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High-rises now have few ammenities. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)
High-rises now have few ammenities. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)

DOUG SAUNDERS

Saunders: We're a nation of suburban apartment-dwellers, but afraid to admit it Add to ...

What kind of housing do you think is most uniquely Canadian: The Victorian semi-detached house? The suburban split level? The downtown glass condo tower?

Think again. The dwelling that’s most Canadian, in its sheer numbers and popularity, is the slab farm – the block of high-rise rental apartment buildings, generally constructed between 1955 and 1979, located closer to the countryside than the city hall, in the suburbs or fringes of major cities.

Millions of Canadians live in these aging apartments on the outskirts, making us the world leader in non-downtown high-rise living. Forget the U.S.-generated image of suburban lawns versus downtown density: We’re a nation of peri-urban apartment dwellers. Figures show that Ottawa has more apartment buildings than Dallas, and most are midtown; Edmonton has more than Boston. Toronto’s outskirts are the North American leaders in elevator suburbia: Between Hamilton and Ajax, Ont., there are more than 2,000 of these cement towers, housing more than a million people; one in five residents of Canada’s largest urban area lives in one.

“It’s really a uniquely Canadian thing, to live in these apartments in the suburbs,” says Graeme Stewart, a Toronto-based architect who has built his career around the recognition and renewal of these towers. “We have a strange comfort level with living in high-rise buildings that’s not really part of our usual brand.”

Yet, we pay them little attention. The apartments in the middle distance are derided by suburban homeowners and governments as too urban, too poor and too transient; downtown dwellers don’t consider them part of their world, although it’s the people in these buildings who come downtown each day to work as cashiers and cleaners and draw on urban social services.

And that’s where the problems begin. These slabs were built in the thousands in a postwar vision of blue-collar, car-owning nuclear families escaping the city and living a lower-middle-class high-rise life – and they’re the product of Canada’s unusually enlightened suburban planning, in which governments demanded that lower-income rental units be part of the mix. But, instead, these apartment clusters have become the initial destinations for millions of new immigrants.

Priced out of the Chinatowns and Little Italys of yesteryear, the poor arrivals of this generation live in 1960s tower blocks alongside the expressway. But these places are ill-suited to the newcomer’s life: It’s physically impossible, and usually illegal, to open shops, factories and restaurants within them, and escape means a long bus ride.

German architect Thomas Sieverts has dubbed these apartments on the outskirts “cities without cities,” because they have the human concentrations of urban cores without any of the public-transportation links, retail and educational clusters, entrepreneurial opportunities or middle-class housing opportunities that make for successful urban life.

This is one area where Canada’s cities have more in common with their counterparts in Europe, where the inner suburbs are often jammed with low-income apartments. But the Europeans – especially in Germany and the Netherlands – are 20 years ahead of us. Many of their planners have learned the importance of packing more people into the slab farms, adding higher-priced condos to the spaces between towers, creating high-speed rail links into the hearts of the clusters, and allowing teeming markets and low-regulation commercial zones to flourish.

Lately, there’s been a belated recognition of Canada’s elevator identity. Canadian filmmaker Katerina Cizek’s acclaimed apartment-tower multimedia project Highrise has just been adopted by The New York Times and the National Film Board as a major online chronicle of the global crisis in apartment life.

And there may be an end approaching to Canadian policies that turn our signature dwellings into dwellings into cities without cities. Mr. Stewart, the architect, has spent the past several years leading a Canadian initiative, Tower Renewal, which is backed by the United Way and devoted to transforming the postwar slab farms into thriving urban-style neighbourhoods. They have developed a simple set of public transportation, zoning, planning and cultural policies that can turn these cement islands into thriving neighbourhoods (as some have already done).

This spring, Toronto may vote on a proposed new zoning category – residential apartment commercial – that would allow slab farms to become higher-concentration mixes of commerce and housing as a way to bring new life to the empty cement patches between them. The initiative, Mr. Stewart says, is “moving at a glacier pace,” in large part because the condo boom has tied up all the planning resources.

The buildings, meantime, are decaying. “These places have had a culture of no commercial or entrepreneurial activity for decades,” Mr. Stewart says. “Decisions made a generation ago have handicapped these buildings.” With a few simple changes, we could restore them to the centre of Canadian life.

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