Is Our High-Rise Development Model Limiting Our Complete Communities and Depleting Our Social Capital?

Our public realm and community services are critical to developing thriving urban environments. As our high-rises facilitate extreme density in our core, are we diluting the diversity and inclusivity of our communities and therefore, our potential to develop social capital?


Cities around the world are experiencing rapid densification. People continue to flock toward more urban centres for a chance at a higher quality of life. Cities offer more opportunities for work, art and culture, social stimulus, education, and lifestyle. Over the next 20 years, 2.5 Billion people around the world will move from a rural to urban area, resulting in 68% of the global population living urban compared to the current 55%. Cities are rapidly looking for new ways to accommodate their growth as migrants overflow housing, transportation, infrastructure, and social services.

Toronto is no exception to the rule; over the next 22 years our downtown population  will grow by 1 million, and the GTA as a whole will grow by nearly 3 million (Government of Ontario). In 2006, the provincial government established a growth plan to help guide and inform our development to accommodate our changing urban environment. Part of this plan included procedural incentives for developers to build in designated "growth zones" where 50-80 storeys would be allowed. For example, Yonge and Eglinton  is a growth zone, and in the past 12 years over 15 towers have been constructed with more underway.

City densification is inherently a good thing. Cities bring people together to share ideas and culture, and more densely populated human capital increases the potential for innovation, entrepreneurship, industry growth and meaningful relationships. Toronto's reputation as an inclusive and diverse city has played a large part in the development of our vibrant communities and has established our city as a hub for art, food and innovation.

  But is there an optimal level of densification? Our high-rise model for densification has every corner developed to add 500 units and potentially 750 additional people. The result, in areas where this has happened, is a dwindling public realm. Many people move from their apartment (now often 350-700 square feet) to their desk at work and back with little to no interaction with the community outside their office. As our public realm is depleted and replaced with high-density buildings, are more people "living anonymously" with fewer meaningful social interactions? Is our development model therefore, depleting our social capital?

The reality is that cities are people, not the buildings that they're comprised of, and much of our experience in a city depends on the relationships we develop in them. Whether our relationship is with nature, other people, or our physical environment, a good city supports and encourages our natural tendencies to engage and be social by developing "complete communities". The public realm is crucial for offering unstructured environments for relationships to form - green space, community centres, child care centres and public markets are the places where you might be introduced to a friend who is the key to your dream job, or the person you end up sharing your life with.

The public realm bridges our communities, and therefore provides a very unique support system. The ability for face-to-face communication plays an important role in innovation and creativity. Great ideas don't always come to you in the workplace, and instead might be on your walk home or chatting with someone new at the off-leash dog park. Alphabet has embraced this philosophy in their own workspace: this is a company founded on the development of software, yet their campus is designed for people to physically interact with each other and with their surrounding environment. Green space, artwork, even rock climbing walls, all stimulate ideas and bring people together to share ideas and create something new.

Social services are another aspect of the public realm that play an important role in the city. Sociologist Mario Small from the University of Chicago spent years studying childcare centres, and found that childcare centres offer a lot more than just childcare:

"People were making a lot of connections in these centres. It turns out that if you're a parent of a two or three year old, one of the most useful things you can have in your life is literally another parent of a two or three year old. Because a lot of the problems that you're facing, especially among first time parents are problems that this group of people is most likely to understand.  They understand your predicament, they're likely to have some information about some aspect of it that you don't. But they're likely to help you, because they understand what it feels like. All of those things make them extremely valuable sources for social capital"

For most of human history, people have lived in clans or in multi-generational homes. This societal structure of the past created by default and naturally diverse communities through which people socialized, cared for and supported each other.  It's only recently that people have started living with only one or two people per household. A vibrant public realm provides fertile ground to create new relationships, enhance existing ones, and develop prosperous communities. Our community, friends and family are the backbone of our support system and deserve the resources to maintain a thriving relationship.

Nurturing and focusing on the public realm provides balance in our urban environments. In order to provide a vibrant public realm, I wonder if there is an optimal balance between densification and public realm that allows people to thrive. I wonder if the degree of densification in high-rises today has surpassed that balance. Without the space and services that support a diverse and inclusive community, these high-rise developments risk diluting our social capital and ultimately, the benefits of living in a city to begin with.