High-density housing: the next big thing in the GTA

Single-detached houses in the 416 are getting hard to come by – equally in terms of affordability and supply. This new reality has given rise to different forms of high-density housing, which the Canadian Home Builders’ Association refers to as “missing middle” housing. Indeed, this is fairly new to the Greater Toronto Area, but it’s long been a way of life in other densely populated and pricey cities around the globe.

(Illustration by Luke Pauw in collaboration with Q4 Architects)

frances_digiuseppe-600YP NextHome chatted with Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe, architect and principal at Q4 Architects, about the GTA’s hot housing market, the issues homebuyers face, and potential solutions.

Q: Why has the GTA not explored different forms of high-density development, or “missing middle” housing, in the past?

A: Developers haven’t had to. “Missing middle” housing, like stacked townhouses, are more complicated and expensive to build per square foot. Therefore, these types of homes weren’t seen as desirable in the marketplace – until recently.

Due to the increased cost of single-detached homes, new forms of high-density development are changing the conversation. And, with a second mini baby boom underway, we need to examine new forms of high-density development like stacked back-to-back townhomes, laneway houses and small mixed-use main-street buildings that will help provide entry-level housing for young families.

In order for this to happen, new thinking needs to take place at the municipal level to support these concepts that have been widely rejected in the past.

Q: Some have attributed the high price of homes to Toronto’s lack of developable land. What’s your take?

A: Toronto might have a lack of green fields to be developed, but there isn’t a lack of developable land. We need to be creative in our thinking, and develop around “unfriendly” spaces like empty parking lots, deteriorating city spaces and old strip malls. We can add “missing middle” housing and build in these spaces. One way to do this is to move parking underground, where it belongs, and add townhomes on top and flats above existing retail, in order to create more activated public spaces.

Q: Can Toronto’s existing infrastructure handle the population increase that accompanies this type of housing?

A: If we want to be a great city, we have to handle additional density and “think big.” Toronto needs to become more walkable and bikable to eliminate street traffic. We don’t need additional parking spots, but what we would benefit from is improved transit.

Q: From an architecture perspective, how do you design this type of high-density housing without risking overpopulation in key areas?

A: As a growing city, Toronto must find ways to design this type of high-density housing at appropriate, non-overwhelming densities. One principle to consider is building scale so that the ratio between the width of the street is proportionate to the building height.

We also need to build more small, public common spaces like parks and squares that foster communities and give people space to sit, talk and play. It is important to design respectfully and think about the dignity of having a front door – particularly as we look to house young families in new ways.

Q: How do you expect local residents to respond to these new forms of housing within their existing communities?

A: Many local residents are afraid of what they don’t know. There are often safety, traffic, noise and resale value concerns. However, there are many studies to support that new development actually increases resale values in neighbourhoods as a result of transit additions and services for people to use.

Public consultations, with leadership from city councilors and mayors, are also really important. These consultations allow people to voice their concerns while inviting them to give their input on what they want to see in their communities.

Q: High-density housing has made its way to the suburbs. Are single-detached homes becoming a thing of the past?

A: Probably. Provincial legislation is pushing for increased density in outlying neighbourhoods of the GTA. Affordability of single-detached homes is increasingly a thing of the past, and I suspect that this trend will continue. Toronto is a very desirable city and many people make the compromise of living in smaller homes in order to spend less time in their cars, avoid traffic and enjoy the many conveniences of living in and around the city.

Q: What do you think Canadians can learn from cities where high-density housing is the norm?

A: I travel extensively, and last year I visited Denmark, Sweden and Norway where four- to six-storey newly constructed buildings are common. If Canadians can learn how to do these smaller buildings well, we can really cater to young families by creating and transforming neighbourhoods into much more vibrant and safe communities.


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