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For the sake of our health, our cities need to be denser and more walkable. But too often, restrictive zoning and reluctant neighbours stand in the way

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Illustration by Bryan Gee/The Globe and Mail

Alex Bozikovic is The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic. He is the co-author of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide and the co-editor of the anthology House Divided: How the Missing Middle Can Solve Toronto’s Affordability Crisis.

The neighbours are not happy. They have written letters to the city government to complain. “The proposal, if approved and implemented, will definitely contradict the very definition of ‘neighbourhood,’” reads one.

This is Harbord Village in downtown Toronto, a place full of Victorian houses and university professors. And the “proposal” is not for a meat-processing plant or a skyscraper; it’s a plan to take a century-old office building on Brunswick Avenue, add a floor and convert it into seven apartments. This sounds simple, and it sounds like a good thing for society: More people will live here, in this pleasant place where everything they need is in walking distance.

But it is not simple. Though Harbord Village was first built up in the 1880s, its buildings are governed by zoning regulations from the 1980s. These require parking spots and a smaller building than the one that currently stands on the Brunswick site.

In order to add seven apartments, you have to ask permission from the city. A developer has been negotiating with city officials about this building since 2018. And the locals get a say; in this case, organizing via Facebook rants and open letters, they are not very welcoming. They are worried about parking, and about the windows of these new homes looking into theirs, and about the way the architecture looks. One neighbour puts it simply: “I don’t think that this will fit into our neighbourhood in any way.”

Too often, this is the state of affairs in Canada’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods: They are closed off. Regressive planning policies keep the doors closed; in Toronto, the city’s official plan calls for “stable residential areas.” Homeowners now expect that nothing much will change in their backyards.

And that is a serious social problem. We have a shortage of housing. Our population is growing and urbanizing. Cities are places of opportunity and cohesion, and people want to live there. Yet our city planning and urban politics make this far too difficult.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the moment to change that.

Last year, two narratives took hold: That the virus would empty out our cities, and that it would create an imperative for bold collective action.

It’s now clear that the first idea is wrong. Offices won’t remain empty forever, and neither will downtown condos. As for the second idea, the urge to build back better: In the field of planning, that means something very clear. More of us need to live closer together, because our society works more efficiently and more equitably when we do that. But will we?

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A crane moves a garbage bin to the upper floors of a Vancouver condo tower under construction. Vancouver has made density and walkable neighbourhoods a key part of its urban development strategy.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Consider the one shared experience of the pandemic: being confined to a small physical area.

Most of us had the chance in 2020 to look closely at our own neighbourhoods and see what was actually close by. Frequently, the answer was: not enough. Parks were busier than they had ever been. And a robust public discussion began about the idea of the “15-minute city.”

This is a new catchphrase for an old idea: In short, places where you don’t need a car. A 15-minute neighbourhood is relatively dense with people, and has a whole mix of uses – homes, retail, institutions, workplaces – together.

This is how all cities operated before the invention of the car. But now, such richness is rare. A Globe and Mail analysis of census data found that only 23 per cent of Canada’s urban dwellers enjoy such privileges.

That number should be much larger. People who live in walkable neighbourhoods don’t just enjoy a higher quality of life. They also enjoy a higher level of social mobility. They have much smaller carbon footprints, occupying less space and driving less. Creating walkable cities, as the City of Vancouver has acknowledged, is powerful climate policy.

So how do we achieve it? The key is to let more people live in places where people already live, what’s known as “infill.” And this is where the current state of land-use planning frequently stands in the way.

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Major Street in Harbord Village. The neighbourhood lies west of the University of Toronto campus and south of Bloor Street, a major commercial and transit artery.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Take Harbord Village. When you consider the numbers, the logic is very clear. This place borders the University of Toronto, and is walking distance from the country’s largest cluster of downtown jobs. It has transit and public services as good as any place in North America. And yet it it is not full. Back in 1972, the census here showed 9,215 people; today it’s down to about 6,522 and growing very slowly.

The demographic story here is the same as in Kitsilano, or – once you lower the prices – neighbourhoods in central Edmonton and inner Halifax. Fifty years ago, the average family had less money and more people. Many homeowners had boarders living with them. Others had their houses divided into apartments.

Today, we have the opposite: Fewer people, with more money, occupying more space. The population is aging. And many households are now childless, a phenomenon that was very rare 50 years ago. (In Toronto, where this is particularly acute, nearly two-thirds of the households moving into new dwellings are singles and couples.)

Our demographics have changed. Our housing has not.

Yet such a shift is impossible in many places, thanks to the idea of “neighbourhood character.” This idea is made explicit in Toronto’s planning policy, and similar ideas exist in most cities. The theme is that the physical character of a place where people live largely shouldn’t change.

This idea of character is both toxic and vague. It was born a century ago out of naked prejudice against racialized people, renters and any household arrangement that didn’t include husband, wife and children. Somehow, this legacy is still with us. Brought along by the planning profession during the postwar era, it has shaped the attitudes and expectations of people – especially homeowners – for two generations now.

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The property at 225 Brunswick Ave. in Harbord Village, as it looks today and as it would look after a proposed redevelopment.Alex Bozikovic/The Globe and Mail; Suulin Architects

Take the Harbord Village apartment project in Toronto, for instance, designed by Suulin Architects for a small developer. More than a dozen neighbours are opposing the building in public correspondence to the city. Almost all cite neighbourhood character or the idea that the development doesn’t fit in.

But this depends on a very selective view of the neighbourhood. Six blocks away, on the intersecting side street, is an apartment building 5½ storeys tall. It fills its entire lot and towers over a house next door. It was built in 1903. And a stone’s throw away is Central Technical School. This high school’s building, dating to 1915, is at least 50 feet tall and extremely imposing. Somehow these very large facts on the ground, in the eyes of the neighbours, don’t form part of the neighbourhood character.

What does planning policy say about all this? Here, as is often the case, there are complicated and highly specific policies that contradict each other. Toronto’s Official Plan, the vision document, allows apartment buildings up to four storeys tall within so-called house neighbourhoods. But those postwar zoning rules tack on all sorts of specific restrictions about how big the building can be and where it can sit, so a development has to ask for special permissions.

Meanwhile that same Official Plan says that “neighbourhoods are considered physically stable areas.” The neighbours, with or without the agreement of today’s city planners, understand this to mean that neighbourhoods are houses, and they shouldn’t change.

And a small apartment development such as this is a huge rarity. Almost everywhere else in the country, planning prohibits apartment buildings outright. In most of our house-centric neighbourhoods, which were constructed after 1950, multifamily buildings are excluded: They are allowed only on the boundaries, on major “arterial” roads, which are filled with noise and pollution. Even then it’s common to hear qualitative complaints if a tower is visible from the backyards of a house neighbourhood. Those buildings are too tall, faceless, soulless, inhuman. And planners routinely deploy an arsenal of measurements about density, “overlook” and shadow to rein in development, even in the places where it’s allowed.

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Thorncliffe is a Toronto neighbourhood home to many low-income and new Canadian families. It's also become a COVID-19 hot spot.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

All this social engineering has shaped our society in fundamental ways. From its earliest days, planning was meant to sort people out by income level, and it has. Canada’s major cities are clearly segregated by income. They are racially segregated, too, because high incomes and whiteness are closely aligned. The consequences of this sorting have been very clear during this pandemic.

There’s close correlation between lower-income neighbourhoods, large numbers of racialized people and community transmission of COVID-19. In Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the maps of those three data sets look the same.

The planning profession is starting to become aware of these facts. Over the past decade, a movement of pro-housing activists who go by the phrase YIMBY – for Yes In My Back Yard – have levelled criticisms against the regressive apparatus of planning.

This has borne fruit. In California, the home of the YIMBY movement and of wildly expensive housing, state senator Scott Wiener has led a growing political coalition to allow for more housing in more places.

And the values that the YIMBYs espouse are becoming mainstream. A series of American cities and jurisdictions have taken aim at “exclusionary zoning,” land-use planning policies that restrict certain areas to single-family houses.

Berkeley, Calif., is known as the birthplace of these policies, which were often racist in their intent. Last month, Berkeley’s council unanimously voted to end exclusionary zoning by next year. A city council member called these policies “a vestige of past discrimination.”

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A 'prevent COVID-19 spread' sign is illuminated in an empty street in downtown Edmonton, a city whose zoning policies are under review to make them more flexible for dense developments.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

In Canada, the city of Edmonton is leading the way in this respect. The city’s planning department is currently reviewing its zoning policies to make them less restrictive: legalizing rooming houses, for instance, and allowing apartments in more places. “All across Canada, zoning bylaws have started to micromanage everything and become overcomplicated,” said Livia Balone, a senior planning official who is leading the renewal project. “We’re examining all our regulations to see that they really reflect our policies and values.” Which, she says, they often do not.

But as Ms. Balone acknowledges, the city has received pushback from some progressives. How would allowing new development actually help vulnerable people? New market-rate housing, after all, is not cheap.

That sort of argument is often heard in Vancouver, and to a lesser degree in Toronto, each of which pre-COVID-19 had seen rapid population growth and a rapid rise in house prices. In those cities there is a widespread feeling that new development tends to make a neighbourhood more expensive, leading to the displacement of lower-income people.

The answers to this are nuanced. First, that anecdotal trend is belied by the facts. A series of studies by economists in the United States have found that new housing brings down rents in the immediate area, or, at worst, drives up rents modestly. Meanwhile there’s strong evidence of “filtering,” the phenomenon wherein people move from home to home in a process that resembles musical chairs; when I move out of my old apartment into an expensive new condo, someone moves in to my old place, and so on.

The overall trend is clear enough: Building a lot more housing, on a metropolitan scale, brings down prices. Conversely, when many people compete for few homes, the wealthiest of those people win out. This is precisely what has happened in our most expensive cities.

This argument may not make intuitive sense in Toronto or Vancouver. But while new towers in those cities are very conspicuous, they are being built in very few places – while much larger zones, mostly made up of houses, are actually losing people. Over all, the quantity of new housing in recent years is below the highs of the 1960s – and it’s not enough. In Toronto, according to city stats, 74,379 homes were completed between 2015 and 2020, which is enough to house about 150,000 people today. Meanwhile, the city actually added an estimated 173,933 people. All those people have been competing for whatever housing comes available, and, until COVID-19 hit, consistently driving up rents.

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Construction continues on The Well condo project at the corner of Spadina Avenue and Front Street West in Toronto, where the former Globe and Mail office once stood.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

City planning doesn’t honestly reckon with this problem, and often makes it worse. Consider that a seven-unit building like the one on Brunswick Avenue is so difficult to build. And the majority of land in big cities is locked down for single-family houses. Development is a complicated and risky business, and our governments have chosen to make it more complicated than it’s ever been.

This system favours the privileged. New residents don’t get to live in the places with the best quality of life. They get to move in where there are no neighbours – dead railway yards or old industrial sites – or where the neighbours are less powerful. Toronto recently passed a plan to bring more apartment buildings into Keele-Finch, a suburban district with a new light-rail transit and a subway that is one of the city’s less-privileged neighbourhoods. Harbord Village, a wealthy area with much better transit and amenities, is still waiting.

Even when governments actually move ahead with changing house neighbourhoods, there’s often pushback. In the Toronto area of East York, one neighbour became infamous last week for opposing a new building of deeply affordable housing. Why? It would replace a parking lot that, he said, “is the heart of the community.” Politicians tend to avoid this kind of thing.

And so, if you have political power, change will not happen in your backyard. But why do we accept this? What good is accomplished by locking down so much of our cities to change – so that you must be affluent to live there? Where would be the harm in allowing more big things next to small things, more houses giving way to apartment buildings? People of different generations, income levels and interests living together?

Such an approach to city-building would have to be done carefully. Existing tenants, especially low-income tenants, would have to receive strong protection from market forces. More social housing would be crucial. Progressives in the world of housing policy are often skeptical of such a bargain. But our current regime does little for the less privileged; it builds segregation and inequality, and encourages middle-class people to settle in car-oriented suburbs. And our cities and provinces are still too often making that easy.

The policy objective should be simple: All new growth should happen in places that are already built out. No more building on greenfields. No more sprawl. Technically, we can do this. Most of Canada’s cities, even the densest and largest ones, predominantly are not that dense. They are not full. They should make room for more people. Why isn’t it that simple?

The future of cities: More from The Globe and Mail

Last fall, a Globe and Mail series examined how the pandemic could transform cities to make them healthier, more sustainable and more equitable. Here are some of the things we learned were possible.

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The 15-minute city aims to build more liveable neighbourhoods. In Canada, only 23 per cent of urban dwellers live in this type of area

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