Accidental Activist

High Rise Towers Don't Make Neighbourhoods

Porches, parks, pubs, chance encounters - this is how communities are forged.

By Ben Bull
Published September 28, 2009

There's a memorable scene in Seinfeld when Jerry slams the door to his building in a man's face.

"I'm sorry," Jerry mouths through the glass, as the guy tries to explain that he's forgotten his key. "I don't know you."

The next day, Jerry sees the same man in the lobby and they ride the elevator together. Jerry watches in dismay as the man alights - on his floor. His angst turns to horror as he watches the man trudge over to his apartment - right across the hall, from his own front door.

I don't like high rises. But I'm not the only one. Here in Toronto the high-rise love-hate affair continues. The latest erections to ignite the ire of local residents are clustered around the trendy Yonge and Eglinton locale.

Yonge and Eglinton has always been a battlefield. In 1837, rebels killed a loyalist colonel at the corner of Montgomery Ave. and Yonge St., in one of the first shots of the Upper Canada Rebellion.

Almost 200 years later, it's hard to tell who the rebels are - the developers pushing for high-rise condos or the residents trying to preserve the low-rise way of life in the adjacent neighbourhoods.

Yong and Eg is an area in dire need of intensification. The amenities are great, transit improvements are slated and all-in-all it's a great place to live - if you're rich. The problem is that the only housing options available right now are single family homes starting at $500k. More variety and affordable housing options are needed.

But high rises aren't the answer. Regardless of the obvious impact to the low-rise character of the area, condo towers don't create good neighbourhoods. What high rise areas do you know where you can find bustling community centers, quirky coffee shops exchanges and chance street corner conversations?

Condo neighbours are anonymous. Healthy communities condos do not make.

Yong and Eg needs more people and more different types of people ('the rest of everything' as Reg Beadry so eloquently put it on RTH the other day). But we need to find a more imaginative way to cram people together. How is it than cities like Paris can be bustling and high-density with only one tower in sight?

Yonge and Eg residents are not happy:

(Aaron) Graben (a member of the Eglinton Park Residents Association), says he knows people will move to the area, he just wants to see it done properly. He doesn't want front porches exchanged for tall glass condos. He wants a space to park his car, walk his dog and play with his children. If development fits in with that, he has no problem.

Porches, parks, pubs, chance encounters - this is how communities are forged. Not by slamming the door to the foyer in your neighbour's face because he forgot his key.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2009 at 14:48:14

Quit your whining! Your complaining about high rises going up in your area. At least you don't live in Hamilton where all our high-rises and former hotels are being converted to welfare housing.

I am sure that many in the city of Hamilton would love to have your "problems"

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2009 at 14:56:15

Sure, I think the future's mostly in low-rises - for reasons of community and efficiency - with the exception of landmark towers here and there.

And then we get to Yonge/Eglinton and Bayview/Eglinton, where the norm is incredibly pricey single-family real estate.

Those towers were probably my favorite project I saw up at Yonge/Eglinton when I lived in that area. Finally, a bit of diversity among the $700,000 starter homes, imported cars, nannies and Starbucks... and great convenience for commuting downtown.

Near Yonge the community feel has already been largely eroded, and most of the neighbourhood places (even in the five-six storey buildings along Yonge) have largely disappeared along Eglinton near there.

I get a little cynical that it's really about "community feel" in this instance. I think people there really don't want to have lower-priced options near their homes.

And as much as I liked the convenience, and some of the older homes mixed in with new-build mansion infill, the actual "community" feel of the single-unit, low-density neighbourhood around Bayview/Eglinton(with the odd semi in there) was pretty laughable. Across from us was one lady's half-million home "for when she visited the city." In over a year, I never even met my next-door neighbours.

I'd keep the condos at Yonge/Eglinton - because unless they're highrises, they will end up spectacularly overpriced - try to make the streetwall really well-designed, and try for some smaller projects a bit east of the subway line... but if I moved back in Toronto I'd probably just have my eye on one of the 250k-ish towns that were being built in Jamestown anyway.

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By Andre (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2009 at 19:31:13


We would be all better off if you decided to move from Hamilton. You are the type person who is not content unless you create your own misery.

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By CityHome 4 life (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2009 at 19:41:58

I read the first comment above with someone bitching about housing in Hamilton being turned into "welfare" housing. I find a lot of places on the internet that like to bash and bastardize the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled... Working in the downtown core of Toronto there is next to no mixed income housing in the area. No instead the city has decided to make the outer reaches of the megacity a dumping ground for those unable to afford a $300,000 home. Back in the 1970s and 1980s Canada had the werewithal to care more about equal rights, now it is might over right. Take a walk through the St. Lawrence neighbourhood east of Union Station and you will see mixed income living in action. No fifty story condo towers, just low rise ten story buildings; some co-operatives, some non profit housing and some condominiums; all built in the late 1970s thru to the late 1990s. Perhaps when the voting public returns to making life more equal for everyone we will learn to shed ourselves of the self oriented mindset left behind by Harris/Mulruney/Chretien.

P.S. If anyone is interested in learning about the history of housing in Canada and the government mandated programs for affordable housing I would recommend a book by John Sewell called "Houses and Homes: Housing for Canadians". It was published in 1994 so it only gets up to the point when the Chretien/Martin government abolished all federal capital finding for new non-profit housing development back in early 1994. There is also "The Shape of the City" published in 1993 also by Sewell and "The Shape of the Suburbs" by Mr. Sewell as well, which just came out this year.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2009 at 23:15:45

As a current resident of a mostly high-rise neighborhood in Vancouver's ultra-dense west-end, I have to say that I disagree with the author's facile generalizations concerning high-rise living. I've never lived in New York or Toronto, but I have to say that I know more neighbors here after 3 months than I ever did over my one-year tenure in Hamilton's mostly low-rise/detached Durand area (near Hess and Markland).

The abundance of street-life here, with a healthy mix of corporate and individually owned businesses (with many a familiar face at the cash-register) all a comfortable 3-5 minute walk away; an abundance of parkland (made possible by the efficient residential usage of land); lots of community gardens and "guerrilla" plots; lots of off-leash dog parks (try taking your pooch there and getting away without starting a conversation with someone); a plethora of languages and colours and cultures; 6 grocery stores within a 10 minute walk - etc., etc., etc.

Also keep in mind the late 80s/early 90s context of Seinfeld, when people fled urban neighborhoods en masse for sprawling suburbia with lots of free parking for their ever bigger SUVs.

My point is that high-rise neighborhoods (like any other, low-rise or otherwise) can be perfectly livable if planned well. My limited experience of Toronto's high-rise residential clusters (mostly south of Union) suggests that the city did not plan these neighborhoods very well. Seems to me like they're still stuck (fossilized?) in the Seinfeldian era.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2009 at 09:54:50

By contrast to the south-of-Union condo sprawl (which is by and large rather uninviting, with a few surprising pockets), there's some very livable and community-friendly condos in existing neighbourhoods on the east-west corridors of Toronto - and they're still affordable, even for a 2+1 bed that you can easily raise a family of four in.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2009 at 10:30:18

Such as St Lawrence Mkt (along the esplanade) which has geared to income apts and townhouses (aka a VARIETY of housing including afforable housing options!).

What the Esplanade (my neighbourhood btw) has are LOW-RISE condos (8 storey's, I believe, is the max). I find it hard to believe that the 'hood would have the same community feel if the condos were 50 floor monsters.

To Geoff's 2 cents comments: I agree that 'ground level' planning is a key component of neighbourhood vitality, however you are literally the first person I've heard talk about the 'community' of high rise living. Their very design discourages - prevents - co-mingling with fellow residents. Their sheer height blocks the sky and thus affects the ground floor experience. And they are unnecessary for us to achieve our density goals.

I agree with Meredith that Yonge/Eg folks are probably more concerned with mixing with different classes than preserving their community. I also agree that low-rise developments - like the suburbs - can be devoid of community also. What we need is a mixture of good street level planning and low-rise developments.



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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2009 at 10:32:01


I do plan on moving from Hamilton as this city's high taxes and lack of economic opportunities are driving people like me out.

Hamilton will not be better off with my departure as I will be spending my tax dollars and disposable income in another jurisdiction. I will just be one of thousands of middle class people (or high educated youth) who have fled this city for better prospects. This explains why Hamilton is in the state that it is in.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 29, 2009 at 10:56:22

I've never lived in Vancouver, but have visited and know people who live there and Geoff's assessment is bang on. The ground level is ALL that matters. Go to NYC and tell me if everyone is isolated and doesn't know each other. I don't care if a building is 12 floors or 80 floors. The street level is what matters.

Toronto's street level in the new condo developments is pure garbage. No planning whatsoever. Hamilton's residential neighbourhoods with porches and low density may appear to be inviting for knowing your neighbours, but there's so little within walking distance that everyone gets in their cars and drives elsewhere.

Whether a city is low rise, yet dense like Montreal's St Laurent or high rise dense like NYC Upper West side, the key is the street life and amenities in walking distance. Hamilton has almost none of that. Durand is one of the most dense neighbourhoods in Canada, yet you'd never know it after 6pm.

I've said it a million times and I'll keep saying it (probably until my generation is running the show at city hall in a few decades), our main streets SUCK in this city. Traffic sewers will NEVER allow for community or neighbourhood development.

Until we can start to see our main streets look like the Annex, Beaches, Esplanade etc.... with everything at one's doorstep, don't expect to enjoy true urban living in Hamilton anytime soon.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2009 at 17:51:25

Unfortunately for Toronto, I think there is a deeper problem that faces the "friendliness" level of their neighbourhoods. When I first moved to Hamilton, I couldn't get over how friendly people were. And I live in Durand where there are many high rises and a very high population density. Maybe the problem isn't the condos but its the mentality of the people living there?

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By Nathanaaa (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 03:59:08

Well, if you dont like those types of houses that are high rising then why be there? Certainly there must be a lot of spaces or lots that are suitable to your taste. If you dont like to stay in those houses then you must not be there. There are different types of places because there are different types of people. You just have to pick that suits your taste and the way you live your life. It is up to you man! And also a place that suits your budget so you may not need a payday loans just to acquire one.

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By A sign of the times ... (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 22:39:42

HAHA! I would kill to have Toronto's "hi-rise problems!!" Are you kidding me, Ben?

I just purchased a pre-construction condo hi-rise (NOT IN HAMILTON). It will have geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar panels, car share, bicycle parking and numerous other GREEN inititives. It will also feature common areas for residents to hang out and socialize. It also has main floor retail and shopping and trails are only a short walk away ...

P.S. I'm a Conservative! So, lets stop this sterotype that Conservatives aren't enviromentally friendly.


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By jason (registered) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 08:14:51

a sign of the times, there is a new building proposed at Dundurn and Aberdeen with many of those environment features. Of course it's being fought by the neighbourhood since it isn't a single home or townhome. It's a monsterous, towering 7 stories.

I'm glad to hear you were able to purchase a unit in a progressive building like that. We'll never get one here until the city learns to make decisions based on policy and best practices instead of NIMBY's.

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By A sign of the times ... (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 11:26:32

jason, sounds interesting. I would have purchased in Hamilton, but nothing "GREEN" is available. Proposed means little to me here. Hasn't there been a Hilton proposed on Main/Bay for the last 4 years? Lofts in the old Federal Building on Main/Caroline? Lofts on Dundurn across from The Beer Store? And the list goes on ...

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By Zippo (registered) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 11:50:32

Well, I live in an 11 story apartment downtown in "The Hammer" (rent, not condo) My neighbor on one side is cool, his name is Dave and we have exchanged a few words in the hall and elevator in the past year or so, other than that you'd never know he was there. I'd open the lobby door for him. On the other side I don't know their name, despite having tried a few times to say "hello" in a friendly way. I do know however that their "date night" is on Wednesday, he's a "yeller" and she's a "moaner". I also know that their preferred time for watching LOUD Bollywood movies in Hindi seems to be 2:00 am. They can "go fish" in the airlock if they forget the key for all I care

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted October 01, 2009 at 16:06:43

Thanks Zippo - love it! The general consensus of this discussion seems to be that 'the ground floor is all that matters'. BUT - how can ground level design be so key and above ground level be so unimportant?

What 'works' with high density low-rise developments is: - availability, accessibility and attractiveness of shared entertainment areas (high rise gyms/common rooms are rarely used) - lower occupancy rates increase opportunities to see the same faces and progress from 'Hello' to 'Hello can I borrow a cup of sugar' - Co-Op residences (many of which are low-rise) require involvement with residence management and thus encourage community building - ease of access to the outside world encourages more frequent trips and thus, more interactions with neighbours. High rise residents tend to shut themselves in or take less trips because the elevator takes so long

There are probably a zillion other design features which can be introduced to make low ride residences more community minded. In terms of other low rise high density, my street features very slim 3 and 4 bedroom townhouses. Porches, parks, quiet streets, lots of amenities - all add to the neighbourhood 'feel' and all encourage residents to spend time on the street and bump into each other.

Obviously good neighbourhoods incorporate good ground level planning but if the whole block is filled with high rises the overall design is flawed.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2009 at 15:42:40

Rusty, you should get into the development business. That way you could plan communities the way you want. Have you ever thought of doing that?

You could then change your quote from "Ben Bull - RTH Contributor and Serial Complainer" to "Ben Bull - RTH Contributor and Successful Builder"

Think about it.

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