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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Whom Does Design Really Serve? | Project for Public Spaces


Looks cool, but why is no one using it? From pps.org.

This post from Fred Kent points to the sort of dissonance that can arise between designers and end users. Pictured above is Sherbourne Common, which is an award-winning park that no one uses. It is award winning, and built, because it appeals to other designers, which make up the juries both for selecting which projects are built in major cities and win major awards, but nobody uses it because regular people don’t care if it won awards, they care if it’s pleasant and fun to be in. Kent shows pictures on his post of two swings 20 yards apart. He contrasts this with Dufferin Grove Park, which he says isn’t “designed” so much as it is “cultivated;” the park has a little bit for everyone, thoughtfully arranged to maximize it’s usefulness, not it’s coiffed appearance.

This is a problem I have seen in the design fields; design is not art, because it is not simply an expression of the designer, but something made for a different user’s ease and enjoyment. Designers designing for other designers, and not for the public, are doing the public a disservice. That is why public involvement, as well as emergent DIY and tactical urbanisms, are so important; it assures that the users get what they want, regardless of the designers notions of what a place should be.

Brent Toderian: Want Families Downtown? Design for Them!


Families can live in the city. From huffingtonpost.ca.

Brent Toderian wrote this post on families in the city, inspired by recent comments from Toronto’s deputy mayor about how cities are bad for families. He argues that this actually may be true, but it is because cities haven’t been designed for families. They lack family services, such as daycare, parks, and schools (or, in most of America, adequate schools), and often there aren’t housing units large enough for families. Toderian calls kids an “indicator species” for good neighborhoods, because if a neighborhood is good for kids, it is good for almost everyone. My desire to attract families to cities is somewhat selfish, because I want to be able to live in a vibrant, urban community with the services I enjoy, but I want to have a family, I want to have spaces for my kids to play, and I want to send them to good schools, ideally without paying more to send them to private schools. Attracting families will also help bring the middle class back to cities and broaden the tax base. I’ve commented on this a lot, but I think that cities should do more to attract and retain families.

Hume: Yonge basking in the sudden love of a city – thestar.com


Yonge Street, Better Blocked. From thestar.com.

Christopher Hume writes about architecture and urban design in Toronto, and recently commented on the temporary narrowing of Yonge Street, one of the major streets of Toronto. Yonge Street, Toronto’s original high street, has been many things at many times, from a shopping street to a heavily-trafficked thoroughfare. Recently, the city has turned its attention back to Yonge Street as a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use street, and as such has performed a bit of an experiment. The road has been narrowed to just two lanes of traffic, while planters and cafe seating have filled in the space, Better Block-style. The intervention has led to some organizations having to get new alcohol and food serving permits, and Hume laments that urban amenities are made illegal in so many communities. Hopefully Toronto will learn from this experiment, and make some of these changes more permanent.

Reason to Love Toronto: because we build parks under our expressways | torontolife.com


Underpass Park in Toronto. From torontolife.com.

Kelly Pullen brings us this post on parks in Toronto. When Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday made a comment about children in Toronto playing in the street, Waterfront Toronto corrected him; they play under it. They created this playspace under a number of overpasses, which includes a skate park, playground, and basketball court. There are a number of parks like this around the world, including a skate park in Philadelphia near the Navy yard, but so much of the area under freeways is taken up by parking, storage, or even left vacant. It is also a problem of freeway design. When I was in Rio de Janeiro, I noticed that their freeways, which were very high above the ground, almost seemed like they weren’t there, and actually provided shade for public markets, but if they got lower to the ground, they felt oppressive. There are a number of ways to do it, but if we have to live with them, good design can make freeways more livable.

Active public space under a freeway in Rio de Janeiro. From Andy Wang.

Sustainable Urban Design on Toronto’s Waterfront – YouTube


The Lower Don Lands is a highly innovative design taking place on former industrial land on Toronto’s waterfront. I think this is a very interesting development. It has the sort of large-scale ecological earthworks that Landscape Urbanists are into, while the traditional urbanist voice of Ken Greenberg kept it from going too far into oblivion, and it has distinct, walkable urban spaces. I think the idea of making a video to explain the project makes it much more accessible than writing a report. I’ve read the report, and it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m an urban design nerd, and I’ll do stuff like that. A lot of people wont. At a time when Toronto’s growth is threatening it’s heritage buildings, it’s great to take advantage of so much underutilized land for more appropriate development, and to fix some of the ecological mistakes of the past at the same time.

Public Works: Fighting Gangs, Guns, and Youth Violence | cityscape | Torontoist


Is policing the best solution to urban youth crime? From torontoist.com.

Patrick Metzger covers the recent report that London put out on the riots of last August. They came up with three main strategies for reducing youth violence: prevent kids from joining gangs by getting social workers involved with troubled youths in grade school; provide ways out for youths already in the gang lifestyle through education, family intervention, and job training; and arrest and punish those youth who refuse to leave the gang lifestyle. To accomplish these, London and other cities need money and inter-agency cooperation. Metzger compares London’s situation to that of Toronto, which has had a violent summer. He worries that these events may lead to a familiar cycle, where there is public uproar and some hasty measures taken, but over time the public grows apathetic and efforts wane until the next violent event. Crime, and particularly gang crime, is a major deterrent for families wanting to live in the city. While cities have done a great job of attracting young professionals, they are going to have trouble keeping them there once they start families if they don’t improve urban schools and reduce crime.

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