Public Works: Turning Apartment Towers Into Close-Knit Communities
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Public Works: Turning Apartment Towers Into Close-Knit Communities

A building planned for Antwerp, Belgium, will provide high-rise–dwellers with tons of shared space and readymade neighbourhoods.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Rendering courtesy of C.F. Møller & Brut.

When you live in a big urban apartment building, it can sometimes feel as if you must be the last living cell in a dead organism. While you know it stands to reason that there are dozens of individuals living beside, above, and below you, they never pass you in the hall, never meet you in the lobby, never knock at your door—and you find yourself wondering whether you really have neighbours at all or whether you are in fact in isolation, somehow, against all odds, in a hundred-unit tower, in a 3-million person city, all alone and unnoticed in a bleak urban cliché, and maybe it would make sense to start ordering pizzas when you aren’t hungry because at least there’d be some fleeting sort of human contact with the delivery kid, and the piles of boxes would make your place seem a little fuller.

The point is, residential towers are indispensable tools for high-density, low-sprawl city living, but they aren’t necessarily great for building community. But, with that drawback in mind, a team of architects and designers have planned a high-rise in Antwerp, Belgium, that will help residents get to know each other, interact, and share their lives without having to sacrifice privacy.

The 24-storey mixed-use building is being promoted as a “vertical social community.” In addition to regular residential units, the plans include 5,000 square metres of communal spaces—a courtyard, a roof terrace, a communal dining area, a three-storey greenhouse-y space—where tenants can gather and socialize with neighbours.

The residential units are private, and grouped by category into tinier vertical communities. One cropping of apartments would be made up of small, student dwellings, say, while another would be comprised of larger family spaces. Each cluster of units will open onto a shared balcony or glassed-in “winter garden.”

winter gardens

This new twist on the apartment tower is expected to be built by 2017. And that’s fine for the Belgians, but what about here in North America, the natural habitat of the residential high-rise? Well, developers in New York are concocting new ways to keep apartment building residents segregated. In Toronto’s west end, meanwhile, there’s a group discussing the possibility of, not quite a vertical social community, but a “cohousing community”.

Toronto eCohousing Community (TECO) envisions a collection of 24 private units, complemented by a common house that would include communal kitchen, dining room, and other shareable space. Not quite as futuristic or comprehensive as a sleek European apartment tower, but it does advance the ideal of community-building in an often isolating city.

Urban life can be a hermetic experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Lives can be shared, connections can be made. And, with the right design innovations, that can happen right on our doorsteps.