As dense as we want to be
BY SHAWN MICALLEF
Urban density has a bad rep. Cities have been characterized as dangerous places, teeming with malnutrition, epidemics and crime. The rep isn't completely unwarranted. Think, as one inevitably does, of Dickens' London: squalor, poverty, choleric crowding and tuberculin concentration. On this side of the Atlantic, places where the huddled masses massed -- like the Lower East Side of Manhattan -- piled people on top of one another to the tune hundreds of thousands per square mile in the early 1900s.
But even with all these images in my head, why do I find myself attracted to the parts of Toronto with the highest densities, and why are so many people trying to rob me of my dense urban pleasures?
Talk of increasing density in Toronto often brings out the NIMBY army. They resist increased density with fears of more St. James Town-style developments rising next to their happy homes.
To be fair, Toronto has had problems associated with density. St. John's Ward -- a slum between Teraulay Street (now Bay) and University Avenue, around the site of Nathan Phillips Square -- suffered from overcrowding, inferior sanitation and disease problems until just after World War II, when the city bought up all the land. South Cabbagetown, where Regent Park currently sits, was described by author and former resident Hugh Garner as being "the biggest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America" during the 1920s and '30s.
So when they hear that up to a million new people will be moving to Toronto over the next 30 years, the nimbys get worried. Which is understandable, but not, as it turns out, strictly necessary.
Prince Charles and other low-rise fetishists may not agree, but there is nothing inherently wrong with either high density or high-rise living. It's high density poorly managed that's the problem. That, and our own unexamined prejudices.
Take St. James Town, the area south of Bloor, north of Wellesley between Sherbourne and Parliament. It's Canada's densest area at 10 times the city average (about 35,000 per square kilometre) and a bête noire for density critics. But this vilified collection of high-rises doesn't look much different than, say, the Village on the Green apartments between Alexander and Wood streets located just to the west in the gay village. Both developments were designed for singles or couples. The difference is that today, St. James Town apartments often house entire extended families of new Canadians, a few shades darker and a bracket or two poorer than their Village on the Green equivalents, whose household size has remained pretty much as originally intended.
Aside from the lifestyle choices people from various cultures with very limited funds have made in this area, the fact is that a very large number of people live on very small parcels of land, that many of them have good -- often fantastic -- views, access to green space and can walk to stores and public transit. The St. James Town project was a rather heavy-handed and heterogeneous approach to urban renewal when it opened in 1968 -- by replacing an entire neighbourhood of single-family dwellings rather than incorporating high-density buildings into the extant structure, they disrupted what could have been a natural urban evolution -- but in principle, tall buildings mixed with residential streets can work.
Like it does in the Annex. This area, perceived as primarily consisting of Edwardian homes, is actually home to a lot of high-rise buildings, especially along Walmer, Spadina and St. George. It's this density, creating a mix of wealthy, middle-class and lower-income residents, that has allowed the stretches of Bloor and Dupont between Spadina and Bathurst to flourish as they have. Similarly, St. Lawrence has a bustling, lived-in feel that contrasts sharply with the low-rise areas to the east.
Technically, density is the ratio between a building's floor space and the surface area of the lot it occupies: a building with a density of 2.0 creates two square feet of habitable space for every square foot of lot. But really, we know high density when we see it; we sense walking through Riverdale -- with its shops, cafés, restuarants, laundromats and sidewalk activity -- is different from a similar walk in Rosedale, Leaside or Willowdale, where all the area's entertainment is kept within the four well-appointed and generously spaced walls of each single-family residence. Money, in this latter model, buys you privacy and separation from the parts of the neighbourhood you do not own.
But it's become recently obvious that a fair number of Torontonians are beginning to choose another model entirely. As condos with densities of 15 and 20 go up across the city, what the people snapping them up in unprecedented numbers are paying their money for is to be where the action is. Right on King Street, or Queen Street or beside the erstwhile SkyDome and within spitting distance of their office on Bay Street to which they can walk every morning, with the option of stopping by a dozen cafés, 20 restaurants and encountering a hearty cross-section of the city they've chosen to live in.
Less dense, suburban-style development was seen as ideal in the post-war era: a healthy antidote to what was perceived as unhealthy city living. There were more trees, green lawns and spaces to play and stretch out: cul-de-sac Lebensraum. Above all, it was safe. Less crime, traffic and weirdos tempting children with poisoned candy apples. Yet it's questionable whether these car-
centric neighbourhoods, with their streets always deserted at night, are safer than a vibrant, populated downtown.
High density reduces reliance on cars and curtails subsequent pollution, slows the loss of agricultural land and natural habitat due to sprawl, lowers the associated cost of providing infrastructure to serve low-density development and allows utilities to be shared more efficiently than in spread-out areas. Density does make for happier spreadsheets, sure, but it also increases Toronto's potential to amuse me with an endless stream of people packed in together. I choose to live in Toronto over Vaughan for a reason: I want more.