Can cities be too dense? Can condos be too tall? Are they built to last?
In America, everyone from David Owen to Edward Glaeser to Ryan Avent to Matt Yglesias to Alex Steffen say that zoning restrictions, NIMBYs and historic preservationists are preventing development that would make housing affordable and economies boom.
Others are not so sure. In the Toronto Star, Antonia Zerbisias looks at the issue in a three part series, consulting with architects, planners, urban designers and me. First question:
Ted Kesik, a TreeHugger regular, says yes.
“We’re building way more than we should downtown, we’re not catching up with the infrastructure that we need, our subways are bursting and yet we still want to pump more people in,” insists Ted Kesik, a professor of building science at the University of Toronto and an outspoken critic of many of Toronto’s condo developments. “Everything has maxed itself out.”
Even the City's chief Planner and big fan of density, Jennifer Keesmaat, sees limits.
But that doesn’t mean anything goes. There is a tipping point, where people are falling off the sidewalk because there just isn’t enough room or where there might be onerous impact on services.
Urban planning professor makes a very good point about the efficiency of tall buildings.
Every fall, urban planning professor Pierre Filion asks the same question of new students at the University of Waterloo. What’s the most efficient mechanical mode of transportation in the city?“ They come up with all kinds of answers. The bus. The train. The scooter,” he chuckles. “Well, it’s the elevator. It’s quick. It’s efficient. And it doesn’t take much energy to operate.”
Then there is the opposing view.
Lloyd Alter, on the other hand, is not so sure. An architect and former developer who now teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University, he often casts a jaundiced eye upward. “There is what I call ‘the Goldilocks theory of density,’ ” Alter says. “That is, not too low that you can’t get human interaction and you can’t support a store on the main street, and not so high that it gets depersonalized and anonymous because there are just too many people packed in slab towers.”
Cranes and Rainbow over Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Here, Ted Kesik is in his element.
“I have always maintained that, when you’re looking at those glass towers there, you’re basically looking at the slums of the future,” insists Kesik. “No one will want to buy them because people will look at them and say, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t want to buy something that leaks, that will cost a fortune to retrofit.’ So when they can’t get sold, they’ll get rented. And they’re not of a high quality, so they can’t get rented for a lot of money. So who do you think is going to live there? I tell people, this is where your grandchildren are going to come to buy crack.
I am a bit cranky too.
For Alter, the main problem is energy efficiency. The glass has almost no insulation capacity. “When you look at the size of the little window that opens — because the building code says you have to have a little window in there — it’s a little slot that’s the size of an ice-cream stand pass-through,” he bristles. “There’s no cross-ventilation. So they’re constantly fighting to generate air conditioning, to generate heat, all because they’ve built these incredible dense buildings and they’ve given them these terrible, terrible skins.”