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Condominium construction continues between Fort York Boulevard. and Fleet Street in Toronto. (Peter Power / The Globe and Mail/Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)
Condominium construction continues between Fort York Boulevard. and Fleet Street in Toronto. (Peter Power / The Globe and Mail/Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)

Let cities reach for the sky Add to ...

It takes nerve to tell a Toronto audience that Jane Jacobs was wrong. The American-born thinker and activist lived here from 1968 until her death in 2006. She is revered for her insight - now conventional wisdom - that diversity is the key to a livable city. She was one of the first to see the folly of big urban-renewal schemes that destroyed lively older neighbourhoods and replaced them with bland housing projects.

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But according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, she was wrong about at least one thing: tall buildings. In his smart new book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, he says that "Jane Jacobs' opposition to urban renewal led her to a more sweeping dislike for tall buildings in general."

Jacobs argued that high-rise residential towers isolate their residents from the street. Only by living in low-rise buildings, like her own home in New York's Greenwich Village, could they stay connected to the bustling street life that keeps cities vital and safe.

She led famous fights against plans to drive an expressway through Washington Square Park and tear down 16 blocks of the Village for urban renewal. But her views on density and height also led her to oppose a nine-storey library for New York University. In her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued that neighbourhoods with more than 200 households to the acre risked becoming sterile and standardized.

Anyone who has walked through Hong Kong or midtown Manhattan can see that's mistaken. Lined with high-rise apartment towers, boasting densities many times over Jacobs's danger mark, these streets teem with life. The same could be said of Yaletown in Vancouver or the condo canyons of downtown Toronto.

Prof. Glaeser says that as much as he admires Jacobs for her "enormous wisdom and insight," she was also wrong when she argued in her early work that preserving older, shorter buildings would keep accommodation affordable for homeowners and entrepreneurs. "Her vision for Greenwich Village produced an area that was enshrined in amber, that was unable to produce enough supply to create affordability - and now it's $5-million to buy a house in Greenwich Village," he said at a University of Toronto talk this week.

Greenwich Village is a charming place, for certain. So is central Paris, where high-rise buildings are rare. But the enormous cost of residing in such places inevitably turns them into preserves of the rich. Cities that encourage high-rise living are not only more affordable, they are ultimately more livable. The population density that comes with high-rise buildings brings livelier streets, more efficient transit use, less energy consumption and healthier, less car-dependent lifestyles. The alternative to building up is building out - the curse of urban sprawl.

That lesson often seems lost on Toronto. The explosion in high-rise condo development is a great thing for the city - Prof. Glaeser says he is "exalted" to witness it - but a maze of rules about zoning, shadow impacts and densities often limits attempts to build skyward. Every time a developer proposes a tall building, local residents and politicians fight to block it or scale it down.

It is an old prejudice. Prof. Glaeser notes that when early-20th-century real estate developers were trying to build on New York's Fifth Avenue, then a street of stately mansions, opponents wanted a height cap of 125 feet. Without it, they said, the street would become a soulless canyon and property values would crash. Today it is one of the liveliest and most valuable avenues in the world.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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