Can cities be too dense? Can condos be too tall? Are they built to last? : TreeHugger


Condos under development in Toronto. From treehugger.com.

In this post, Lloyd Alter, one of my favorites, weighs the pros and cons of density, as demonstrated by the residential housing boom in downtown Toronto. Although Alter does point out some of the benefits of density, he seems to be in the “too-dense” camp. I’d like to address some of his concerns.

Can cities be too dense?

Alter mentions the various advocates of density and critics of zoning ordinances that say allowing the market to determine the appropriate density would allow for more affordable housing and economic development. He then cites two sources that mention how added density increases demand on services, as subways and sidewalks become crowded.

This would definitely be the case, if a municipality were to provide the same level of services despite increased density. But a municipality should be getting higher tax income due to more property taxes, and at higher densities, economies of scale become a factor, where it becomes cheaper to provide municipal services. They can afford to make transit more frequent, have more cars, or extend lines. If sidewalks are crowded, it creates an opportunity to form a pedestrian only district. The situation where this sort of density exists in North America is very rare, and districts would of necessity be very small, but they should be on the table. These are perfect issues to be addressed through impact fees. If a developer is still going to make millions by building a tall condo tower, they are more willing to give a few thousand in fees to improve transit or green space. In short, I think the only way cities can become too dense is if the public services and amenities we expect in the city fail to keep pace.

Can condos be too tall?

While admitting to some of the efficiencies that large buildings provide, Alter argues that towers should not be “so high that it gets depersonalized and anonymous because there are just too many people packed in slab towers.” I think that this moves out of the realm of urban design and into architecture, where an architect can create a building that minimizes the impacts of a tower on its street or block. I think that it is also important to incorporate cafes or at least proper lobbies into towers. My building does not have a lobby and there isn’t a cafe within a few blocks, and as such I don’t know many of my neighbors very well, but I have friends who live in buildings where people do homework, meet people, and even eat in the lobbies of their building, and it goes a long way toward creating a community.

Are they built to last?

Again, Alter’s argument against towers is more architectural than urban design related. He cites a source that discusses how towers are leaky and hard to retrofit, which means they will be rented, and as property values decline, these will become “where your grandchildren are going to come to buy crack.” This coincides closely with the views of James Howard Kunstler on the topic. Alter also mentions that these buildings are terribly inefficient energy wise, since they often have small operable windows, if at all, and their glass facades generate a greenhouse effect. These are all strong points, and I would add that towers also run the risk of outliving the fashionableness of their architecture. But again, I feel like these issues are related to architectural designs. Buildings can be built that have operable windows, use greywater systems or allow for proper cross ventilation. It’s not that condos are bad; it’s that we allow bad condos to be built. If there is anything cities can do, it is demand a higher standard of design from their developers.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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