Where the wild things are: a measured look at the condominium boom and its challenges.

By Anthony Greenberg

As an urban planner, and due to its success, a question people often ask me is my opinion on the Toronto condominium boom. I do not have a definitive opinion. But this is a summary of my understanding.

Many people do not like condos. Many people are critical of tall buildings. But sometimes I think people are probably more opposed, rather, to poor design. They just think they don’t like most tall buildings because most of what they see are the common sky scrapers that pop up like cookie cutters. I think you can tell the difference between a typical, hastily designed contemporary residential condominium building in Toronto and, oh say, the Sears Tower in Chicago.

My concern is the ability to create a community out of high-rise condominiums. While I don’t like to get caught on traditional notions of built form as the only vehicle to healthy community and even if each building contains common spaces and what not, I don’t think superfluous towers in the sky do much for bringing life to the street and the public space at the street level. As I’ve said before, I think the pillar of a good city is diversity. This means not only people, but the type of buildings in a city as well.

And this brings me to the brighter side of the story. I find it very interesting that some are saying condominiums do bring more diversity to downtowns. That is, the people who are buying them are more ethnically diverse than the increasingly white downtown core.  This, I think, is neat.

However, there is still also the general understanding that these buildings are not places for families. It’s good that these units are allowing a more racially diverse downtown, but I wish this diversity translated into age demographics and family structure as well.

I understand why so many tall buildings are built: developers and speculators make lots of money off them. And people keep on buying them. On a less cynical note, they are also easily justified in the dominant planning doctrine of curbing urban sprawl. Reasoning: instead of moving outwards and harming natural ecosystems, densify existing cores. Build upwards, not outwards.

I wish that the look of this intensification was a bit more diversified. Urban policy in Toronto calls for a lot more mid-rise buildings, but fewer developers build these because they’re more concerned about getting the optimum profit on their land (i.e. the more units you can build on the smallest parcel …the more money you make). In Ontario, the Ontario Municipal Board – the administrative tribunal that settles disputes between two parties in relation to land development – amplifies this problem by undermining the City’s attempts to limit height due to policy technicalities like wording and time constraints.

All this being said, there is something innately triumphant about the many towers that greet you as you drive into Toronto. There is something exciting about being amongst them. Driving in via the Gardiner Expressway as you approach downtown Toronto, you know you are not in other parts of Canada. These buildings signify urban triumph – health, vitality, interest, investment. These tall buildings are not necessarily an urbanity I want to have my home in, but they symbolize an exciting way of living that is very different from the rest of Canada, which has traditionally been understood as a very rural, very wild place.

Anthony is a young urban planner in Toronto. See what inspires him by following his Tumblr, The Space Between Buildings.

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Categories: Cities, Urbanism

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