Fearing ‘hyperdensity’ in urban areas

Aerial view of Toronto. CC image from rene_beignet.

Aerial view of Toronto. CC image from rene_beignet.

One of the books I picked up through the rounds of exchanging holiday gifts is Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. I’ve read an excerpt of the book published in Design Observer and watched Chakrabarti’s accompanying lecture; I’m looking forward to reading the full book.

In my initial reaction to the book’s excerpt embraced the praise for dense, urban, transit-supportive cities, but expressed concern about the political and regulatory hurdles to achieving such a vision. In particular, the ‘hyperdensity’ terminology Chakrabarti used to describe levels of density that can support subway transit seemed like it could directly antagonize citizens skeptical of change – citizens that currently hold the upper hand in many of the procedural and regulatory battles over new development.

Consider some of the reactions in Toronto. This op-ed from Marcus Gee in the Globe and Mail echoes Chakrabarti’s praise for urban density, but also shows the risk of the ‘hyperdensity’ terminology:

A spectre is haunting Toronto – the spectre of hyperdensity. Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s dynamic chief planner, worries about it. So does one of Toronto’s smartest local politicians, city councillor Adam Vaughan…

[T]he city’s Official Plan seeks to direct new development – office buildings, condo towers and so on – to key areas of the city, fostering the process known in planners’ jargon as intensification. The aim is to put new buildings on about a quarter of the city’s geographical area, keeping the three-quarters that is left – residential neighbourhoods, quiet, smaller streets – free from runaway growth.

As anyone can see from the thickets of development around nodes like Union Station or Yonge and Eglinton, it has been remarkably successful – too successful for some. “We have reached this exciting and terrifying tipping point where we are starting to question whether it could be there is something called too much density,” Ms. Keesmaat said. “There are some areas of the city where we are seeing too much density – hyperdensity – and there are other areas of the city where we are seeing no growth at all.”

Here, the warnings about hyperdensity echo San Francisco’s concerns about “Manhattanization” – long-standing skepticism about growth and urban development with serious impacts on the city and region’s affordability over the past decade plus.

It would seem that Toronto’s plan is working exactly as intended: growth is channeled to some areas while it isn’t allowed to happen in others. Seeing little to no growth in areas of the city planned for little or no growth would all be according to plan.

This isn’t to say that the plan is wise. Trying to focus all growth in a city with high demand into downtown and a handful of mid-rise corridors might be too much of a constraint. It’s a strategy tailor-made to minimize conflict with the single-family neighborhoods, not dissimilar from Arlington County’s focus on Metro station areas while preserving single family homes nearby. It’s also one that bears a great deal of similarity to DC’s current discussions about how, how high, and where to grow. As Payton Chung notes, even this modest bargain is no guarantee to avoid conflict:

Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines — and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like around here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.

Nor does it guarantee the city can actually match supply to demand:

DC cannot put a lid on development everywhere — downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, on the few infill sites we have left — and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.

Something will have to give.

Toronto’s plan took the lid off in downtown, yet now the resulting development is derided as ‘hyperdensity.’ Marcus Gee notes that hyperdensity’s impact on infrastructure also provides the means to upgrade those facilities; build more transit; expand parks and urban amenities:

If the hyperdensity tag catches on, it could become a useful tool for downtown councillors who want to appease their constituents by blocking new development or for suburban councillors who want to steer more development to their wards even if there is no call for it there. It could also help kill exciting projects like the Frank Gehry-designed proposal by David Mirvish for King Street West. Ms. Keesmaat’s planning staff oppose the plan for three towers of more than 80 storeys each – too tall, too dense – and city council backed her up in a vote on Dec. 18.

It is reasonable to worry that new development will cause overcrowding on transit or overtax other city infrastructure. But if that is the concern, let’s build better transit to keep up with the growth, not halt the growth for fear of the future. Central Toronto is still far less dense than it could or should be. Hyperdensity should be a goal, not a thing to fear.

Emphasis added. This is the crux of my concern. How we frame the issue matters, even if the eventual solution won’t be about convincing the public of the virtues of hyperdensity and embracing it as a goal. Rather, achieving that goal will require reforming the processes and procedures for making decisions about land use and development.

I hope Chakrabarti’s book will touch on this; I look forward to reading it.

2 comments to Fearing ‘hyperdensity’ in urban areas

  • charlie

    Well, you’re starting to sound a bit more like Richard. Planing, planning, planning.

    Another way to express that is that is a upmarket city (Toronto, DC) money wants to get in, and will go where allowed. You do run a risk that areas will get ignored.

    In DC you can argue the McArthur Blvd corridor and Upper Connecticut are part of that — new investment isn’t coming in. Both are affluent but not growing.

    And new city investment isn’t coming in either. Major beef with North Arlington as well.

  • Alex Block

    This is the point: those low-density areas aren’t being ignored, they’ve been essentially put off-limits.

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