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Toronto is close to topping Chicago as North America’s second city for skyscrapers. Here’s why.

The Canadian metropolis has become a major player on the world stage. In rankings of global urban significance, it vies with and sometimes surpasses Chicago.

By mid-century, the Toronto region could overtake Los Angeles to become the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States and Canada.
By mid-century, the Toronto region could overtake Los Angeles to become the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States and Canada.
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With all of the news of the past few months, here’s an item that probably escaped the attention of most Chicagoans: On the list of North American cities with the most skyscrapers, Chicago — where the skyscraper supposedly was invented, currently No. 2 behind New York — is on track to be surpassed by Toronto.

Yes, Toronto.

According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Chicago has 126 skyscrapers and 19 proposed or under construction — a total of 145 if all proposed get built.

Toronto has 67 skyscrapers, with 31 under construction and 59 proposed — which comes to 157 if all are completed, second only to New York, which now has 284.

Most of the new buildings are condo towers. Toronto is the fastest-growing city in the United States and Canada, according to an analysis by Frank Clayton, a senior research fellow with the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Ryerson University in Toronto.

In 2018, the city gained 77,000 people, more than the combined total for the three-fastest growing American cities — Phoenix, Fort Worth, Texas, and San Antonio.

The Toronto metropolitan area added 125,000 people in 2018, second only to Dallas-Fort Worth, and, on average, grows by 100,000 to 125,000 people a year.

At that rate, by mid-century, the region would overtake Los Angeles to become the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States and Canada, says Joe Berridge, an urban planner and professor at the University of Toronto.

A provincial backwater 40 years ago, Toronto has become a major player on the world stage. In rankings of global urban significance, it vies with and sometimes surpasses Chicago.

Toronto has been relatively unaffected by the tumult currently afflicting Chicago and other U.S. cities. Protests have been nonviolent, and the COVID-19 outbreak has been much less severe.

Weary Chicagoans might wonder: What’s up with Toronto?

People in Toronto wonder the same thing.

Some “worry that all these tall buildings will cast them, alone and frightened, into the permanent darkness of a city they no longer recognize,” Christopher Hume writes in Toronto Storeys, a real estate publication.

“Torontonians see Toronto as a place of inadequacy, unimportance, incompetence and inequity,” Berridge writes in his book “Perfect City.” “Its aspirations to a world-class status [seem] preposterous.”

Berridge’s chapter on his adopted hometown is titled “Toronto — the Accidental Metropolis.”

“Unlike the rest of the world, no one in government, even at the city level, has ever had any intention or strategy to make [Toronto] a global star,” he writes. “Yet the rise of the Toronto is now impossible to ignore.”

In part, Toronto has benefited from luck and the ill-advised policies of its competitors. An example of the latter was the Quebec separatist movement that arose in the 1970s, leading businesses — including the major Canadian banks headquartered in Montreal — and thousands of English-speaking Canadians to depart for Toronto.

That helped turn Toronto into the New York of Canada — the country’s most-populous city and its dominant financial, business and media center.

But Toronto’s most important source of strength is Canada’s unusual — and shrewd — immigration policy. The thinly populated nation is one of the few in the world that sets a target for immigration rather than a cap. For 2020, it’s 341,000 immigrants.

That doesn’t mean Canada admits everybody who wants in. The country has an immigration points system that gives priority to applicants having work skills, education or other qualifications deemed desirable.

Equally important, Canadian provinces are allowed to fast-track immigration applicants willing to set up residence within their borders. Ontario accepts the largest number of immigrants. Most head for Toronto: Thirty-five percent of immigrants to Canada settle in the city.

Canada — and Toronto — have been particularly welcoming to refugees, including Hungarians fleeing the failed revolution of 1956, Southeast Asians in the 1970s and recently Syrians.

Immigrants have given the Toronto region one of the most diverse ethnic mixes in the world. Nearly half of Toronto’s residents are foreign-born.

The Canadian approach is one Chicago and other Rust Belt cities should study.

Chicago’s latest period of healthy population growth was the 1990s, when the city’s population grew by 112,000. That was largely due to the arrival of 210,000 Hispanics, who offset losses in other ethnic groups. Were it not for those new arrivals, who now constitute much of the city’s working class, Chicago would be a much different place.

Toronto demonstrates what a more enlightened immigration policy could mean for Chicago.

Like Chicago, the Toronto area has lost much of its manufacturing base and now is a magnet for college-educated professionals. Many Toronto neighborhoods have gentrified.

Unlike Chicago, Toronto remains a gateway for immigrants. The Canadian city’s extraordinary growth recalls what happened here more than a century ago. Chicago grew by 2.2 million people between 1880 and 1920, when the United States clamped down on immigration during a prior wave of xenophobia.

The U.S. will never return to an open-door immigration policy. But adopting aspects of the Canadian model would make sense — in particular setting the national immigration quota partly based on the willingness of individual states to invite immigrants to settle there.

Chicago and some other sanctuary cities are in blue states, where controlled admission of qualified immigrants would be a fairly easy sell. They’d be smart to urge Congress to consider such a policy once the current administration departs.

The approach would benefit Chicago and the nation. The anti-immigration policies favored in much of the country deprive the United States of talent and reduce national competitiveness.

The change would require a fundamental rethinking of how immigration is handled. That’s not in the realm of possibility given the multifaceted national disaster now upon us.

But calmer times eventually will return. Chicago should take the lead in making the argument when they do.

Immigration works for Toronto. It has worked for Chicago in the past. It would do so again.