Adam: Why high-density living isn’t the answer to urban sprawl

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in condo towers in Ottawa as the city made urban high-rise development a key element of its vision for sustainable planning.

The idea is that high-rise intensification ensures the kind of high density cities need to build more compact, sustainable, livable communities. As urban centres become denser and denser, with more people living in smaller spaces, the thinking goes, the less pressure there is to sprawl. Ottawa has certainly taken the idea to heart, and now 20-, 30-, 40-storey behemoths are rising into the sky.

The LeBreton Flats area is on its way to becoming a skyscraper city all its own.

Now, city-building experts are asking cities to back off what some call “vertical sprawl.” Urban planners, designers, architects, visionary politicians and scholars from around the world meeting in Ottawa this week warned that high-rise development is not the answer to cities seeking to respond to the need for more housing.

Chantale Charette, the Principal Interior Designer and Landscape Architectural Technician at Studio 853, completely customized this Landsdowne Live Penthouse. 

The experts told the International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference that high-rise intensification is more about profit and economic growth than sustainability. And it “may prove more toxic to humans and the planet” than suburban sprawl, says IMCL co-founder Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard. 

“The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain,” a U.K. House of Commons report says. “They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid or low-rise development and in some cases are a less than efficient use of space. … Tall buildings are more often about power, prestige, status and aesthetics than efficient development.”

One of the issues, the experts say, is that high-rise buildings, largely condos, are so expensive only the wealthy can afford them. They drive up the cost of housing for all. It is well documented that purchase of condos by investors, foreign or otherwise, drives up prices even for the middle class, forcing many into undesirable neighbourhoods, and accentuating poor living conditions in cities.

High condo prices, coupled with a lack of decent affordable housing, have been known to force people into suburbia.

Crowhurst Lennard says high-rise development can cause the kind of isolation, alienation and depression studies once associated with suburban living, especially for the young.

If you live on the 30th or 40th floor, you basically live in the sky – in the middle of nowhere so to speak – with little in common with the street and public squares and the social interaction they provide. And you don’t need skyscrapers to ensure density.

This photo taken on January 25, 2018 in Paris shows an illuminated Eiffel Tower, next to the Seine River.

“The argument that height is necessary to accommodate density is not supported by the facts,” she says. “Paris is one of the densest cities in the world – 20,169 inhabitants per square kilometre – a higher density than New York with all its skyscrapers.”

“We need intensification to address sprawl, but what we are doing is not coherent planning,” says Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper. “We can have intensification without 25- and 28-storey buildings. We don’t need to approve every tall building.”

So, what’s the answer?

What cities like Ottawa need to do is limit high-rises and switch to low to mid-rise development that puts “people and public spaces at the heart” of urban design. Cities large and small, mostly in Europe have shown how two- to five-storey buildings that connect with active streets and public squares can transform neighbourhoods.

But saying is one thing, doing is another.

Ottawa planning manager Alain Miguelez defends the city’s planning vision, saying it has the mix of townhouses, single family homes and duplexes, low-rise and mid-rises right. High-rises make up only about 15 to 20 per cent of housing starts and the city has them because people want them.

“To some, tall buildings are exciting, to others they are a blight. It is emblematic of the current debate on urban development,” Miguelez says. “Is high-rise development the answer to sprawl? It is one of many answers. The point of it is choice, but we want high-rises that are good neighbours.”

The experts may want change, but it is not coming any time soon to Ottawa, or a city near you.

Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa writer. 

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