The future of the past: how we can salvage the apartment towers we once built in abundance but now often ignore.
Last week the National Film Board held a screening of One Millionth Tower, an interactive documentary imagining the future for a highrise in northern Etobicoke. The six-minute film asks viewers to reject the idea of the highrise as failed experiment and instead contemplate the potential locked within vertical living. To help provoke conversation, a panel of experts who helped work on the film shared some interesting factoids with the assembled audience about our local urban landscape.
The perception of Toronto suburbs as sprawling single-family homes is outdated, suggested Roger Keil, Director of the City Institute at York University. “[Our] suburbs are enormously diverse and denser than old urban neighbourhoods.” Highrises, naturally, are the main contributors to that density. One surprising fact is that, after Manhattan, Toronto has the most highrises in North America, with around 1200 in total. “Many people have the image of Toronto as Rosedale, Cabbagetown, and Queen Street West,” said ERA Architects co-founder Michael McClelland. However, our city is “twice as dense as Chicago!”
Reframing the highrise as having such a pivotal role in the health of our city, it becomes worrying then the condition most of the buildings are in, let alone how that affects the communities within them. Graeme Stewart, also an architect at ERA, commented that “our population of two million, with many of them newcomers, is something we’re really proud of as Torontonians, but we’ve done a bad job of supporting them.”
Community organizer Russell Mitchell of ANC-Rexdale sees the problems as a combination of “rumbling infrastructure and intensifying poverty,” echoing the results of Vertical Poverty [PDF], a report on poverty in highrises, released early this year. The Star summarized the situation outlined in the report: “Once built to house modest-income and middle-class families, these aging highrises have increasingly fallen into disrepair and become rife with problems—drug dealing, vandalism, bug infestations, overcrowding—and increasing poverty.”
While a systemic overhaul of highrises requires effort and strategic planning, there are small changes that are easier to implement than one might expect. Elise Hug of the Tower Renewal program, which was initiated by former mayor David Miller to retrofit old highrises, broached one significant issue: the lack of insulation in highrises, which is common for buildings from before the energy crisis. “Most of these towers have no insulation or one-inch of insulation,” she said. But they can be effectively retrofitted, she went on, and the benefits of adding insulation now greatly outweighed the cost of doing so. In fact, Hug cited the price tag for a full “high-end” retrofit at $25,000 per unit, which she said was “a better deal than demolition or [building] new.” Furthermore, the renewal of a highrise for 50 years costs $8 million, compared to the $30–$50 million for a new condo building.
Despite the many financial and social benefits that retrofits like this would provide, one of the challenges is simply drumming up interest in the older buildings, which generally don’t attract much public attention, and haven’t (for all Miller’s efforts) garnered much political attention either.
McClelland suggested one possible explanation for the disinterest. It takes the form of what he called the “40-year rule”—the tendency for people, after that length of time, to find relics from a previous time “obsolete.” He gave a few examples: “In the twenties, people found the Victorian style [of building] obsolete; in the sixties, it was Art Deco; and, now, concrete buildings.” Still, McClelland hopes our apartment towers can become an exception to rule, perhaps sensing a missed opportunity. As he said: “We have in these buildings a way to reinvent the city.”