Making the Case for Higher Density, Rather Than Higher Buildings

By David Donnelly, MES LLB Sustainable Builder Magazine - May 2011

I think that moving towards higher density developments will be the best thing that ever happened to the green building movement in Ontario. The province’s Places to Grow and Greenbelt legislation are slowly setting the stage for developers to make a fundamental choice: do want to I offer a big front yard in Bradford West Gwillimbury, or district heating and cooling in Markham?

Municipalities, stretched for years by the cost and inefficiency of servicing urban sprawl, are slowly but surely catching on and demanding better built communities. The GTA is the fourth most congested urban area in North America, behind Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, and just ahead of the urban planning nightmare Houston, Texas. As new greenfield homebuyers in the Greater Toronto Area realize their commute will exceed the current seven hour weekly average, the intensification movement is bound to soar.

In the second half of this article, I’ll reveal why I think higher density will help sell greener units and why green builders need to join environmentalists by becoming advocates for much smarter development, or outright greenfield protection. But first, the two major myths about higher density need to be de-bunked.

Myth #1 – People Hate High Density

Quick, where did you go on your honeymoon?

Making higher density attractive to homebuyers is a question of good planning, design and now I would add, green building. Ask your favourite developer or his lawyer where he went for his honeymoon. If it wasn’t an island somewhere, he will likely tell you it was London, Rome or Paris. You can be sure it wasn’t Richmond Hill.

Dissuading the public from the natural tendency to buy land over location is a challenge we all face this decade. The traditional development industry has done a good job of convincing the public that a 650 square foot backyard is worth the commute.

Let’s look a little deeper, because residents of the GTA are embracing higher density living already. The “condo craze” is proceeding unabated. There were 33,615 new homes and condos sold in the GTA last year, up 24 per cent over 2008. Forty-six per cent, or 15,425 of those units, were highrise condo apartment suites with some lofts or stacked units included.

So, if people hate density so much, why are they buying into it at record numbers and spending their honeymoons surrounded by it?

Myth #2 – You Can’t Achieve High Density Without Highrise Development

Skill testing question: which city has higher density, Manhattan or Paris, France?

The answer generally surprises people: it’s about the same when you compare the island of Manhattan to the 20 municipal arrondissements (the parts you wander) of Paris – 27,400 people per square kilometre (ppl/sq km) in Manhattan vs. 25,360 ppl/sq km in Paris. That’s a difference the general public can’t detect.

Manhattan: 59.4 sq km Population: 1.6 million Density: 27,400 ppl/sq km Paris: 86.9 sq km Population: 2.2 million citizens Density: 25,360 ppl/sq km

What makes this comparison so startling is the fact that Paris has achieved its density without any real highrise development. One thing distinguishing Paris from other international cities is its skyline. Except for the Eiffel Tower and one 59-storey office building, there are few buildings taller than 12 storeys (or 37 metres).

This walkable, livable scale came out of the first Paris Building Code, drafted in the 1850’s. The so-called “alignement” law still regulates the building facades of new constructions according to a pre-defined street width. Building height is limited according to the width of the street it will occupy. Taller buildings are generally not approved.

To combat highrise phobia that calls to mind images of American inner city decay, why aren’t we at least debating similar medium scale planning principles? It is simply wrong to say that the GTA does not have enough land for a healthy mix of new development, including new greenfield/sprawl. Most importantly, higher densities do not have to mean highrise development.

The Markham Foodbelt “Density” Controversy Markham Councillors Erin Shapero and Valerie Burke proposed the Markham Foodbelt to protect 20 square kilometres (4,940 acres) of prime Markham farmland, and 14 square kilometres (3,500 acres) of greenspace around the tributaries of the Rouge River. Opponents used the myths of urban decay and higher density living to raise fears of a highrise take-over of Markham, including advertising warning against an “apartment belt”. The Markham Foodbelt proposal was narrowly defeated, allowing an additional 2,470 acres of land to be developed. Despite the Foodbelt defeat, Markham is moving towards higher density living. About 54 per cent of new residential units built in the next 20 years will be apartments or condos, according to town planning director Valerie Shuttleworth. Had the Foodbelt been approved, that figure would have risen to 73 per cent, a increase of only 19 per cent. Built correctly (i.e. without sky-scrapers), this is not a change the public would notice. Markham covers 211 square kilometres, its population is approximately 300,000, and its density is 1,418 ppl/sq km. In other words, Paris is less than half the size of Markham and has over 18 times more density!

By comparison, the City of Toronto covers 641 sq km at a density of 3,972 ppl/sq km. Markham is one-third the size of Toronto, with a little more than 10 per cent of Toronto’s population. In fact, Markham is built at such a low density, it has a very long way to go before it becomes a complete community. Disturbingly, Vaughan is also on course to urbanize even more of its rural land, even though it is a far less dense (870 ppl/sq km) municipality than Markham.

One of the leaders of the anti-Foodbelt faction, Councillor Gordon Langdon, was quoted in the Toronto Star saying, “My children don’t want to buy a condo, they want to buy a house with a piece of grass”. Property value assessments don’t bear this out. The density of the Beach neighbourhood in Toronto is 6,111 ppl/sq km, and there are no highrises in the Beach. The Annex (8,500 ppl/sq km) and other desirable Toronto neighbourhoods (e.g. Forest Hill, Rosedale, etc.) all have similar profiles. While these neighbourhoods can offer grass, they achieve high-densities without highrise development, and perhaps more importantly to their residents, they offer access to shops, restaurants, transit and services, and to vibrant community experiences. So what was all the fuss about? It certainly shouldn’t have been about higher densities in Markham.

Had the new, higher density been planned to a higher, smarter density, and been built to the very highest environmental standards, Markham could have realized a huge benefit in terms of infrastructure efficiency, transit densities, and preservation of prime farmland. New urban intensification projects generally sell themselves on access to shops, restaurants, transit and services, whether they are highrise condos or infill townhouse projects. The trick for green builders is to recognize the added advantages of building in existing urban areas or at higher densities in greenfield projects, and selling consumers on the environmental features, and the walkable, livable communities. Density does not have to be a community killer; just ask any honeymooner.

David Donnelly is the Principal of Donnelly Law and Counsel to Environmental Defence


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