25 June 2012

Precedent Over Progress?

A recent decision by the city to reject a development proposal on College near Spadina again has me wondering: Why should new buildings conform to the old context? There seems to be a popular notion that, without any further explanation, a new building should be subservient to its context; period. When I ask why, I tend to only hear vague aesthetic preferences supporting this view, like claims that the structure is “oppressive,” rather than any solid reasoning that such a development would actually hurt people.

Why is the status quo taken to be the gold standard of architecture and urban planning? Is it so inconceivable that a new building could do better than its surroundings? Maybe we should be setting a new, better precedent in some contexts, such as suggesting that highly transit-accessible areas should be composed of buildings taller than bungalows. Some contexts aren’t good enough, in which cases we should make a new context. Why should we presume that the existing urban fabric is always a better urban model than anything else imaginable? In most cases in which height is controversial in Toronto, the surroundings are two, three, or four-storey buildings, and the anti-tall building mindset implies that we should keep such parts of the city at their current low height. Continuing to build neighbourhoods at their current height simply because they currently are that height seems ridiculous. It’s not as though there was a master plan that determined the average heights of different parts of the city when it was first conceived, the disruption of which would cause the city to cave in on itself. The ideal urban form is not set in stone; it changes depending on how many people want to live in an area, how much space we have left, etc.

Further, how does the first tall building ever get built in a city, if tall buildings should only be built alongside others? Should tall buildings only ever be built in cities that already have them (which would restrict  such development enormously)? Should a spacially-wasteful suburb, for instance, never build a tall building because it never has before? Is vertical precedent restricted to the past? To take my bewilderment of this anti-height position to an extreme, I’d like to ask: What would happen even if a 100-storey building was built next to a suburban home in Pickering? Would the world explode? I honestly don’t know why such a thing should be avoided. If anything, it seems it would greatly improve the area by moving it in the direction of a more sustainable, vibrant, and dense community. If the demands of its residents are too high for the low-density context, such as the sidewalks being too small or the public transit insufficient, can’t the context change to suit the development? Why not build the ideal building in an area - no matter the height - and then update the area accordingly?

The benefits of adding a tall building to urban areas are numerous and seem relatively easy to explain: More people get to live in a sustainable, vibrant neighbourhood, which comprises urban rather than suburban growth, it adds cultural and economic activity to the area, better use is made of space that is otherwise a parking lot or merely a two or three-storey building, etc. To me, in general, it seems that more is better when it comes to development. Others, especially NIMBYs, seem to think the opposite.


  1. There are zoning restrictions that outline the ideal density as speculated by urban planners and/or politicians. When tall buildings were first built, these zoning restrictions did not exist, and the idea of zoning is partly a response to unplanned building of very large buildings, which affect the surrounding to a great extent.

    While some of your concerns are good, there is too much here that is too generalized. I think any opposition against the anti-height opposition should be argued on a case by case basis, as opposed to a "taller is better" position that you take on here. Your idea of how to create dense, vibrant urban fabric seems highly simplistic. You should study some failed projects that resulted from the high modernist urban ideas of Le Corbusier, such as Pruitt-Igoe. I don't think anyone can claim to be an authority on urban densification without having fully absorbed the lessons of that project.

  2. I may be generalising that bigger is better, but in response to the generalisation that smaller is better. I think the former is more true than the latter.

    Wasn't the salient problem with Corbusier’s work the lack of (horizontal) density? That is, the tower in the park approach of tall buildings surrounded by a barren wasteland? If this is what you're referring to, obviously when I advocate for greater density, this sort of thing would be precluded because, though tall, it doesn't densely occupy spaces. As explained here: http://spacingatlantic.ca/2011/07/28/urban-density-is-what-you-see-what-you-get/

  3. I don't know why you would use a generalisation to counter a generalisation. An analogous approach would be to use stupidity to educate someone who is stupid.

    Distinctions such as the one you make between buildings that are merely tall and buildings that densely occupy build-able space becomes lost in generalisations. I think you know that what goes into making a good urban space involves a lot more than density. The idea that denser is better is not true, given that some combination of density and other factors will make spaces that are worse than less dense scenarios. Again, I encourage you to study Pruitt-Igoe as a precedent, which is probably the most important building to study as someone who is interested in urban density and how not to build high-rises.

    There isn't that much knowledge out there about how to create good urban spaces compared to other modern sciences, and I hope you will elevate the discourse, rather than reduce it to mere generalisations and simplistic characterisations.

  4. Correcting a popular generalisation (density is bad) with a MUCH more true generalisation (density is good) is a perfect level of discourse, and it is elevating the discourse by promoting a stance that is 99% true rather than 1% true.

    Saying that trumpeting the value of density is harmful is like saying that trumpeting the importance of not driving cars is harmful. Maybe in 1% of cases driving cars is wonderful, but I don't care about that 1%; I'm just going to promote walking, cycling, using public transit, etc.

  5. I don't think you appreciate my point. I'm not saying that everyone should raise their level of discourse and study the nuances of urban planning. I'm saying that YOU should, and I'm not saying "should" in a moral sense, but in the sense that I think it will enrich your life.

    Also, I'm not saying that a more true generalisation isn't better than a less true generalisation. Instead, I'm saying that ideally, there shouldn't be generalisations at all. Perhaps you have estimated your readership to be intellectually incapable of thinking beyond such simple generalisations. You are certainly free to aim your writing at any intellectual level that you choose. However, currently my response is the only feedback you have, and it seems contrary to your estimation of where the level of discourse should be (if you did indeed choose it).