Downtown Bureau

Race to the Bottom to Avoid Fear of Height

Our Official Plan does not start with a description of allowable building heights and parking spaces, but public meetings usually end there.

By George Sweetman
Published April 05, 2018

Height is defined as the vertical distance from bottom to top of an object. It is also defined as the utmost degree - we can experience the absolute height of kindness and caring. Both meanings are on display in community meetings regarding development proposals. However, our fear of one blinds us to the delights of the other.

Much discussion focuses on the vertical height of a building while ignoring the exhilarating heights of achieving societal goals. Goals, which founded on provincial policy and community consultation, form the basis of our City's Official Plan.

Building an inclusive community with affordable housing, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods, reduced Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, and a restored natural environment, is the ultimate goal of our Official Plan. Achieving this goal would indeed be the extreme height of city building.

This is why the discussion must focus on community benefit, which is pertinently identified in our Official Plan. If support for our community goals is found wanting, then there is little point looking at the physical aspects.

Our Official Plan does not start with a description of allowable building heights and parking spaces, but public meetings usually end there. Too often we ask only about a proposed building's height and parking spaces and ignore how, or if, a development will contribute toward the achievement of a better community.

Before we rush to the unimportant, let's spend some time exploring the lofty. Failure to do so will allow developments that are unaffordable, emit more greenhouse gas, promote single-use neighbourhoods, and impact the environment to proceed based solely on an acceptable vertical distance and the ability to provide spaces for cars.

It would seem a reasonable trade that in exchange for another storey of a building and a few less parking spots, the community gains a building that is inclusive, contributes to affordability, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and promotes walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods.

It is important to remember that the problem with the race to the bottom is that you just might win.

George Sweetman has been a civil engineer for 30 years working in land development and renewable energy, as well as teaching university students. He volunteers at various organizations focused on food security and affordable housing.

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