As Mark Twain once said, “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.”
For Waterloo Region, with a population soaring past 650,000 people and a projected growth rate of 1.42 per cent each year, this poses an interesting question. What happens
when there’s no more land to purchase, but more units are needed than ever?
Despite recent debates about developments and population growth held in the city council chambers of Kitchener, Cambridge, and Waterloo, one truth remains the same: the bigger a population gets, the more units are required to house them.
If no land is available to grow outwards, or if cities wish to stop suburban sprawl and car-centric city planning in order to save farmland greenspace, this leaves one option: to build up.
Call them highrises or skyscrapers, residential and commercial buildings that stretch upwards into the sky have been the savior of cities since the industrial revolution, providing greater numbers of units, commercial spaces, and density, in a small footprint when lot size is considered.
Unfortunately, for nearly every highrise planning application, the public is blasted with a familiar refrain of complaints against increasing height, density, and the massing of units. From self-declared protectors of heritage to the so-called ‘Not-In-My-Back-Yarders (NIMBYs), the list of arguments against highrises is a long one. Supposedly, they destroy the views and reduce the property values of neighbours; they breed loneliness by cramming people into compartmentalized boxes in the sky; they create traffic nightmares. Most commonly, they represent change: an urban, modern appearance into areas and city cores that have heritage structures only three to four storeys tall.
Although it is normal to fear change and to oppose difference when first confronted with it, it is time we dispel the myths of skyscrapers and their effects upon cities and residents so these developments may be embraced as modern solutions to growing crises of housing affordability, availability, and environmental destruction of greenscapes.
First, let’s remember where the fear of height emerged. It has been placed into our collective subconscious since the Middle Ages, when the prominent architectural and religious norms dictated that no secularn buildings could be taller than the spire of local churches or religious institutions. Although this practice changed in the 18th century when desires for density and displays of architectural ingenuity were in vogue, the hesitancy towards tall buildings has remained to this day.
Secondly, there is a fear that skyscrapers are somehow physically and mentally unsafe. The Grenfell Tower disaster in London, UK, in 2017, comes to mind as an example of a fire hazard. Similarly, the higher rate of depression in some urban areas compared to suburban areas implies that highrise units are somehow mentally unhealthy. However, studies have shown that links between highrise units and mental health issues is unproven and inconclusive, while modern safety and construction regulations enforced by Canadian municipalities reduce physical safety and fire risks far beyond the highrises constructed in Europe after the Second World War.
Third, the misconception that highrises reduce feelings of community or neighbourhood togetherness is not typically made by residents of these units or neighbourhoods themselves, but by residents of older neighbourhoods that do not wish to see such developments constructed. On the contrary, highrises increase density in urban areas, creating more restaurants, businesses, shops, nightlife, and walkable city neighbourhoods and streetscapes. Rather than erode neighbourhoods, highrises create the density that fuels placemaking and economic development that modern cities need to thrive.
Fourth, highrises boost housing stock and availability, which, under conditions of rapid population growth, is the best way to prevent housing costs from skyrocketing out of control. Real estate still operates under the basic logic of supply-and-demand. Increasing the number of units deflates the demands on the market, stabilizing and reducing prices. If no units are built, growth stagnates, and prices rise – pricing families in need of affordable and sustainable housing out of the market.
Fifth, highrises remain the best solution for assisting with Canada’s – and the world’s – affordable housing crisis. In order to build, developers need to make a profit in order to justify the construction of affordable units without going bankrupt. Highrises allow for the numbers of units and density that can justify construction costs while also producing enough affordable units where the builder can stay out of the red while providing an essential social good.
Finally, let’s not forget the simple convenience of living in a highrise. There is no need for lawn equipment, the maintenance of roof shingles, plumbing pipes, old furnaces, and pricey air conditioners. Amenities such as gyms, swimming pools, and lounges, add a feeling of comfort right in one’s home.
As Waterloo Region’s population surges towards the 1 million mark, and as we fight to protect farmland and the greenbelt from sprawl, this leaves us with one option that has sustained cities like Paris, New York, and countless others, when they’ve needed more units and economic development by using less space: build up, rather than grow out.
Let’s build the future we want to see.