When it comes to urban intensification in Canada, most experts agree that it’s a good idea and should be supported, but that’s where the agreement ends.
While there’s a general consensus among planners and politicians alike that increasing the density of developments in urban areas is a healthy way to grow, there is disagreement about what laws and regulations are needed to encourage the right types of intensification and which levels of government should apply the rules.
In any case, intensification is happening in cities and towns across the country, says Benjamin Shinewald, president and chief executive officer of BOMA Canada, umbrella group for building owners and maintenance managers.
Toronto’s density is 4,350 people per square kilometre. That’s 64 per cent as dense as Copenhagen, which is a pleasant city to walk around in. There’s room to intensify here.— James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure, Schulich School of Business
“There is a clear trend in larger cities, particularly the closer you get to the downtown cores, to build more densely, and that makes sense given land values and lifestyle choices,” he says.
“There are good intensification projects going up all over the 905 [the outer reaches of the Greater Toronto Area],” says Ken Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Consultants and former director of design and architecture for the City of Toronto.
He points to Toronto’s KING project in the city’s King West district, a 600,000-square-foot mixed-use development on former industrial land slated to open next year. Designed by architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG, the project seeks to evoke the iconic Habitat created by Moshe Safdie in 1967.
KING will be an entire block that will look like a beehive made of prism-like apartments covered with an urban garden at the top, and with retail shops below.
Intensification is also under way in centres beyond the GTA. In Kitchener, Ont., the office development Breithaupt Block has turned a century-old rubber factory into 100,000 square feet of office space that is now home to Google’s largest Canadian office.
The site has been intensified by adding 300,000 square feet in an 11-storey, Class A LEED building that is just about complete.
Intensification makes sense because it makes better use of an urban area’s resources, says Susan Lloyd Swail, planning consultant and former deputy mayor of King Township, north of Toronto. Having more people living near their work can be better for their quality of life and for business, too.
“It provides multiple benefits to employers when more services are available to employees – transit, restaurants, clients and so on,” Ms. Lloyd Swail says.
Intensification is also better for the environment. “It’s known as smart growth,” says Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence.
“Research shows that smart growth can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third compared with emissions from sprawling development,” he says.
Yet for every positive step forward, there seems to be resistance or roadblocks to intensification – or in some cases, simple inertia.
“I look at an area like the properties along Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line and I see the same old two-storey buildings,” says James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “We’ve been talking about intensification along that line for nearly 60 years, but it never seems to happen.”
Dr. McKellar says there’s “real confusion” between the idea of density and the height of buildings. “The two are related, but they’re not the same thing.”
“If you look at a city like Copenhagen [population about 1.3 million], there are 6,800 people per square kilometre,” he explains. “If you look at the skyline there, it’s made up of a lot of five- and six-storey buildings. It’s fairly dense, but it’s not full of high rises.”
“Toronto’s density is 4,350 people per square kilometre. That’s 64 per cent as dense as Copenhagen, which is a pleasant city to walk around in. There’s room to intensify here.”
At the same time as there is resistance to intensification, there are also legal and policy changes taking place that are designed to encourage more intensification. Experts say the difficulty is that some of the changes are effective, some are not, and some actually may encourage the opposite of intensification – urban sprawl.
“Putting in good transit is the most effective policy,” says Kevin Eby, former director of community planning at Waterloo Region in southwest Ontario.
Mr. Eby says Waterloo’s new $860-million ION rapid light-rail transit system has been a “godsend” in terms of reshaping development so more people can live closer to where they work.
“People want to get on and off easily to get where they need to go,” he says.
Another policy that experts say can encourage intensification is for municipalities to establish fixed urban boundaries, separating areas that can be redeveloped from greenspace that should not be turned into sprawl.
Many municipalities in southern Ontario have voted to establish fixed urban boundaries, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has opposed such moves in at least one city, Hamilton.
Meanwhile, the Ford government has proposed to build a $10-billion superhighway, Highway 413, that would gobble up farmland north of Toronto and which critics say would encourage sprawl rather than intensification. It has also announced support for a string of 80-storey buildings where big-box retail plazas now stand in the GTA’s northern reaches.
This isn’t what everyone has in mind, Dr. McKellar says.
“We don’t need to have 80-storey buildings to have intensification.”