Downtown intensification

This past January Brent Toderian was in Kingston making a public presentation to City Council, and later to a climate change symposium, talking about intensification, climate change and city planning. Finally, I thought, intensification and climate change are being discussed together. A lot of the literature about climate change and urban planning is rightly focused on mitigation and adaptation, especially flooding and other catastrophic weather events. Reading this information usually fills one with a sense of hopelessness. Thankfully, solutions are starting to present themselves. Recent polls indicate the majority of Canadians want real action on climate change. Canada has made international commitments to reduce emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Accepting the need to reduce our carbon footprint and concurrently intensification of our cities are now considered good planning. The Province of Ontario in the Places to Grow legislation has tied intensification to reducing the impacts of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in association with reducing urban sprawl, promoting public transit and the efficient use of land. The policy goal is to revitalize downtowns, so they become vibrant and convenient centers. Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City hopes, for the planet’s sake, that policy makers everywhere choose density over sprawl and public transit over the car. Therefore, to truly reduce GHG emissions is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and that means curtailing car-dependency and switching to clean energy. Canadian policies to date encourage voluntary efforts to adopt this greener lifestyle. Voluntary is going to have to become mandatory to effectively combat climate change. The way we live is going to have to change. For many of us that will mean living in our downtowns close to work, shopping and recreation.

The goal of many new urban planning policies is to create complete communities where people can live, work and shop in one place. That pattern is best exemplified in “traditional urbanism”, the kind of city-building before the advent of the automobile. In Canada, many of our best examples of traditional urbanism are our downtowns and the street-car suburbs. These are our most valuable urban environments, and they must be carefully nurtured to address the challenges of the future. I believe our oldest commercial and residential areas are the best and most robust places to address the impacts of climate change. They are also the most logical places to intensify because they are already complete communities. Downtowns and inner-city neighborhoods are going to have to house a greater proportion of each community’s population. Toderian’s motto “Intensification Done Right” captures this goal for successfully increasing density in our core areas.

Creating a cohesive environment where valued existing architecture and new construction harmoniously co-exist is going to be the focus for many communities. Good design will help to create this harmonious environment and mitigate against the creation of dehumanizing, car-oriented urban conditions. But the climate-resilient and intensified downtown will need to accomplish much more than good design. Walkability, promoting public health and safety, and encouraging diverse forms of transportation are all part of the complete community.

At the Kingston public presentation, I was disappointed to hear comments from the public resistant to intensification, arguing that it’s going to result in ugly buildings, and that heritage preservation is more important than creating affordable housing. I think it is important to place heritage conservation, residential intensification and planning for climate change together in one conversation. They are not mutually exclusive conversations, but facets of the same issue that we will have to address if we are going to create vibrant and successful downtowns. Glaeser encourages preservationists to identify areas where growth can occur that is efficient and green which does not disturb significant historic sites.Efficient land-use is increasingly crucial to the success of our cities. Low density development, land and building assets stranded by regulatory constraints, and poorly designed and constructed buildings all contribute to the unsuccessful downtowns that we don’t want.

Resiliency has become a common catchphrase when we talk about municipal responses to climate change. However, I like the term” antifragile” better, which was coined by Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Antifragility is a theory that some things become better from shocks and disorder, as opposed to just withstanding them. I believe our communities are going to face more shocks and disorder from climate change and the shift to new technologies. This will be difficult for society to absorb and will require great adaptability and creativity to achieve successful downtowns. For example, according to the UN, the building sector contributes about one third to global GHG emissions. This is due to emissions from buildings for heating, cooling and lighting. In addition, tremendous energy inputs are needed for construction, demolition and removal. Clearly, technical advancements are needed in the building industry. The status quo will not do. We need to see climate change and intensification as challenges that will make our cities, buildings and downtowns, better, maybe even antifragile.

For many people, all these changes are difficult to accept. However, these changes should be understood as part of the evolution of our cities. Drawing upon the best practices of the past and marrying them to the techniques and technologies of the future is the way forward. We are seeing good examples being created already. Toderian noted some projects such as the Athletes Village from the Vancouver Olympics as well as many projects in Downtown Vancouver. The National Trust of Canada has identified Downtown Guelph and the Thornhill Yonge Street Corridor in Ontario as good examples. An area that always provides inspiration for me is the St. Lawrence Neighborhood / Distillery District on the east side of Downtown Toronto. Byward Market in Ottawa and the Quartier International, Old Montreal and Griffintown in Montreal are all places where a great deal of creativity is being invested to develop vibrant, convenient and resilient downtowns. The drive to address climate change may become a great impetus to make our downtowns even better, by using intensification done well and retention of our most valued heritage buildings, streets and spaces to create the cities we want.

References and Further Reading:

St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, Toronto – Retention and Intensification on King Street East. A high-rise condominium is grafted onto an old commercial building which is paired with a 3-storey podium building next door.

St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, Toronto – Market Street accommodates both old and new architecture on a “flexible street”. A great example of private and public sectors working together. Brick paving costs were shared between developers, the city and the business improvement area. Encroachment agreements allow restaurants to use the sidewalks for outdoor patios. The city prohibits parking on the west side while patios are open in the summer months and the removable bollards separate the roadway from the sidewalks. In winter the bollards are removed, and paid parking is again permitted on both sides of the street.

Griffintown Neighbourhood, Montreal – new residential buildings are inserted carefully into an old neighbourhood. Correct, height, scale and materials blend both buildings together.

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