High rises are unneeded and alienating

By Stig Harvor –

Higher and ever higher condo towers are popping up all over our city. Why do people want to live in these tall towers?

One reason developers give is that people like views. But if you live in a tower, say in the Downtown area, you will soon have your precious views blocked by a growing forest of towers around you.

To cater to wide views, developers often clad their towers in glass from floor to ceiling. To reduce sky glare and the summer heat gain, people close their curtains or blinds. Result? No more views. A more sensible way to treat glass walls would be to shield them from direct sunlight.

Glass is a poor insulator. It loses inside heat in the winter and absorbs outside heat in the summer. The double, hermetically sealed glass used today is still a poorer insulator than a well-insulated, opaque wall. Glass increases ongoing heating and cooling costs. But in condos, the developer leaves these and other costs to the new owners of his building.

It is not uncommon that the maintenance fees quoted in the slick sales literature of the developer rise sharply after the first couple of years of ownership transfer. Increases of 10%-20% and even much higher, have occurred.

Tall towers are more expensive to build than lower buildings. Their structural frames must support greater weights and withstand greater forces of wind and earthquake.

These increased costs are reflected in higher cost per square metre of construction. This leads to higher costs for buyers.

There is the question of getting to and from your apartment. Do you like waiting for or spending time in elevators? Elevators also need maintenance. One elevator at a time will occasionally be shut down. This lengthens waiting times.

Fortunately, electrical blackouts are rare. When they occur, building emergency power keeps one elevator working. But in case of fire, elevators are only available for fire fighters.

You have two alternatives. The safest may be to stay put in your apartment. The other is to use the stairs although they may fill up with smoke. Smoke-filled stairs have caused deaths in Toronto apartment building fires. If you are handicapped in any way, a multi-storey climb down the stairs will challenge you.

The higher above ground you live, the higher the wind. Sitting on a balcony on even the 20th floor will on most days ruffle your hair and make reading your newspaper difficult. Plants do not like much wind so forget about that nice flower-box. Your railing often is transparent glass or plastic within a spindly metal frame. Do you feel secure leaning against it or even just looking down at the abyss right next to you?

Tall buildings catch winds and direct them toward the ground. On days of high winds, people have been knocked to the ground outside the Toronto-Dominion Centre in our financial district.

Living high above ground separates people from the life of society below them.

It is a bit like the social isolation suffered by people who live in rich ghettos untouched by the real life surrounding them. Above 15 storeys, you also lose contact with Mother Earth. You no longer see leaves moving on trees. You no longer hear the birds sing. You do not even see birds once you live above 25 floors.

Inversely, people at ground level are deprived of views of the sky. They feel more like ants in an overwhelming environment. The scale of human beings has been lost.

Why this present craze for tall towers? One obvious reason is that they maximize the developer’s profits. The more floor space he can load on to a site, the more money he stands to make.

The unbridled lack of effective density and height controls in our city at present drives up the speculative cost of land to the point where tall towers are encouraged, even necessary. The towers will be with us for the next 100 years. Is this the type of city we want to live in and force our descendants to accept?

Our city planning department wants to explore the alternative of mid-rise buildings generally considered 6 to 12 storeys. Why are not more of them built? The planners are holding a symposium and workshop on the subject Nov. 29 with a public discussion in the evening. The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts is also holding a public forum on city building and tall towers on Jan. 25.

Toronto already has an excellent example of a 25-year-old mid-rise community in the successful downtown St. Lawrence Neighbourhood around the old Market building. Why do we not learn from our past successes in city planning?