Have you ever joined a community meeting about a new development? “It’s too tall,” you’ll hear neighbours proclaim. “The shadows will be unbearable!”Others suggest that mid rise and tall buildings “should only be built in the city’s core or near a highway.” Otherwise,they will “ruin neighbourhood character!”Whether the proposed development consists of six or sixty storeys, opposition to height is almost guaranteed. Neighbours will even petition for height reduction by amounts as insignificant as two storeys. These messages are recycled in community meetings across the city. This raises the question: should we be concerned about building height? The answer? Yes, we should be concerned about building height. But instead of reducing height, we should be focused on adding more storeys to new developments and fending off opposition. Let me tell you why
We need to build more homes
Toronto housing is expensive and in short supply.
We can either continue to bulldoze precious farmland on the city’s edge for new suburban cul-de-sacs and big-box stores, or we can add homes in the city’s existing neighbourhoods by growing up.
Growing up is the only way we can meet our housing needs in a way that is economically, environmentally, and socially responsible.
Think about it. Existing neighbourhoods already have sewers, sidewalks, parks, transit connections, local business, and more. Adding more homes in these neighbourhoods allows us to capitalize on expensive shared investments such as public transit, offers walkable lifestyles where services already exist, and enables more families to join our city’s strong communities.
Consider this: a 20-storey building is proposed in an area with a subway station, a vibrant main street, jobs, and services.
During the community meetings, nearby residents object to the building’s height, suggesting that it will cast unfavourable shadows and that it doesn’t belong in an area with low-density homes. Negotiations erupt and the developer builds a 16-storey building instead.
At the end of the day, reducing the building’s height results in a minor shadow difference, however it cuts anywhere between 20 and 30 units. These units could have been homes for families but were instead eliminated in favour of existing neighbours’ preferences. What about the people who might have lived in those units? Were their voices at the table?
We can’t let community push back about building height prevent new families from joining our neighbourhoods.
Let’s talk about shadows
All buildings cast shadows regardless of height. This includes low-rise buildings and single-family homes. A new development of six storeys abutting an existing neighbourhood of predominantly 2- or 3-storey single-family homes will not materially impact the shadowing experienced in the surrounding area.
In fact, the City of Toronto has highly prescriptive design guidelines to mitigate the impact of shadows on the public realm. New buildings must be designed to allow surrounding sidewalks to experience at least five hours of direct sunlight per day.
Tall buildings also tend to be narrow. This means that their shadows are thin and change quickly as the day progresses. Shadow impacts on the public realm are minor.
What’s funny about the outrage over potential shade from midrise and tall buildings is that we actually want shaded areas in our city. Shade prevents the heat island effect, a phenomenon in which urban areas with consistent direct sunlight experience higher temperatures than comparable urban areas with reliable sources of shade. Protection from direct sunlight in warm weather months can be good for the public realm and healthy for neighbours and road users.
Let’s talk about where mid-rise and tall buildings “belong”
Some neighbours hold onto the traditional belief that existing neighbourhoods of single-family homes cannot and should not accommodate taller buildings. The thing is, many of Toronto’s existing neighbourhoods are integrated with expensive public goods such as subways, streetcars, GO trains, and civil infrastructure. It makes good economic and social sense for more homes to be added to these areas.
Still, neighbours suggest that buildings other than single family homes should be built at King and Bathurst, rather than Bloor and Bathurst, for example.
We need to be creative about how we integrate mid rise buildings into existing neighbourhoods so that they enrich the area and offer more homes for new neighbours. We also need to be creative about how we add more height to low-rise neighbourhood streets, such as adding single-storey additions on existing homes.
At Smart Density, we’re designing Transit-Oriented Communities, like our Vision for Value Village, to maximize the planned and existing transit infrastructure in an existing neighbourhood.
We’re also planning gentle density on neighbourhood streets, such as our 8-plex concept.
We need to focus on good design
While height has captured the public’s attention, there are other important design concepts that have a significant impact on the neighbourhood experience.
First, we need to design midrise and tall buildings with the right mix of units.
If you’ve ever searched for a unit in a midrise or tall building, you might have noticed that there are several bachelor and one-bedroom units, but few units with two and three bedrooms. That’s because developers are usually able to sell smaller units more quickly.
The City of Toronto introduced the Growing Up Guidelines to nudge the market toward construction of larger units. The guidelines state that buildings of 20 units or more should consist of at least 15 per cent two-bedroom units and at least 10 per cent three-bedroom units. Toronto is home to families of all sizes, so our new housing supply should be able to suit diverse needs.
Second, we need to focus on good design at the ground-level.
Think about what it feels like to walk past a solid concrete wall that lasts for an entire block. Now think about what it feels like to walk past small shops and restaurants with open doors, street seating, and a canopy of trees.
What you encounter at the street level is what will inform your experience in the neighbourhood This should be a top priority when designing any new street-facing building, including midrise and tall buildings.
Third, we need to focus on building articulation.
How does the building fit into the neighbourhood? How does it interact with its surroundings? How does it make us feel when we stand beside it? Everyone’s taste is unique, but there are non-negotiable design principles that make buildings attractive.
Many of the 1960s-era apartment towers that we find scattered throughout the city have repetitive façades, yet in nature, no two things are exactly alike. We crave variety and visual interest because that’s what feels natural to us as human beings.
Let’s overcome the loud voices that stand between new neighbours joining existing communities. Height is not the problem, but rather, it’s the solution to more housing for more families near jobs, amenities, and transit. Good design is the most important thing. Height is a mere distraction.