I grew up in a city that boasted one skyscraper. When I was a child, I thought that description was more than apt. After all, everything is big when you are small.
The building rises to 10 or 11 storeys. I can’t remember exactly how many, having never ventured higher than the second and third floor public library. I did go to its depths, the basement being the source of driving licenses. I proved my ability to parallel park in the building’s parking lot.
With Sir Richard Squires as my only role model for the first two decades of my life, it’s not surprising I grew up thinking high rises were anomalies and that most people ought to live more sensibly close to the ground in houses.
My attachment to a yard and a back step was reinforced by a couple of years of high-rise living while at university in Nova Scotia. Fenwick Tower, a 33-storey concrete monolith that swayed in strong winds, had little about it that could be considered beautiful. The view of the Halifax Harbour (which I enjoyed for one year having snagged a 26th-floor bedroom) was its best feature.
Now that I’ve lived a year 15 storeys above the ground in a west Toronto condominium tower, I’d still contend that a view is the crowning feature of high-rise living. But then, I am fortunate enough to have a view of both the city skyline and the expanse of Lake Ontario.
Week by week as I live here, however, I become more convinced that there’s a great deal to be said for living vertically. A good view is a bonus to the main reason I appreciate life in a high tower: it provides population density.
And population density leads to so many other benefits.
I am within walking distance to grocery stores and pharmacies, a couple of excellent restaurants, two lovely coffee shops (one that sells French pastries) and an esquisite Italian market that not only sells a fine selection of cheeses, but keeps aging wheels of cheddar and gruyere in a vault where customers are invited to enter and smell the pungency.
Dentists, doctors and optometrists occupy the ground floor spaces of the high rises in my neighourhood. There are hair salons, banks, gas stations, hardware and convenience stores all within walking distance.
There’s a bus stop outside the door of my building, which will take me to a neighbourhood 10 minutes away where I can buy cheap, fresh fruits and vegetables in small markets (they also sell fresh flowers for $4 a bunch. I indulge regularly). One local bakery sells off its bread for a twoonie a loaf after 6 p.m. every evening.
Had I chosen to live with even more density in the core of Toronto, I would have easier access to subways, streetcars and buses (which people complain about all the time, but I’m impressed by any transportation service that comes by more frequently than once every hour).
When I moved here, I wasn’t sure I would like high-rise living and feared the city might feel claustrophobic to me. But that fear hasn’t materialized. Rather, I’ve come to appreciate the richness of a crowd, its plethora of possibilities.
I think about this almost daily; in part because I live next to three construction sites where new high rises are in various stages of becoming true skyscrapers.
When I first moved in, the construction site closest to me was nothing more than a huge crater where machines pounded the earth with incessant urgency. They sent up clouds of fine silt, which settled in my condo on a daily basis. I despaired of the mess.
But the building is now taking shape and the dust has settled. Now I watch with keen interest as the workers arrive each morning before sunrise, setting themselves to the complicated task of erecting a building safe enough for hundreds of people to call home.
I marvel at the expertise required by architects, engineers, electricians and plumbers as they construct the bones of the building. I think about what the building will be like when it’s finally finished and it lights up with so many lives.
This particular building is going to rob me of a good slice of my view. I lament that but I know it’s also the price to be paid for high-density living, when there are more people in one’s sightlines than landscape.
This is not such a bad thing. People are good for the economies of cities. Building upward concentrates community, providing much more scope for businesses, shopkeepers and service providers to actually make a good living.
Sprawling neighbourhoods satisfy our need for space. But they aren’t the best solution to creating vibrant, healthy cities. Building upwards makes sense. Especially after the dust settles.
Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. This column is published weekly in the Moncton Times & Transcript newspaper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.