Getting Density Right

Density is often touted – by myself included – as key to unlocking a more sustainable, liveable, cost efficient future.  Getting density right is central to creating communities where it is possible to do a variety of everyday activities within walking distance from home – like visiting a health clinic, buying groceries, or getting your haircut.  Walking has implications for our health, our sense of place, our connectedness to our communities, and our need to reduce our environmental footprint.

So all density is good, right?  Not so fast.

Toronto boasts the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America – many of which are in our suburbs.  Many of these modern concrete residential buildings were built by the private sector during the city’s post-war boom. The thinking at the time focused on the separation of uses, and the assumption that every occupant would own and drive a car.  As a result, these buildings are not embedded within neighborhoods: they lack places to socialize like cafés and community centres, but they also lack shops and places to work, or to worship.  Tower Renewal is aimed at remediating these past planning mistakes, using infill as a tool to create walkable places, and through new zoning that permits a variety of new uses.  Despite many years of work, the complexity of the project has meant change has been slow. It demands reinvestment and private sector partners, and we currently have work underway to understand what incentives could be put in place to inspire reinvestment. (A big achievement of 2014 was the approval of the RAC zone. See my blog on this topic.)

As we invest significant energy to remediate these mistakes of the past, we must ask – are we also repeating them?  Are we still building vertical sprawl?

We are continuing to build residential towers across our city on the basis that “density is good.”  But density is only good, I would argue, when it is a part of a mixed-use environment, and when we get the urban design details right.

For example, buildings must have a direct relationship to the street:

Frame StreetsThey must also transition to adjacent uses:

Building Transition

And they must frame public spaces in such a way as to create vibrant, safe, usable public spaces:

Buildings Frame Open Space

There’s also another reason why getting density right is so important: it helps to ensure that our transit investments result in transit systems that have frequent service. Without high frequencies, transit is seen as a service of last resort.  Density is required to provide the critical mass that make high frequency service that is part of a broader network possible.  A mixture of land uses – housing, employment, cultural, institutional – adjacent to transit systems is important too. Mixed use communities ensure that transit systems are used all the time, rather than only operating in peak periods.

All of this is why our Tall Building Guidelines are so important – they help us achieve the important goal of designing tall buildings that are context sensitive and ‘perform’ in a way that contributes positively to their surroundings (that’s why we also call them ‘Performance Standards). Our Mid Rise Building Guidelines do the same thing. Together, these documents are helping us get density right.