With a housing shortage in Toronto, there is a mentality that the only way to house more people in our city is through high-rise apartment buildings. Logically it makes sense to think that taller buildings provide more density.
Developers, planners and politicians seem to believe it too. Weston is one of the densest parts of Toronto and yet, developers only seem to be able to propose tall buildings for Weston. Politicians are supposed to look out for residents’ best interests but sadly, we don’t have adequate representation at City Hall and it’s cheaper for developers to build a tall building and walk away; especially if they’re allowed to cut corners. There are guidelines but these are often circumvented. Sadly, in the past, politicians and planners approved tall buildings in the name of efficiency. Weston is littered with reminders of this. Europe has seen the folly of high-rise buildings and is replacing them with lower and more humane housing.
Myth 1: High-rise buildings provide better density.
The centre of Barcelona achieves a density of 531 people per hectare – compare this to Weston, which has a paltry 292 people per hectare. Barcelona achieves its higher density with mid-rise buildings. Tall buildings need more floor space devoted to sway prevention, utility conduits, sprinkler systems and dry pipes for fire department regulations. Then there are elevators – taller buildings require more.
Myth 2: High-rise buildings are energy efficient.
High-rises don’t have a low carbon footprint. Glass is a lousy insulator and modern high-rises are covered in it. The best double glazing has an R-value of under 4 (R stands for resistance to heat loss). Triple glazing is better but still loses lots of energy and developers aren’t prepared to pay the extra costs involved. The bottom line: high-rise apartments are poorly insulated, have huge energy losses and are terrible for the environment. High-rise buildings have twice the carbon emissions of low-rise buildings. In fact, the taller the building, the more wasteful it is.
Street-level houses built before the recent focus on energy efficiency have walls insulated to a value of R-13. The higher the R-value of a surface, the better insulated it is). Nowadays, standards are much higher; (R-22 and up for walls) newer homes are much more energy efficient than older ones with far lower heating and cooling bills.
Myth 3: A high-rise is simply a vertical community.
Weston is still a depressed area and placing additional high-rises in areas with disadvantaged residents is not a good idea. Research tells us that even with moderating factors (higher income, larger apartments, better amenities), high-rises are isolating, depressing and poor places to raise children. Studies have shown that behavioural problems are greater in children who live in high-rises. There is also evidence that crime and fear of crime is greater in tall buildings.
Myth 4: High-rises provide more affordable accommodation.
We know that high-rise buildings are expensive to heat and cool but what about maintenance costs? Maintenance and utility costs approach $1000 per month for a two-bedroom unit in an older building. Elevators are highly sophisticated machines and expensive to maintain. They are regularly out of action in some older buildings. As buildings age, they need new wiring, boilers and air conditioners and this is expensive. Bottom line, high-rises don’t age well, or cheaply.
Because of the numbers of residents, security is often needed to monitor people coming and going. In smaller buildings, people are more likely to spot strangers attempting to enter.
Myth 5: High-rise buildings provide a safer and better lifestyle.
Talk to people awakened in the middle of the night by fire alarms or who have been inconvenienced by power and water outages. Accessing an upper floor requires a form of transit i.e. an elevator. If the elevators go out of service, it’s no fun lugging groceries to your unit on the 20th floor. To add to the quality of life issues, bugs and tobacco / vaping smoke and noise can often find their way into neighbouring apartments. Fumigating apartments because of bedbugs or other pests can be inconvenient and also puts residents at risk if the chemicals used are also toxic to humans and pets. This is less of a problem in smaller buildings.
Because residents need to take a form of transit to get outside or to fitness amenities, they are less inclined to go outside; especially those on higher floors. Psychologist Daniel Cappon writes in the Canadian Journal of Public Health that high-rises discourage exercise because of the extra hassle in getting to the ground. He says that high-rises keep people away from, “neighbourhood peers and activities.” leading to life-shortening alienation and isolation that increases with the height of buildings. Children raised in apartments above the fifth floor were found in one study to be delayed in their development.
Myth 6: High-rises add value to a neighbourhood.
There is a reason that wind and shadow studies are performed when tall buildings are proposed. Adding large vertical slabs to a landscape creates wind tunnel effects that are unpleasant for people outside. They also create shadows that can permanently eliminate sunshine from an area. Architects try to get around this by putting thinner high-rises on top of a podium so that shadows are narrower and the wind is deflected at the podium’s base rather than at street level. Thinner high-rises have a lower density (see Myth 1).
As for aesthetic value, let’s face it, many Toronto condo buildings are just plain ugly.
Lastly, high-rise buildings with large areas of glass kill birds in huge numbers, especially if they are built along a migration corridor.