A Study in Contrast: or, Getting Density Right

Two articles appeared in the Globe and Mail this week that offer an interesting study in contrast. The first, by Alex Bozikovic, explores the new Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zone designed to breath new life into Toronto’s 1960s and 70s tower-in-the-park communities by making small-scale retail operations legal there. Approved by City Council in 2014 (you can find our City Planning Staff Report here), it is a step in a process designed to help fix the negative consequences of poorly designed density.  The second article, by Marcus Gee, argues that Toronto is squandering its best opportunities for intensification by scaling down development proposals to accommodate NIMBYism. It advocates for density at all costs while ignoring the consequences of poorly designed density that the RAC zone is designed to address.

Towers in St James Town, in Toronto

St James Town, one of Toronto’s original apartment neighbourhoods (image by SimonP at English Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Density can be a really good thing. In fact, I’ve dedicated a whole podcast to the topic of how we can improve density through good design and by providing the infrastructure necessary to supporting liveability (listen to it here).

When well designed and located in the right places, density can have immensely positive impacts. In fact, we absolutely need density to create walkable, complete communities where people can thrive. For example, you need density to support high frequency everywhere-to-everywhere transit service, and to provide the critical mass of demand that allows for shops and neighbourhood amenities within walking distance of home.

Our Official Plan facilitates the addition of lots of density downtown, in the suburban centres, and along our Avenues. And we’ve approved more tall buildings in the last ten years in Toronto than probably any other North American city. In the last five years alone we’ve approved 104,769 new housing units, and 82,762 new housing units have been built, the vast majority of them in high density, high rise developments. To put that into perspective, in the same time period, only 71,558 new housing units were built in New York City and in San Francisco, between 2010 and 2016, only 14,500 new housing units were built.

We’re also approving these units much faster than most other jurisdictions. Just yesterday I was speaking to an official from San Francisco who described a 6-year long process to approve a six storey building there. Compare that to the 18 months it took to approve the 800+ units and multiple buildings contained within the Mirvish Village development here in Toronto. We hardly have a no growth or a slow growth scenario on our hands. We’re hardly in a situation where we should be compromising liveability – and thereby creating problems that future generations are going to have to fix, like we are today with those 1960s and 1970s apartment blocks.

When density is designed poorly or located in the wrong place, it detracts from the high quality of life that we all expect our city to deliver. It requires future public sector investments to address liveability challenges. Think Regent Park. This extensive redevelopment is all about fixing planning mistakes of the past. Today, we want to make sure we get it right the first time. Our goal isn’t simply to build out the city as quickly as possible – our goal is to build a better, more liveable, more inclusive city.

City Planning evaluates all development proposals (tall buildings and otherwise) through a liveability lens to ensure every new building contributes something positive to our urban environment. Sometimes that means taking a few floors off a building, or sculpting it with terraces and stepbacks to avoid the negative impacts of shadows. Sometimes it can mean adding a few floors in order to achieve a smaller floorplate and a slimmer profile. The point is that each site is unique and requires special consideration given its own local context.

It is precisely because of the mistakes of the past that we go through this process of refinement. Those towers-in-the-park that dot our urban landscape taught us that putting height anywhere without carefully evaluating and mitigating against its impacts is no way to build a great city where people can thrive. It also just pushes the hard planning work off to another generation – who will have to fix our mistakes. I hope not to leave that burden on future generations.