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Falling Short : Why tall buildings are exactly what Oakville needs right now

Smart Density
Smart Density

Dear Oakville resident, picture this:

It’s Saturday morning and you receive a call from your friends in Pickering, saying that they are on the GO train, heading to Oakville to visit and explore the vibrant Midtown neighbourhood. Excitedly, you agree to meet them right outside the Midtown GO Station.

Just over an hour later, you and your family are in the nice park near the GO station. The park is bustling with people doing all sorts of activities. Some are chilling by a pond with a book, while others are biking along a trail around the park. And there they are, your friends, jumping up and down, waving to get your attention.

You stroll through the playground and start wandering around the lively neighbourhood surrounding the station. There’s a plethora of charming local cafes, bars, and restaurants to explore. You even run into a few street musicians and stop for a bit to enjoy their tunes.

After grabbing a drink or two, you stop by the farmers’ street market to get fresh ingredients for dinner, and then you all hop on an electric bus and head back to your place for a fun evening at home.

This is of course a daydream, and a departure from the reality of the current state of the Oakville GO station, City of Oakville, and in fact, all of our smaller towns in Canada. But, this daydreaming is the very imagination we need when we want to discuss and evaluate our Official Plans, which would shape the future of our cities and generations to come.

Recently, I came across an article titled "Midtown [Oakville] population density could exceed Manhattan", and a cartoon titled "We moved to Oakville for the small town feel." Then I learnt that the Oakville council has postponed the decision to adopt an amendment to Oakville Midtown Official Plan, extending the delay for at least another year.

As Oakville’s Matt Stainton aptly pointed out, each month of delay hurts people's livelihood; a 350-unit condo facing a one-month delay results in a price increase of $5,714 per unit. If the delay persists for a year, the price hike reaches $68,571. That is why I am here to offer you another perspective.

For decades, our cities have been developed around the idea that everyone must have a car, and must use their car to run even their most basic daily errands. For decades, we were forced to believe that this is the only way to live. We allowed our cities to grow out without any limits and bulldozed our precious lands to build scattered sprawls of detached single-family houses. 

Now, we find ourselves at a critical juncture facing both a housing crisis and a climate crisis. Cars significantly contribute to carbon emissions, worsening the environmental challenges we face.

In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), a staggering 87% of people rely on their cars on a daily basis. In comparison, only 37% of people in Greater London Authority, U.K., and 30% in New York City do the same. Also, having single-family detached houses as the main type of development has further reinforced our dependence on cars, hindering more sustainable transportation alternatives. 

For decades, we failed to make proper investments in transit, leaving us with a significant catch-up effort. Fortunately, we are now starting to address this issue. The ongoing GO Expansion project led by Metrolinx encompasses the electrification of trains and an upgrade to provide all-day, two-way service, with a train passing every 15 minutes.

This expansion will profoundly transform the region and the opportunities it presents. Our only viable option is to construct additional housing near public transit and to create these environments to be compact, beautiful, walkable, and inviting to all.

Debunking the myths of harmful tall buildings

Tall buildings occupy a special place in our perception of a city or a neighbourhood, maybe because they are so visible from faraway. But in reality, we do not experience our neighbourhoods from a bird eye view. 

As we walk along the streets, there are countless elements that affect how we perceive our surroundings. The height of the adjacent buildings is one of these factors, but it is certainly not the one that makes or breaks an urban neighbourhood. 

Going back to your friend’s visit: before hopping on that electric bus, if you had extended your walk back home to do some leisurely window shopping in a well-designed mixed-use, high-density area, you would stroll along a spacious sidewalk brimming with lively pedestrians coming and going in all directions. A row of trees and lush greenery would separate the sidewalk from the nearby bike path to give you a stronger sense of safety; Here and there, you could see folks take a seat on city benches, enjoying a moment of relaxation. You might have heard some melodies come from the rooftop terrace of a 7 or 8-storey building. 

In this imaginative walk, it did not matter whether that 8-storey podium was topped by a ten-storey, twenty-storey, or even a fifty-storey building.

What really influenced your experience was how the buildings were designed at your eye level and point of view, the way the space between them was crafted, and the dynamic activities that were taking place in those in-between spaces.

Why we all need to get involved, and the great responsibility

The walk we took together in this imaginary neighbourhood would only become reality if we, as a community, get involved to ensure that our new neighbourhoods are designed to foster a livable and sustainable living environment for us and future generations. 

We tend to focus on the height and spend all of our energy there when it is really a waste of time, energy and money. In today’s economy and with the skyrocketed construction costs, we should build near transit, and we should build densely. That’s a given. Now the question is, how well can we do it?

What does that mean? For instance, if there are proposals for tower heights exceeding 50 storeys in a large strategic growth centre like Midtown Oakville, we need not fret about ending up with a neighbourhood that resembles a jungle of giant towers.

We should remember that there are established urban design standards and principles that take into account specific site dimensions and limitations. Moreover, we have highly professional staff at our City Halls who genuinely care about our cities and communities. Working in collaboration with experienced and imaginative urban designers, they are diligently striving to propel our cities toward a future that is both sustainable and inclusive.

What we should ask instead is, for example, how the space between these buildings is designed, what public amenities are introduced in the plan, or how suitable would the units be for young families with children, and how the public park will be designed.

What is behind this imaginary description that paints a picture of thriving and vibrant retail, a charming public realm, and functioning public transit is one thing: density. 

Density is key to the most successful places. Humans are social creatures; we examine and trust places by how other people (and how many) use them (that’s why we also trust Google reviews so much).  

In the end, we should not forget that we are living in an incredible era of unprecedented rapid growth and change. At a pace that requires us to be highly adaptable and quickly adjust our goals and strategies to the ever-changing circumstances of our communities. 

We are entering a period of rapid urbanization, and it is crucial that we create financially and socially robust cities that can withstand the challenges ahead. To achieve this, we all need to be effective advocates for change.

This change should involve all members of our communities and ensure that our neighbourhoods become livable, safe, welcoming, and truly wonderful places to call home.