunner thrown in. One of the most attractive streets is Belsize Drive, which is split in two by a linear park, beloved by dog walkers, called Glebe Manor.
Homes don’t often come on the market, and when they do, bidding wars are the norm: one old semi recently went for $760,000—$80,000 over asking—after 200 visitors and seven bids. Of the two retail strips that flank the neighbourhood, Davisville Village, on the west side, is more interesting and varied than Bayview. Up the street is Mabel’s Fables, one of the city’s best children’s bookstores. The strip is also home to a 125-year-old camera club; two of the last small-time neighbourhood cinemas, the Regent and the Mount Pleasant; and three surprisingly good bistros, Célestin, Jules and Mogette, that fill up each weekend with families out for brunch.
The Beach is the only segment of Toronto’s waterfront that lives up to its enormous potential as a place to live and play. That’s why the 3.5-kilometre boardwalk is invaded every weekend by pleasure-seekers and why a detached home on one of the picturesque streets by the water seldom goes for less than a million dollars. It’s also why the word “Beach” has been climbing steadily uphill from the lake, first transforming the gracious homes north of Kingston Road into the Upper Beach and then spawning Beach Hill just south of the train tracks, the latter’s dubious connection to sand and spit notwithstanding. Residents of the actual area tend to stay away from the crush of beach volleyball and kitesurfing at Ashbridge’s Bay Park, sticking to the quieter eastern stretches or relaxing over a pint at the Balmy Beach Club, a relic of the days when the shoreline was filled with amusement parks.
The styles of the houses here are more eclectic than in just about any other old Toronto neighbourhood. By the water, tiny Victorian summer cottages mingle with low-slung apartment buildings and larger houses from the ’20s and ’30s, some featuring kitschy lakeside resort details like porthole windows. In the 1990s, Greenwood Raceway was torn down and replaced with Woodbine Park, which gets taken over by a different festival every summer weekend (Ribfest, the Muhtadi International Drumming Festival, the jubilant Beaches International Jazz Festival). To the east, there’s a dense New Urbanist development laid out on six streets, bringing new waterfront housing to hundreds of families in the area for the first time in decades (even if the trees have yet to fully grow in). Beach residents are famously averse to new development, and the first modern mid-rise condos are only now appearing along the fiercely protected Queen East retail strip.
Ask Mimico residents about their neighbourhood, and they’ll get a starry, faraway look in their eyes as they rhapsodize about their little commuter village by the lake. It’s easy to get swept up by the small-town feel of neighbours looking out for each other’s kids, or by the tiny waterside parkettes at the end of the streets, some with chess tables. Or, for that matter, by the bucolic cottages and bungalows on generous plots that go for about the same as a condo downtown. Every weekend, cyclists take to the lakeside trails and dog walkers brush by joggers in Mimico Waterfront Park, a new kilometre-long green space with pockets of wetland habitats, and boardwalks along the shore that connect to the waterfront trail. The Humber Bay Shores area just to the east is quickly filling up with 38- to 66-storey towers whose meretricious names evoke Miami Beach—Ocean Club, Jade, Eau du Soleil—but Mimico itself has so far resisted that kind of intensification.
A revitalization plan recently approved by city council caps off new Mimico buildings at 25 storeys while sprouting parkland and increasing access to the lake (it also allows developers to replace the crumbling apartment blocks from the ’50s and ’60s). After years of planning, GO trains are now running every half hour to Union Station (it’s a mere 15-minute jaunt for Bay Street–bound commuters), and new businesses are slowly creeping in, like FBI Pizza, a delivery outfit run by Queen Margherita Pizza alumni. Whatever real estate agents might say, the area is a long way from becoming the western Beach. The pace is less harried here, there’s not nearly the density of cutesy restaurants and shops, and Starbucks has yet to invade. And that’s precisely how Mimico residents like it.
In Casa Loma, house pride extends beyond property lines. When a townhouse developer began to gut the Georgian Revival residence of the late magazine magnate John B. Maclean in 2009, members of the residents’ association rose up and got the city to award a heritage designation. A new developer then stepped in with a plan to preserve the building, originally designed by Union Station architect John Lyle, by subdividing it into three residences, restoring and preserving as many historical details as possible. The entire drama was just repeated in short form to save an Arts and Crafts home formerly occupied by chocolate tycoon Charles Neilson. Even back when Sir Henry Pellatt first started laying out plans for the medieval fantasy castle that would give the neighbourhood its name, it was the Millionaire’s Row of its time.
The estates there were occupied by other self-made families like the Eatons, who lived in a Georgian mansion named Ardwold, and the Austins, who built a miniature Downton Abbey on Davenport Hill called Spadina House. Today, streets like Lyndhurst and Wells Hill are still home to some of the city’s nicest Tudor- and Edwardian-style properties. Further east is the family-filled Republic of Rathnelly, which irreverantly declared independence from Canada in 1967 (last year, the city installed street signs recognizing the secession), and the winding roads of South Hill. Society power couple David and Kate Daniels keep a magnificently restored art deco mansion nearby. It’s not all barons, though. Just north of the castle is a block of well-maintained rental buildings, and St. Clair and Avenue are full of charming old apartment blocks. The whole neighbourhood comes together in the middle at Sir Winston Churchill Park: high school students convene pickup soccer games, dog walkers let their pups loose in the large off-leash area and, in winter, tobogganers steel themselves for one the city’s steepest—and most scenic—runs.