“[H]e could see the island of Manhattan off to the left. The towers were jammed together so tightly, he could feel the mass and stupendous weight. Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets! There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening-and he was among the victors!”

― Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

Barking up the Density Tree


Architecture & Art




In the past month two articles dealing with the issue of density and livability in our cities have been published that have received considerable traffic on Twitter and on-line news venues. In one, there is a call for more density as a solution to the housing woes of cities like Vancouver. In the other, there is condemnation of density in the form of high rise towers.

A couple Twitteratti noted: “What do we need? More or less density?”

Good question.

Michael Mortensen, a Vancouver developer and urban planner, recently proposed what he calls a “new Vancouver Special” in a blog that was profiled by Bob Ransford in the Vancouver Sun on December 18, 2015. Essentially, the root of the idea is the consolidation of two standard RS-1 lots (33’x120′) and building a three storey four-plex at the front of the lot and a two-storey tri-plex at the lane. His argument is that this would provide middle-income earners four, four-bedroom, 1,500 sq ft ground oriented units as well as three, three-bedroom 1000 sq ft units in a standardized form that could be easily recognized and approved by the City of Vancouver Planning and Building Departments in much the same way that the ubiquitous original “Vancouver Special” was touted and spread throughout the city like a virus.

The foci in this proposal are the following:

  • People want ground oriented homes.
  • Single family detached housing does not solve the affordable housing shortage perception.
  • High-rise residential does not solve the affordable housing shortage perception.
  • Adding density will solve the affordable housing shortage perception.
  • Uniformity of design will speed up the provision of affordable housing.
  • People will accept architectural homogeneity if it means having a ground oriented home.

Then, on January 5, 2016, Moshe Safdie, a renowned Canadian Architect, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Build a Better City”. Here, Safdie bemoans the “flurry of high-rise tower construction now under way in New York”, which represents a “quantum leap in density”. Throughout the article, the provision of high-rise towers are blamed for several failings of our modern cities and society.

Safdie asserts the following:

  • The quality of life in these towers is bad.
  • The focus on their design is only in their appearance.
  • There are no considerations for views, light and the ability to connect to the outdoors.
  • No natural ventilation.
  • There is no consideration for how towers interact with each other and as such impact the urban fabric.
  • Mixed use commercial and residential towers siphon the life from the surrounding neighbourhood and lack diversity.

While at the end of the article, Safdie states that we need to find ways to deal with the “dense megacity” in order to make it more livable and workable, unlike Mortensen, he provides no real concrete ideas to combat what he perceives as too much vertical density in our downtown cores. While he at times mentions some ideas such as introducing terraces, gardens and solariums to these high-rises, and cites a few of his own projects, these moments only serve to give the impression that he has not looked outside of his own office to see what is being done with high-rise projects lately.

The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) Vancouver House in our downtown is a perfect example of the direction high-rise residential can, should and will go. It’s dynamic form is comprised of open outdoor spaces and interaction with urban fabric. It has green space, and every unit for all of its vertical height has natural ventilation, terraces and individual views. And this design has already, even before it has been completed, won awards for its design.

Bing Thom was recently interviewed regarding a new high-rise residential tower his office has designed that has incorporated green space, play and community areas, even bicycle storage on many floors of the project.

Finally, Safdie’s assertion that mixed-use projects with residential towers over podia of commercial space somehow drain the life from the neighbourhoods and offer no diversity, is confusing as it is exactly this form of density that was mandated by the City of Vancouver and has served to revitalize areas of our downtown such as Yaletown, Davie, Grandville, and Robson Streets. This mandated push for mixed-use, with townhouses, condo towers, live-work units, shops, community resources, etc, has been credited in taking rundown areas prone to crime and stagnancy and bringing them back to life. We just need to look as downtown cores like New Westminster to see such resurgence of vitality.

To contrast this, Mortensen’s proposal of taking single family lots, combining them and building what essentially comes down to standardized multi-family residential projects will only serve homogenize and densify areas that perhaps don’t need to be.

I do agree that our cities need to have a wider range of zoning possibilities in that there might be far too much of our cities being zoned for only single-family residential. In addition, there are not enough zones where low-rise medium density is available to be developed. Mortensen’s plan would necessitate a new zoning or adapted existing zoning that would then be placed in specific areas around Vancouver as there is no chance that a higher density such as this would be allowed cheek and jowl with single family residential in the present RS-1 zones. As it is, there is pressure to limit the size of those single family “Monster Homes”, why would anyone accept a three story, seven unit project next door? Therefore this proposal is essentially no different than pushing for more areas to develop low-rise medium density residential. And as such, there is no need to come up with a prescribed massing or form that could be streamlined through the city processes.

While in both articles Density is used as the driving force for the proposed solutions or the arguments against such and such a form, the reality is that density is not the issue. Both authors talk a great deal about form and massing and how this relates to density and how they relate to their location.

Where this density occurs is the issue.

In terms of the “new Vancouver Special”, while the prospect of re-introducing yet another blanket statement of an “approved” design such as the original Vancouver Special is an Architect’s nightmare and a potential blight on the city, the issue of massing and form is of less concern than providing a logical place for this form of higher density. The Cities need to provide the location and the incentive and the projects will come and if this is truly a solution to the issue of affordable housing, then the problem will be addressed. At present we do not have a need for a standardized form of building to answer these issues, we simply need a place to do it. Finally, the implication that providing a template for a type of project will allow it to move through the city faster is most likely a fallacy as every site is different and requires individual attention especially with a higher density projects such as this.

In terms of Safdie’s argument that towers are bad for us as humans and our cities, there are plenty of good examples of how to do it well. Again, it is an issue of location and execution. High-rise towers with their intense density belong in particular areas and should be allowed in these areas.

In the end, there appears to be, in both articles, a notion that we as Architects, City Planners and Developers are somehow forcing people to live in high-rise towers while what all of us really want is to live in low density areas with access to the ground from our front door. Or at least close to it. The reality is that many, many, many people choose to live in high density areas. Many people like to live on the 60th floor of a tower. Many people want to live right downtown where they can enjoy the chaos and energy just moments away from their secure unit high above the human drama. As an example, when I moved from Baffin Island, I made the decision that I was going to live right downtown and chose Yaletown. I loved it at the time and it was actually a great place for my young kids. The energy and vitality was amazing. Conversely, simply providing a seven unit medium-density complex in a residential area does not necessarily create affordable housing, no more than a sixty storey tower does. Cities such as Surrey and Richmond have a huge number of townhouses projects being built and still the issue of providing affordable housing is in the forefront of the press.

Perhaps the main issue that should be tackled, and, to be fair, I think it is, is where different types of density should be proposed. Cities should and are opening up more areas to different types of density. Cities need the skyscrapers just as much as they need the single family houses and they need everything in between. There is nothing wrong with any of these forms of housing and their associated density and none of these forms will solve the issue of affordable housing on their own.

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