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Fewer people trumps greater densities

London, certainly not the loveliest of Europe’s cities, got a bit uglier last week with the inauguration of a building dubbed the Shard.

At almost 310 metres, it’s the continent’s tallest skyscraper. The glass-and-steel structure – relatively small in comparison to the likes of the Burj Dubai (828 m) and the CN Tower (553 m) and akin to the Eiffel Tower (324 m) – looms over the city and its many historic landmarks. Some have praised the triangular glass building, but much of the response has been critical. I think it an eyesore, but I’m no fan of tall buildings in general and modern ones in particular – there’s at least some redemption in the classic skyline of Chicago, for instance.

London is not in imminent danger of being swamped by skyscrapers – European cities have been much better at maintaining aesthetically-pleasing, human-scale environments – but it’s still sad to see this kind of development. Much worse atrocities can be found in Toronto, of course, where the glass-and-steel wall blights the skyline and cuts residents off from the lake.

Even Waterloo Region is not immune, as highrise buildings are set to become less novel than was the case. None of the existing stock qualify as pleasant to behold. None of the planned developments, the Barrelyards for example, is likely to change that.

Of course, that’s a completely subjective view. I’m not alone in that opinion, however. There’s lots of ugly architecture, but the problem is compounded when the eyesore is writ large, making it difficult to avoid. We all pay the price for the follies of others.

Which brings me to the issue of increased density and reurbanization (touched on in this week’s issue) that is at the core of both provincial planning policy and the sole surviving rationale – however dubious – for Waterloo Region’s light rail transit scheme. In short, we’re told to expect more highrise buildings, like it or not.

Proponents say increased density is needed to deal with a growing population. The alternative is more sprawl and loss of farmland. Those are two things to avoid. A better alternative – a shrinking population that would eliminate such pressures entirely – is never discussed. It goes against the Ponzi scheme that is our economic system. Instead of falling housing prices to decrease demand, which beyond-the-pale thinking in official circles, we’re supposed to shrink the supply of land even as we pump in more people to increase demand.

That’s a fairly widespread economic stance, one that planners want to apply to the LRT. The results will largely be negative. As I’ve pointed out before, property values have increased along transit lines established in other cities, though the density issue has met with mixed results. What has happened, however, is that gentrification of previously low-income neighbourhoods, the kind of core areas sliced through by rail lines, drives up prices and drives out those with lower incomes, precisely those who might actually use public transit.

Those with money to invest in such properties do well. Those displaced, well, they don’t fare so well. And everybody else pays for the over-budget and under-used transit system courtesy of their taxes.

The approach adopted by the region won’t provide better transit or be cost-effective. It will, we’re told, reshape land-use patterns. That’s necessary due to the aforementioned sprawl.

In order to curb it, municipalities need policies to limit land use. They need to make developers pay 100 per cent of the costs of expanding: all the roads, all the infrastructure, all the soft costs. That’s not going to happen, so we get sprawl and we all pay for it. By going along their current route, municipalities end up sending mixed signals: encouraging sprawl, and then punishing those who live in those newly-developed areas.

The goal is admirable. Compact, mixed-use communities modelled on the best of European examples would be ideal outcomes, countering the North American suburban expanse that’s been the norm for several decades. There’s a big if, however, as the gamble – let’s be clear, they’re planning to spend a great deal of your money on this bet – remains something of a long shot.

In Europe, densities are higher and people live within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily living. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America.

People actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here. Living there, you can quite easily do without a car.

Of course, vehicles are more expensive, gas prices astronomical and parking spaces limited, putting a real damper on the kind of automobile enthusiasm seen on this side of the pond.

The kind of development endorsed by the province’s Places to Grow legislation and embraced by LRT proponents here, would be wonderful if what we got was something comparable to the old towns of Dublin or Paris or Munich: striking architecture, walled courtyards, terrace gardens, narrow winding streets, local shops offering fresh-baked bread, quaint cafés and small walk-up office buildings with brass plates announcing the names of doctors, lawyers and architects.

Trouble is, that ideal isn’t likely to translate here, the land of vinyl siding, asphalt and big-box retail.

In all the talk of more human-scale communities, there’s no mention of aesthetics. For me, that’s the make-it-or-break-it part of the equation: our ugly built environments foster neither pride of place nor a desire to be out on foot, interacting with the place where we live something to enjoy in its own right. It’s going to take a monumental effort at creating something better to get us out of the suburban model: Shifting from our box of a house to our box of a car to the box where we shop and the box where we work. The insides may be nice and comfortable, as we shut out the world and the others who happen to live in the same town, but the shared spaces are not conducive to creating the kind of community envisioned by proponents of a livable city.

What we’re likely to get is the worst of new construction springing up along a transit corridor used by few and creating a major hindrance to the rest of us still trying to get around in a timely fashion.

 

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London, certainly not the loveliest of Europe’s cities, got a bit uglier last week with the inauguration of a building dubbed the Shard.

At almost 310 metres, it’s the continent’s tallest skyscraper. The glass-and-steel structure – relatively small in comparison to the likes of the Burj Dubai (828 m) and the CN Tower (553 m) and akin to the Eiffel Tower (324 m) – looms over the city and its many historic landmarks. Some have praised the triangular glass building, but much of the response has been critical. I think it an eyesore, but I’m no fan of tall buildings in general and modern ones in particular – there’s at least some redemption in the classic skyline of Chicago, for instance.

London is not in imminent danger of being swamped by skyscrapers – European cities have been much better at maintaining aesthetically-pleasing, human-scale environments – but it’s still sad to see this kind of development. Much worse atrocities can be found in Toronto, of course, where the glass-and-steel wall blights the skyline and cuts residents off from the lake.

Even Waterloo Region is not immune, as highrise buildings are set to become less novel than was the case. None of the existing stock qualify as pleasant to behold. None of the planned developments, the Barrelyards for example, is likely to change that.

Of course, that’s a completely subjective view. I’m not alone in that opinion, however. There’s lots of ugly architecture, but the problem is compounded when the eyesore is writ large, making it difficult to avoid. We all pay the price for the follies of others.

Which brings me to the issue of increased density and reurbanization (touched on in this week’s issue) that is at the core of both provincial planning policy and the sole surviving rationale – however dubious – for Waterloo Region’s light rail transit scheme. In short, we’re told to expect more highrise buildings, like it or not.

Proponents say increased density is needed to deal with a growing population. The alternative is more sprawl and loss of farmland. Those are two things to avoid. A better alternative – a shrinking population that would eliminate such pressures entirely – is never discussed. It goes against the Ponzi scheme that is our economic system. Instead of falling housing prices to decrease demand, which beyond-the-pale thinking in official circles, we’re supposed to shrink the supply of land even as we pump in more people to increase demand.

That’s a fairly widespread economic stance, one that planners want to apply to the LRT. The results will largely be negative. As I’ve pointed out before, property values have increased along transit lines established in other cities, though the density issue has met with mixed results. What has happened, however, is that gentrification of previously low-income neighbourhoods, the kind of core areas sliced through by rail lines, drives up prices and drives out those with lower incomes, precisely those who might actually use public transit.

Those with money to invest in such properties do well. Those displaced, well, they don’t fare so well. And everybody else pays for the over-budget and under-used transit system courtesy of their taxes.

The approach adopted by the region won’t provide better transit or be cost-effective. It will, we’re told, reshape land-use patterns. That’s necessary due to the aforementioned sprawl.

In order to curb it, municipalities need policies to limit land use. They need to make developers pay 100 per cent of the costs of expanding: all the roads, all the infrastructure, all the soft costs. That’s not going to happen, so we get sprawl and we all pay for it. By going along their current route, municipalities end up sending mixed signals: encouraging sprawl, and then punishing those who live in those newly-developed areas.

The goal is admirable. Compact, mixed-use communities modelled on the best of European examples would be ideal outcomes, countering the North American suburban expanse that’s been the norm for several decades. There’s a big if, however, as the gamble – let’s be clear, they’re planning to spend a great deal of your money on this bet – remains something of a long shot.

In  Europe, densities are higher and people live within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily living. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America.

People actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here. Living there, you can quite easily do without a car.

Of course, vehicles are more expensive, gas prices astronomical and parking spaces limited, putting a real damper on the kind of automobile enthusiasm seen on this side of the pond.

The kind of development endorsed by the province’s Places to Grow legislation and embraced by LRT proponents here, would be wonderful if what we got was something comparable to the old towns of Dublin or Paris or Munich: striking architecture, walled courtyards, terrace gardens, narrow winding streets, local shops offering fresh-baked bread, quaint cafés and small walk-up office buildings with brass plates announcing the names of doctors, lawyers and architects.

Trouble is, that ideal isn’t likely to translate here, the land of vinyl siding, asphalt and big-box retail.

In all the talk of more human-scale communities, there’s no mention of aesthetics. For me, that’s the make-it-or-break-it part of the equation: our ugly built environments foster neither pride of place nor a desire to be out on foot, interacting with the place where we live something to enjoy in its own right. It’s going to take a monumental effort at creating something better to get us out of the suburban model: Shifting from our box of a house to our box of a car to the box where we shop and the box where we work. The insides may be nice and comfortable, as we shut out the world and the others who happen to live in the same town, but the shared spaces are not conducive to creating the kind of community envisioned by proponents of a livable city.

What we’re likely to get is the worst of new construction springing up along a transit corridor used by few and creating a major hindrance to the rest of us still trying to get around in a timely fashion.

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