Brian Hagood is a principal of CAB Architects in Toronto.
Homeowners often get a bad rap for worsening the housing crisis with NIMBY tendencies. But in truth, the issues behind the high cost of housing are complex, and the interests of homeowners aren’t always solely self-serving. In fact, when it comes to development projects, homeowners and other long-term residents are usually the ones who see the faults most clearly. Rootedness has a way of doing that. It makes people feel responsible for a place, especially when it comes to the quality of what gets built.
That’s why community groups often criticize the formal qualities of development proposals while policy concerns itself mostly with quantitative aspects alone – such as density and parking spaces. This leaves beauty largely out of the broader housing discussion, and residents are given little control over what gets added to their neighbourhoods.
Sure, cities hold public meetings where people can voice their concerns, but this rarely has any effect on the final design. Instead, such formalities are usually mere gestures toward community input. In reality, planning departments typically have no mandate to judge a project’s aesthetic value beyond generic zoning bylaws, and neither can local councillors be counted on to advocate unenforceable concerns.
The situation is so dire that concerned citizens will often seek the tool of last resort: the designation of heritage status for buildings that stand in the way of new development. While the cynic may feel that this is done self-servingly, a closer reading reveals just how much people generally dislike the kinds of buildings regularly built today, and how much more they connect with the scale and charm of even ordinary ones from a century ago. It leaves you wondering: Would developments be embraced more if they were simply better-looking?
Sadly, we are told to think of beauty as a luxury instead of a necessity and that the immensity of the affordability crisis means that there is a moral risk in thinking too much about aesthetics. This fallacy makes it tempting to believe that new buildings should go up as quickly as possible, without worry over the nicety of attractive details. Unfortunately, this gives cover for a lot of ugly structures, almost always built with the goal of quick profits instead of lasting architectural contribution.
But we would be wise to consider how recent an idea this notion of luxury is. Until modern times, societies – notably with much scarcer resources – routinely elevated their buildings beyond utility, doing so with decorative elements and an emphasis on public-facing facades. Our country’s French, British and Indigenous heritage is replete with beautiful examples.
Yet we embrace utility over beauty today despite the documented harm. As detailed in his book Heart in the Right Street, the urbanist Nicholas Boys Smith lays out the research connecting beauty to personal well-being. Unsurprisingly it’s been found that people are happier and more attached to their communities when they consider them to be beautiful, even when controlling for variables such as income.
So what do people find beautiful? The answers turn out to be pretty consistent within a community when you ask them, but most developers and architects have little desire to do so. Instead, they pursue their own ideas of what will sell and look interesting. In fact, surveys find that architects regularly employ styles completely at odds with the preferences of everyday people, who usually favour more traditional forms and those that complement their surroundings, instead of styles that reflect the current design zeitgeist.
Because of this disconnect, most new buildings ascribe to the form-follows-function mantra, which in practice means doing away with the nice details that would otherwise make a building look appealing. So in a city such as Toronto, we end up with a skyline of glass and steel towers that offer little aesthetic value back to us – mostly just reflections and blank walls. Such a cityscape leaves one wondering: Does it really matter which spot behind the glass curtain happens to be mine?
Restrictive zoning adds to the problem because it funnels projects into large redevelopment sites or towers on smaller lots. That means most developments are big ones built by very large companies. But how much can you expect a corporation to care about lasting beauty when it sees housing as an investment vehicle? Consider that the word “neighbour” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon, meaning roughly “the one who builds nearby.” Given the resources it takes to construct in our big cities today, that etymology seems remarkably quaint.
Of course, big money will remain a fixture of housing development, even if zoning reform were to bring more opportunities for smaller projects. Still, there is a way to help residents exert greater control: through the use of form-based design codes that specify aesthetic requirements for new streets and buildings. In Britain, for example, there is now the Office of Place, which helps administer such guidelines. It was founded based on the work of a rigorous study commissioned to discover how people actually want their communities to grow.
As has been done in Britain, developing publicly supported design standards is something that every province here should undertake. The benefits are many, and they include increased personal and community well-being. Also, doing so would encourage acceptance of new development by giving residents a reason to welcome it: so that it makes our country a more beautiful place, one building at a time.