Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Myth of Necessary Growth

My region is considering selling off fourteen green spaces to developers. This is just after the city decided to allow a high-rise developer to ignore the bylaw that requires 30% of the land to be landscaped. Instead, the developer can build almost right to the sidewalks and put a few containers of plants on the rooftop. And once again, we're going to destroy a beautiful old building to create a standard-issue tower to add to the urban uglification. I said more about the problems with that here, and wrote to the local paper, but the city voted in favour of the massive tax revenues anyway. Money over reason?? Shocking.

Growth is not the same as progress. Counselors insist that the region must grow to survive. But for us all to survive, we need to focus on sustainable living, not growth. Adding as many people as possible to an area seems to benefit the local economy. The city gets the taxes and the businesses get the consumers. But more people create more waste and use more roadways and drain more water from our system. There's diminishing returns once we hit a certain capacity. I don't know what that number is, and I wish I did. But I'm quite confident it's unwise to fill every square inch of land with concrete. What's necessary is to learn when it's enough, when we have enough people to keep the area stable, instead of adding more and more bodies to increase profits of a few.

We just got a new "public square" installed in front of Waterloo Town Square. The original plans called for water features and landscaping. They couldn't fund that entirely, so we're left with a huge cement and steel area with some public art that they installed to appear more urban, but leaves everyone in this tiny city baffled and angry.
I can't find the price of the art anywhere. Funny that. There's a drawing of the 2.8 million dollar space here, but it doesn't do it justice. If I get a chance, I'll snap a photo and add it later.

Some trees line the edges, but the center is barren concrete baking in the sun. There's no tables, and most importantly, every time I'm there, there's no people. There's no reason to sit for lunch. It's a wasteland. The only people who love it seem to be the skateboarders, and there appears to be a cop assigned there for the sole purpose of chasing the teenagers away.

If I had the equipment and know-how and chutzpah, I'd love to rip a hole in the center of the square and plant a huge maple. Then there'd be a place to sit in the shade, and a focal point to look at from the benches. As it is, we can sit and look at traffic until we're blinded by the sun's glare off the blocks.

People need natural areas. We need trees and organic lines and flowering bushes surrounding us. We need it aesthetically, but we also need it for our habitat to flourish. We can keep cramming people in by paving farmland and parkland, "surplus" land, but to what extent will we thrive in an inhospitable environment? And how soon before the old large town/small city dwellers start to move on, leaving Toronto-wanna-be behind? A city with many high-rises but no history or culture or community isn't worth squat.

I was wavering between the Joni Mitchell original and the Green Day cover, so here's a compromise (of sorts):


smably said...

I'm surprised that you would oppose an urban densification project like 144 Park. The alternative is not for growth to stop; it is for growth to continue in the suburbs, eating up valuable farmland and promoting car culture.

The trouble is, our region is a desirable place to live. If the city said no to any growth, urban or suburban, what would happen? Demand would exceed supply, and the price of existing housing would skyrocket. We'd end up with a region that's unaffordable for anyone but the wealthy. A similar thing happened in Victoria, where I came from. Suburban development leapfrogged to Langford (a suburban municipality), where development policies were more lax and land was cheaper, while at one point you couldn't buy a house in Victoria for less than $500,000, IIRC.

This development is in an urban area, close to the rapid transit corridor. Consider what would happen if the development weren't built: we'd probably get single-family detached houses on farmland instead.

That being said, I agree that the loss of the heritage building is very unfortunate, and I think the developer could have done a lot more to preserve it. And I would definitely like to see a green roof on this building. I'm not sure I agree that it should be surrounded by landscaping and setbacks, though -- that seems like something more suited to a suburban development. I would prefer smaller setbacks, a lively and people-friendly streetscape, and green roofs.

But the bottom line is that I think it's much more productive to work on fighting suburban sprawl than urban infill. I'm surprised that you posted about this, but not the Ira Needles mega-mall, which will be far more damaging to the environment and our region than an urban condo that lacks landscaping.

(As for the public square, I agree that it's seriously flawed, but compared to the hideous parking lot that used to occupy that space, it's a huge improvement.)

Marie said...

I don't oppose urban densification at all. I just oppose the way this particular project is being permitted to ignore some important bylaws. I'm for growth, but there's a good reason that 30% of all high-density construction must be landscaped: the plants filter water run-off and sends it back into the water table. Without the landscaping on the ground, the run-off just ends up in the rivers unfiltered. It's an important bylaw to uphold, for environmental reasons more than just aesthetics.

This particular post - on getting rid of so much of our parkland - is a different issue. We can have smart growth - such as higher density in the core and making unused buildings into apartments - without taking up more park and agricultural lands. To me it just smacks of a money-grab.