Cana­di­ans need to re­place back­yards with bal­conies

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - GLOBE FOCUS - DOUG SAUN­DERS dsaun­ders@globe­and­mail.com

Noah, Harper, Ava and Michael have typ­i­cal Cana­dian child­hoods: they hang out at the pizza joint, try not to get kicked out of the swim­ming pool, get into trou­ble for try­ing to smug­gle a pur­loined Bar­bary sheep into their home. The moun­tain-bred sheep was an ideal pet, they had thought (though their par­ents very much dis­agreed), be­cause they live on the 30th floor of a 47-storey apart­ment build­ing.

In other words, the char­ac­ters in Jackie Burns’s book, The Condo Kids, are very much part of this coun­try’s norm. This gen­er­a­tion of Cana­dian chil­dren is grow­ing up in homes with bal­conies and el­e­va­tors. Yet, Ms. Burns re­al­ized, re­al­ity is al­most ab­sent from our coun­try’s self­i­den­tity: Of the thou­sands of kids’ books, she couldn’t find one that was set in a home above ground-level.

Apart­ment-own­ers, ren­ters and dwellers are al­ready the ma­jor­ity in Montreal and Van­cou­ver – in both cities, more than six in 10 homes are in mul­tiu­nit build­ings – and a plu­ral­ity in Toronto, where 44 per cent are. And they are grow­ing in num­ber: Be­tween 2001 and 2016, the num­ber of apart­ment homes in Toronto in­creased by 180,000, or 40 per cent; in Van­cou­ver by 65,000, or 78 per cent.

But you wouldn’t know it. Canada suf­fers, al­most uniquely in the world, from a prig­gish mid­dle-class an­imus against homes in the air. The word “condo” is de­ployed as a deroga­tory badge of ster­il­ized and in­au­then­tic liv­ing, or wielded as a res­i­den­tial pitch­fork by the de­tached-home elite. In too many Cana­dian neigh­bour­hoods, mul­tiu­nit dwellings are viewed as threats to be fought and ap­pealed, not as new neigh­bours to be wel­comed.

In Europe, apart­ments have long been the mid­dle-class norm. Apart­ment-dwellers are the ma­jor­ity in Italy, Ger­many, Switzer­land, Greece and Spain (where al­most seven in 10 live in an apart­ment). Most of those apart­ments are owned by their mid­dle-class res­i­dents. More than eight in 10 Spa­niards own their dwellings, as do the ma­jor­ity in every coun­try ex­cept Switzer­land and Ger­many.

By join­ing the rest of the world, Canada will im­prove its ecol­ogy, econ­omy and qual­ity of life by fill­ing the empty, in­hu­man dead spa­ces that blot its cities with a lot more condo kids.

We need to apart­men­tize our­selves a lot faster. The price of hous­ing in cities has risen far faster than in­comes. Home own­er­ship has been key to the Cana­dian dream: It is the rea­son why im­mi­grant in­te­gra­tion has suc­ceeded, and why poverty rates have fallen. A short­age of hous- ing sup­ply (both rental and owned) jeop­ar­dizes both.

That cri­sis of sup­ply is rooted in the low pop­u­la­tion den­sity of large parts of Canada’s largest cities. In Toronto, Van­cou­ver and Montreal, there are huge swaths con­tain­ing only sin­gle-fam­ily homes, their den­sity too low to sup­port pub­lic trans­porta­tion or full-fledged ur­ban life. Too many Toronto sub­way sta­tions and Van­cou­ver SkyTrain sta­tions are sur­rounded, not by dense clus­ters of apart­ment hous­ing, but by waste­ful low-rise neigh­bour­hoods.

This is chang­ing too slowly: It is far too easy for in­ef­fi­cient, low-den­sity res­i­den­tial districts to op­pose or se­verely de­lay the ad­di­tion of apart­ments into their hous­ing mix. (On­tario this week took a step in the right di­rec­tion by elim­i­nat­ing the On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board, which fa­cil­i­tated such ap­peals). As a re­sult, cities have fallen vic­tim to ur­ban sprawl rather than life-im­prov­ing den­sity in­creases.

And the low den­sity of our cit- ies and our fix­a­tion on sin­gle­fam­ily dwellings leads, in turn, to an eco­log­i­cal cri­sis. Canada’s two largest sources of green­house-gas emis­sions are trans­porta­tion (mainly from pri­vate au­to­mo­biles) and heat­ing (es­pe­cially from in­ef­fi­cient sin­gle-fam­ily homes); to­gether they make up al­most 40 per cent of our car­bon out­put. New mul­tiu­nit hous­ing is vastly more en­er­gy­ef­fi­cient than even the green­est sin­gle-fam­ily homes, and its den­sity makes pos­si­ble the green trans­porta­tion sys­tems that our cities are too sparse to sup­port.

Canada’s big cities will at least dou­ble their pop­u­la­tions this cen­tury. If they are to be live­able, pleas­ant, ef­fi­cient places, they need to keep that growth within their sen­si­ble bor­ders: The Ur­ban Con­tain­ment Bound­ary in Van­cou­ver, the Green­belt in Toronto, the metropoli­tan bound­ary in Montreal. As a coun­try, we need to grow up, not grow out. We need to wel­come a gen­er­a­tion of condo kids.

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