Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Toronto has more cranes in the sky than any other city in North America, more than New York, Chicago, and Dallas (or how about Boston, Houston, and L.A.? Maybe Miami, Vancouver, and Atlanta!?)—combined! The boast is a quick-and-easy shorthand for whatever anyone saying it wants it to be: how well the city is doing and how many people want to live and work here, or how plagued by condos or construction or too-tall buildings it is. Like the claim that Toronto is the world’s most diverse city, it’s become a point of great civic pride. And like the claim that Toronto is the world’s most diverse city, it’s also not true—at least not strictly speaking.
WHERE HAVE I HEARD THAT ONE BEFORE?
Here’s Mayor Rob Ford in April 2012, responding to a question about what he’d do next as mayor:
“We’re always finding efficiencies and cleaning up the city. We want to live in an affordable, safe city. We want jobs. We have more cranes in the sky than any major city in North America right now. It’s fantastic.”
Here he is again in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in June 2012:
“There are 189 construction cranes in the skies of Toronto. That’s more than any other city in North America. In fact it’s more than New York and Mexico City combined. That’s an amazing ‘skyline of opportunity’ […] I want to continue seeing cranes in our skies.”
That claim (“There are more cranes on Toronto’s skyline than any other North American metropolis”) appears yet again in a booklet prepared for the September 2012 Toronto–Chicago delegation [PDF], led by Ford, and in a February 2013 interview with the Sun News Network’s David Menzies in “Menzoid’s Man Cave,” Ford took credit one more time for the sky-high number:
“I’m trying to create jobs, I’m trying to get businesses to invest in Toronto […] You look out, look at how many cranes are in the sky, we have over 150 cranes in Toronto. That’s jobs. Every time I look at a crane, that’s a thousand jobs.”
Councillor Doug Ford took an even stranger opportunity to brag in May. Days after the Toronto Star and Gawker broke news of a video that seemed to show you-know-who doing you-know-what, the mayor’s brother gave what Torontoist described as “a bizarre, nine-minute appearance in which he read from prepared remarks and refused to answer any questions,” spending “most of his time giving a campaign-style speech extolling the administration’s economic accomplishments.” Among them:
“We have seen record years of development. We have more cranes in the air today, more than New York, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, combined—that is combined. 184 cranes in our city […] All of this is overshadowed, of course, by the constant stream of accusations coming forward against this mayor.”
It’s not just the Fords, though. In a 2009 speech to the Board of Trade, then-mayor David Miller told the audience that “Toronto currently has more cranes in the sky than Chicago, Boston, Houston, L.A. and Calgary combined.” This year, NOW Magazine has said that “with over 150 cranes in the sky, Toronto is a city that loves living downtown—or coming here to play,” and that Toronto has undergone “an architectural renaissance boasting more condo cranes in the sky by far than any metropolis on the planet.” Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee wrote in January that, ”By latest count, Toronto’s skyline boasts 185 construction cranes” and, in September, that the “high-rise building boom…has put more cranes on the Toronto skyline than in any other North American city.”
WHERE’S EVERYONE GETTING THAT FROM?
Every month or so, City of Toronto researchers put together something called an Economic Dashboard, which is then presented to City Council’s Economic Development Committee. Each of those reports includes a bar graph titled “High Rise Buildings Under Construction” that measures Toronto against a number of other major North American cities using data from the German real-estate company Emporis. Here’s the most recent one:
It’s those numbers that seem to be the ones everyone has been trumpeting when they’ve talked about cranes. The number of charted high-rises in the most recent annual summary, dated March 5, 2013, for instance, is the number of cranes that Doug Ford cited in May—184. (Which is yes, more than New York, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, and Miami combined; they total 145. You can see the chart on page 17 of this PDF.) When Rob Ford told the crowd gathered at the Economic Club of Canada back in June 2012 that “there are 189 construction cranes in the skies of Toronto,” that was what the previous month’s Economic Dashboard reported for the number of high-rises going up at that time, too. (You can see that chart on page 29 of this PDF.)
The reports accompanying the Economic Dashboards, also written by City of Toronto staff, have made claims about cranes that are a lot like the ones that the politicians and columnists reading them have. One report from May 2012 [PDF] says this:
“The record number of cranes in downtown Toronto is often also cited as an indicator of over-building. While it is true that the number of cranes in Toronto is the highest in North America, that by itself does not demonstrate overbuilding.”
And another from February 2013 [PDF] says this:
“The City of Toronto continues to lead all North American municipalities in the number of high-rise buildings under construction (184). New York City (91) and Mexico City (88), which are in second and third place,combined have fewer cranes in the sky than the City of Toronto.”
BUT WAIT, THAT’S NOT RIGHT. RIGHT?
Right. Those Economic Dashboard numbers don’t actually count cranes, and they’re not a great way to guess at the total number of them, either. For one thing, not all projects that need tower cranes are high-rises—think subway stations or malls. Plus, at any given time some projects might have more than one crane up, or none at all. New York City, for instance, had 91 buildings listed as “under construction” in Emporis’s database as of May, but only 21 tower cranes up, according to a spokesperson with that city’s buildings department. (Because you need a particular permit to erect a tower crane in N.Y.C. and you don’t in Toronto, they can track the number in a way we can’t.)
What’s more, that bar graph of ”High Rise Buildings Under Construction” across North America doesn’t include only high-rises; it’s actually all buildings in Emporis’s database that are under construction, not just what they call “high-rises“ (buildings between 35 and 100 metres tall) and “skyscrapers” (buildings taller than that). “In most cases it is fair to say that the majority of buildings [listed as under construction] will be high-rises and skyscrapers,” Emporis spokesperson Maleen Diestel explains. Most cases, but not all: in May, 30 of the 172 buildings Emporis had listed as under construction in Toronto were categorized as “low-rises.”
Peter Viducis, who’s the City of Toronto’s manager of economic and cultural research, admits that the way the municipal government compares under-construction high-rises here to those elsewhere in North America isn’t perfect, but that it’s at least consistent. “You would never compare one source [of data] to another,” he says. “We figure it’s safer to go with the same measure for Toronto as for other cities.” (The Economic Dashboards even include, shortly after the chart of Emporis data, a second chart of high-rises under construction, this one using data from SkyscraperPage.com. Tellingly, the different sets of numbers rarely line up.) Of cranes, Viducis says, “it’s a way of popularizing that concept. It’s putting a picture to a number.” But “what we really are talking about, precisely, is the number of tall buildings under construction.”
DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW MANY WE’VE ACTUALLY GOT, THEN?
Spokespeople for both the City of Toronto and the provincial Ministry of Labour confirmed that they don’t track that number. The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities could confirm only the total current number of certified tower-crane operators, not tower cranes, across Ontario—1,168 people, in case you were wondering. The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793, which represents crane operators, put the total number of tower cranes here at 300 last year, but not all crane operators are unionized, and not all unionized crane operators are part of IUOE Local 793. No one there could produce anything more precise or up to date.
Only one organization, it turns out, can get anywhere close to the actual number: The Ontario Formwork Association. The organization supplies “95 per cent” of the GTA’s tower cranes to builders, estimates their directing manager Dennis Cancian. When it comes to adding them all up, he says, “there is really nobody else that tracks any information like that”; he would have to call up all of his dozen-or-so contractors one by one to ask, which is what he did this time. The number of cranes he came up with: 181. That’s for the whole GTA right now, though, not just the City of Toronto, and doesn’t include any builders using contractors that the Ontario Formwork Association doesn’t represent.
“About a year to 18 months ago, it was higher—it was probably closer to 250,” he says, which was also the most Cancian remembers it ever being. “It’s slowed down recently a little bit, but it will probably pick up again by the end of the year.”
STILL, THAT’S GOT TO BE THE MOST IN NORTH AMERICA, RIGHT?
“I would hazard a guess that it is,” says Katherine Jacobs, the director of research and operations with the Ontario Construction Secretariat, which studies the industry. (Jacobs has tried to come up with the total number of cranes herself, but hasn’t been able to.) The way people have been guesstimating until now, she says, “makes some sense, but it’s not going to be 100 per cent accurate. And then how do you actually compare that to know that we have the most? It’s just not recorded: there’s no statistical record of the cranes in any given city.” It’s probably true that Toronto has more cranes up right now than any other North American city, and it’s also probably true that’s been the case for a few years now. “I believe we would be outpacing Vancouver, and the U.S. is not doing quite as well as we are from a construction point of view,” says Jacobs. “It makes logical sense to me, but to actually be able to prove it? I can’t really do that.” Neither, it seems, can anyone else.
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