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Margaret Atwood opposes low-rise in Annex neighbourhood; brings public awareness to densification of Toronto issue

Margaret Atwood is a favourite author of millions, and a towering intellect whose contributions to a just society are indisputable. She is also not a stranger to controversy, but this is likely the first time she’s been accused of NIMBYism (Not in my Backyard-ism). With 1.73 million followers on Twitter, a single tweet from Margaret Atwood carries weight, but that didn’t stop people from criticism on the social network.

Margaret Atwood reasonably wrote to her Councillor (as any of us would do): “I join my neighbours in their concerns about setbacks that violate bylaws, and about privacy issues, and about the precedent such large violations of bylaws would set, not only for the neighbourhood but for the city.”

 

Margaret Atwood, author and social activist.
Her concern was legitimate and reasoned, and warrants attention, particularly her statement “about the precedent such large violations of bylaws would set…” Unfortunately, due to her high public standing, by standing up to a developer who received approval to build an eight-floor low-rise behind her lovely house, she came under immediate attack on Twitter as a NIMBY.

 

Margaret Atwood becomes a focal point for debate

The Annex neighbourhood in Toronto is an older area with genuine character, Victorian homes and mature trees.

In classic Atwood style, she became a focal point for the debate on densification in Toronto — an important, ongoing debate at all levels in the city, from urban planners to citizens. (And, just for the record, her Twitter account has thousands of posts about social issues that are NOT in her back yard.) It’s fairly clear that her desire to save an old and precious chestnut tree in her neighbourhood is not self-motivated; it’s a compassion act of a kind and caring public figure.

The building in question exceeds allowed height and current density rules, so any reasonable citizen can safely criticize the proposal — unless you’re famous, apparently. The Twitter criticism seems to be focused on the identities of the people objecting to the development, rather than the merits — or lack, thereof — of the proposed condo.

Densification and condos important, but…

More than half of the planet’s population live in cities, currently. As populations head towards 10 billion level, that proportion must increase to make the earth sustainable.
Densification and vertical-living condos are important solutions to issues such as affordability, carbon footprint, commute time and sustainability, but that doesn’t mean that the city should freely amend all its density rules to accommodate sudden density. In the same way that the criticisms of the towering windmills north of Toronto became unfairly branded “NIMBY” — even though they entirely transformed the rural lives of farmers and small-town residents (without their permission) — people who object to densification in Toronto, for valid reasons, should not be so cruelly labelled. This is particularly unfair in the case of an effective and compassionate social activist such as Margaret Atwood.
The Annex has genuine historical value, and a neighbourhood feel. In the rush to densification, urban planners should prevent the unnecessary encroachment into heritage areas.

With that long segue into densification — and with issues such as Global warming and long commute times, and housing affordability all top of mind — what are the pros and cons of increasing the rate of densification in Toronto? Clearly, with the much-needed Green Belt north of Toronto, there is limited space to spread out for Toronto’s fast-growing population. At the same time, it’s clear that downtown homes, close to workplaces, would reduce pollution, stress and the burden on infrastructure in the province. But there clearly are cons to making decisions on densification without due process — as Margaret Atwood very precisely pointed out. One of those is the preservation of tree canopy and greenery in the city. Another is the sanctity of certain heritage neighbourhoods such as the Annex.

The importance of densification and vertical living

Densification of the city of Toronto contributes to solutions for global-scale issues such as Global warming, by reducing commute times (and, as a result, carbon footprint) and improving affordability in a city that is rapidly becoming unaffordable.
Arguably, condominiums and vertical living may be the only viable solutions to affordability, which is clearly one of the biggest social issues facing Toronto.
Cities such as Hong Kong long ago moved to denser, vertical living.
On the other hand, current public infrastructure, particularly transit, is not ready for heavy densification. Increased use of bicycle lanes, improved transit, retiming of traffic lights and other major planning issues are all required to make densification viable.
With few exceptions, most urban planners agree that the move to vertical living is logical. Buyer preferences, as demonstrated in the shift of sales preference to condominium apartments, also makes it desirable. Environmental factors and stress factors all point to vertical living and densification as solutions. [See our previous feature on the shift of preferences to Condominiums in Toronto>>]
With that in mind, though, it’s important to regulate and govern this expected growth. Cranes and highrise construction will continue to dominate Toronto’s future skyline, but there is also a move to low-rise condos in quieter, less dense neighbourhoods.

Clearly, rules need to be consistently applied to minimize distrust of urban planners and city officials. On the other hand, affordability demands a faster-track to development for willing developers who invest in Toronto. One of the key reasons property values are so high in Toronto is lack of availability — and vertical densification is one of the solutions to that issue.

That does not mean, however, that planners and developers can stomp all over the rights of existing home-owners. There are legitimate reasons to preserve areas such as the Annex. A city is more than volume. City’s contain precious neighbourhoods that characterize urban life and make the city desirable for residents.
Vertical living and densification are necessary for constrained urban areas as part of Green planning.

Green cities take new approaches

In a conference on “Green Cities, New Approaches to Confronting Climate Change”[1] several keynote speakers and scientists endorsed the need for densification and vertical living and the containment of urban sprawl. Findings and recommendations were also based on 39 regional workshops, 5,000 symposium participants, 3 public debates and 50,000 responses to surveys. Several cities, such as Paris, were profiled — where car ownership is only 0.27 cars per resident. The opening speech contained a solid nugget of advice for urban planners:

“If we are over-hasty in considering the issues, we may be tempted to abandon the idea of metropolitan planning altogether. But how can we then ensure consistency in metropolitan development? How can we ensure the ―profitability of public spending (particularly in terms of transport)? How can we lend medium- and long-term visibility to private investment, which also needs guaranteed returns?”

On the other hand, the various speakers also highlighted the need to improve the speed to approval for willing private developer partners.
Toronto skyline keeps changing as it grows. The CN Tower no longer “dominates” the way it used to.

Pros and cons of densification

The Ontario Green Belt was a move designed to limit “urban sprawl” and by definition, this suggests urban containment (which implies densification and vertical development.)

Urban densification does require substantial investment in transit and infrastructure, making it important that all levels of government work together. Developers should be encouraged with expedited approvals if they are “within the rules.”

PROS

  • Affordability: more homes increases availability and lowers cost (as a general principle)
  • Reduces carbon footprint by many tons per person retained in the urban areas
  • Reduces loss of green and forest, necessary for clean air and fresh water
  • Preserves important water resources and wetlands
  • Preserves ecosystems and endangered species
  • Preserves farmland necessary for growing populations
  • Reduces stress by reducing commute times to work
  • Efficiencies of scale: less hydro, fewer cars, less hard waste
  • Reduces consumption of oil and gas
  • Strengthens economic factors: more employable people within reasonable commute time to work; improved investment and employment in the development sector and infrastructure sector.
  • Increased revenue for municipalities/cities which enable the building of better infrastructure.

CONS

  • Changes in lifestyles that may not be desirable for some (for example, living in a high rise versus a home with a picket fence)
  • Increased densification risks loss of heritage neighbourhoods — unless cities pro-actively preserve these in the same was as Ontario preserved the Green Belt.
  • Possible loss of equity value for some existing homes as more availability lowers price per square foot values (after adjusting for inflation.)
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