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Space to Breathe

Breathing space in the city: Making life in the concrete jungle great

Special to National Post | 2013/09/06

Darren Calabrese/National Post files

The high-rise city apartment has been a familiar setting on sitcoms through the years. Think I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City. It has become a real-life setting in the GTA in recent years, as well, especially prevalent in the city core.

Some wonder if the vertical landscape will create isolation and loneliness. Others say the greater density means greater activity for the streets and sidewalks, which automatically creates a sense of community.

Mazyar Mortazavi, president of Tas Design Build, says the rapid growth of the high-rise coincides with Toronto’s social maturing.

“I love the notion of city as a place of rich, vibrant interaction. Toronto is effectively one generational step from immigration, and that’s causing a lot of change. My parents engaged as immigrants, but my generation engages because it’s our city. That’s a very different sensibility, and defines a new social construct.”

Peter J. Thompson/National Post files

Liberty Village — one of the uniquely new downtown neighbourhoods that has integrated amenities that make it feel more close-knit.

The success of growth, he adds, depends on design — of the city and its buildings — as well as the ways in which people make the city community their own. Here’s a roundup of what’s required to make a successful community.

Start With An Urban Plan

Blanche van Ginkel, an architect, urban planner and former dean of architecture at the University of Toronto — believes much rests on the vision, and master plan, that a city creates. “A master plan is necessary for laying out the space that community needs for the basics — public transit, groceries, hardware, banking, schools, open space.”

The St. Lawrence Market area, where developer Sam Crignano lives and works, has all those things. “You can walk to several parks — Berczy, St. James and now West Donlands — the waterfront, the market, and there’s good accessible transit. It covers off all those needs — live, work, play and learn — that makes a community vibrant.”

In the massive Regent Park redevelopment, there’s been more provision for mixed use than when the area was first developed in the 1950s. There’s a beautiful public pool housed in an architecturally exquisite building; new schools; the Daniels Spectrum, an arts and cultural centre that is a popular draw for several community groups; and ample commercial and retail space.

Open space doesn’t only create gathering spaces, it provides the space needed for light to penetrate between tall buildings — and it gives people room to breathe. “That’s part and parcel of creating a vibrant downtown,” says city planner James Parakh. “Open spaces don’t necessarily need to be big — a number of smaller spaces work equally well.”

Because Toronto’s escalating land values have made it hard for the city to purchase green space outright, they’ve had to secure it through the development application process, Mr. Parakh says. Essentially, developers give back a portion of their privately owned land to the community as open space. Mr. Parakh has plenty of examples, including Clover Hill at Bay and St. Mary streets near Yorkville, or the eight-acre Canoe Landing park in Fort York that has been a vital connecting point between the waterfront and the Niagara neighbourhood to the north.

Open spaces within a development site are also important for connecting the building to the community, says landscape architect Paul Ferris. At the Minto30Roe project near Yonge and Eglinton, Mr. Ferris designed the landscape so that residents would have a sense of arrival to their home, rather than going from parking garage to elevator to suite. But it was also important to create a connection with the neighbourhood, so he also created a sequence of spaces — some public that people in the neighbourhood could move through, and one semi-public that was open enough to welcome the public and encourage foot traffic.

The Building Design

Sometimes a building can be a microcosm of community, like Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, which Ms. van Ginkel worked on after graduating as an architect from McGill in 1945. With its roof terrace mimicking the village square — a chest-high parapet invited gazing out towards the mountains — and its central floor devoted to retail as on a main street, the building provided all the community’s needs. What really made it part of the community, though, Ms. van Ginkel says, was the public access to all those amenities.

Today, 60 years after it was built, the building still operates as a community draw with supermarket, doctors, lawyers, accountants, daycare — and the roof terrace still providing the perfect venue for evening strolls.

Something similar can be seen at Liberty Market Building, with its mix of commercial office space, retail shops, studios and live-work residential. Liberty Village in general has a large population of artists — graphic designers, film companies, ad agencies — who, it may be said, tend to spend more time outside home. Using local amenities rather than what’s offered in the condo builds communities.

In previous days, amenities such as pools were used as a way of bringing residents together, but developers are moving away from such high-cost amenities, says Martin Blake, a Daniels Corp. vice-president.

“It’s not just about cost, though,” Mr. Blake says. “We’re interested in creating more gathering spaces so that people will feel connected to a community. If you think about how parks are used by diverse groups of people, and translate that indoors, you come up with smaller gathering areas that encourage people to mingle.”

Height and scale, too, are considerations when creating a sense of community. “Mid-rise structures de facto create a much more intimate and scalable community,” says Roland Rom Colthoff, principle architect of Raw Design. He’s created several in the core. “Chances are you will get to know the neighbours in a five- or 10-storey building. Businesses are even doing this now — dividing their companies into 150-person units, which makes for happier employees.”

That depends partly on location — where real estate values are highest, buildings are too. The high densities make sense around transit or road exchange points, Ms. van Ginkel says. Yonge and Bloor, Yonge and Eglinton, and King and Bay are good examples.

The city is also looking at increasing densities along corridors such as Danforth, Kingston Road and Queen Street East, where there is already substantial retail and established single-family residential communities in place, but these would be at a more balanced mid-rise scale of six to 10 stories.

In Roncesvalles, for example, where developer Bill Gairdner is building his 383 Sorauren project, a 40-storey tower wouldn’t be appropriate. Instead, the building, designed by Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance, will replicate the industrial warehouse scale.

Program Design

Where public amenities are scarce — in emerging neighbourhoods, for example — the mantle of community building falls on residents.

Architect and family activist Sybil Wa has spent the past several years organizing events in her building, such as Halloween and Easter egg hunts, and lobbying the condo corporation for more space to store sandboxes, swings and bikes that the families share. More recently, she has organized residents to try to secure park space and equipment from the city for the growing number of children downtown. In the meantime, she says, they created their own programming — hiring a librarian to read in the park, bring puppets, have lemonade and cookies. “We are trying to stake our ground — children and families are integral to any community.”

It’s not ideal, though, says Ms. Wa, who lives with her husband and three children in a downtown condo.

“Without permanent places for people to gather, like a local park or playground, our communities become vulnerable. That’s where planning and land use come in — to create the permanence necessary for community to happen.”

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