Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Why Small Towns and Suburbs Need to Build Up, Not Out

In recent weeks it seems that most everyone I bump into wants to talk about development. More specifically they seem to want to talk about taller buildings, and by taller buildings I mean structures taller than the three stories permitted in this municipality.

Though some that I have talked to are supportive of moving to higher density development that would mean building up, not out, however the vast majority are fairly worked up over the notion of having five or six storey buildings erected in Meaford.

The arguments I have heard from the most vehemently opposed to the suggestion that we should allow taller structures include the obstruction of views of existing property owners, the worry that taller buildings will block sunlight to gardens, and that taller structures belong in larger cities, not in quaint small towns.

The problem is, the city is moving to the country. Not just in these parts but most everywhere, and the issue of densification is one that many small communities are beginning to grapple with.

For more than a decade I have suggested that we need to move toward increasing the density of residential developments, and that will mean some taller structures, but no municipality has an infinite supply of properties that can be developed for residential homes, and we can’t build out forever.

In the past I have noted the irony of many of the same folks opposed to taller buildings are the same folks I hear demanding that Council provide more greenspace and natural areas, and some have had some choice words for me when I have highlighted that irony, but for those who desire protecting current greenspace, and even developing more greenspace, a move to taller, higher density construction is one tool that can help achieve that goal.

Another aspect I have touched on in the past are the environmental advantages of increasing density, and building up rather than out. This argument has traditionally earned more pushback, and harsher choice words, but reality is reality.

Last week the CBC published a column that is perhaps timely for the Municipality of Meaford as well as all small towns and suburbs in this country. Climate change focus moves to the suburbs as cities continue to sprawl was the title of the piece, and in the words that followed, a case was made for densification.

You might think that cramped and crowded cities, dense with roads and highrise towers, are bad for the environment and bad for addressing climate change,” the column noted. “But it is a long-established principle of environmental economics that while the land beneath urban cores has been largely stolen from nature, cities provide ecological benefits. Packing people all into one place, called “densification”, makes carbon-friendly public transit work. It also allows us to concentrate services such as sewage treatment and energy systems.”

The column went on to explain that concentrating people into densified areas “would take the pressure off surrounding green spaces that are so essential for keeping the environment healthy.”

Part of the solution the column suggests, “is to increase the density of suburbs similar to the push in existing urban cores, where in what has been called “socialism for the rich”, swaths of single-family homes have become sacrosanct despite a high cost to all taxpayers.”

An important point, and one that always causes controversy.

The reality however is that it is more environmentally sound, and more financially beneficial for all involved to increase density and build up.

Suburban neighbourhoods with half-acre or one-acre lots have been called ‘environmental socialism for the wealthy’, or simply ‘socialism for the rich’ as was used in the CBC column, and we are slowly realizing that to be true.

Let’s face it, you can fit 120 homes into a smallish five storey building. The property required to house those 120 families is a virtual postage stamp compared to the acres upon acres of land required to build 120 detached homes on half-acre lots.

The cost for those detached homes stretched out over many acres is significantly more than building a higher density building. We have heard much in recent years about the need for affordable housing. Building up helps make housing more affordable, a simple, irrefutable fact.

All of the land that doesn’t get used for a high density development is still available for greenspaces, parks, or other facilities.

All of that said, many want to talk specifically about the SkyDev development, but when it comes to that proposal, there is one major fundamental flaw that has nothing to do with the height of the buildings, but rather the fact that the few residential streets that lead to the property are not designed to accommodate large volume traffic, which is what that development would produce should it move forward. Traffic accommodation is a separate issue that can be solved by ensuring that the right properties are used for high density developments and I would suggest that the SkyDev proposal is not fed by adequate road infrastructure.

Taller buildings are coming to small towns and suburbs, and we will have to accept that reality at some point. For those who regularly express a desire for protecting or increasing greenspaces, or those who are rightly calling for more affordable housing, taller structures are part of the answer whether we like it or not.

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