A Research Series: Housing Affordability and Social Sustainability in Toronto
By: Natalie Browne | April 6, 2020
The following report series will examine how the introduction of gentle densification with R-Hauz products can directly address problems caused by non-sustainable urban growth– distinctively targeting measures to reduce urban sprawl and subsequent social isolation, mitigate the urban heat island effect, provide safe/affordable housing and protect against the loss of urban greenspace and permeable land. Importantly, the introduction of R-Hauz’s products could provide viable housing options for people in need of centralized and affordable housing. At the same time, the customizable nature of these products and the attentive flexibility in design means that these housing solutions can be an attractive option for a diverse mixture of people and families. In all, the use of R-Hauz products in the growth of sustainable cities can help balance the increasing environmental externalities we face and address the social inequalities embedded in urban areas.
Situating the Problem
“Private-sector players need to keep abreast of emerging solutions in construction techniques and materials, work with governments to ensure an adequate flow of skilled labour, and consider new solutions in financing and innovative tenure models.” (PcW Report, World Economic Forum 2019)
Historically, government and taxation policies have favoured single-family homeownership.
In the decade following the second world war, the province of Ontario engaged in extensive planning practices that saw the provision of large scale infrastructure to service suburban development around the outskirts of Toronto (Sorensen & Hess, 2015). Setting the tone for Toronto’s imminent sprawl, the ongoing construction of Ontario’s superhighways combined with rapid population growth, substantial economic expansion and a huge post-war influx of Canadian immigrants effectively established the underlying forces behind this expansion (Sewell, 2009). Critics of these conventional post-war development patterns underscore inefficient and fragmented land uses, a heightened reliance on cars and significant declines in public spaces – with local degradation of natural systems that deteriorates in environmental resilience (Lan Xu, 2017).
The creation of these suburbs and the accompanying government funding of them subsequently bred a new precedent for a dispersed housing form. The abundance of spacious lots and single-family households in and around the city formed a distinctive development path – leaving behind incompatible infrastructure for our modern ambitions of mixed-income neighbourhoods and sustainable scaled growth. As a turnkey solution for local residents, R-Hauz’s products work to introduce soft densification into under-utilized urban spaces, whether it’s in the form of in-law suites, rental units or broader mixed-use mid-rise buildings.
Synthesizing environmentally conscious design and a people-centered approach, R-Hauz products work to fill in Toronto’s empty and under-utilized spaces. Compactness in physical makeup encourages urban connectivity, and this intensification minimizes the transport of energy, water, minerals, products and people (Jabreen, 2006). In minimizing urban GHG emissions, the advancement of urban compactness facilitates social interaction and ready access to the surrounding social services and facilities. Inherently connected with the goal of livability, physical compactness in the form of urban densification also works to prevent commuting, one of the most environmentally destructive and individually frustrating aspects of today’s city living (Jabreen, 2006).
R-Hauz products to address the lock-in effects of historic single-family and high-rise development in the GTA.
Significantly, despite the historic regional sprawl, Toronto’s suburban development path embodied about twice as much density as its North American counterparts – whose own suburbanization patterns entailed a swift departure from city centres and the consequent urban decentralization of the middle class (Sewell, 2009; Moore, 2009). The uniqueness of Toronto’s expansion patterns in the mid-century emerged as the centralized growth of a dense and compact metropolitan region – with the sprawling, lower-density exterior suburbs expanding from the aforementioned post-war growth pressures (Sewell, 2009). As a consequence of this, various urbanized municipalities were formed; each with substantial population densities and accompanying publicly funded municipal services – and surrounded by sprawled development.
As an innovative opportunity for homeowners to improve upon their underutilized properties or maximize their existing land value, R-Hauz products are designed as a flexible, self-solving solution that works around the lock-in effects of extensive high-rise development patterns and dispersed single-family homes in Toronto. Toronto’s historic development patterns of dense urban pockets and surrounding suburban sprawl have resulted in stringent lock-in effects for the region. Webb and Webber (2017) point to the growing prevalence of high-rise tower neighbourhoods in the city (such as liberty village or the distillery district) – emphasizing this pattern as part of a private-property led revitalization popularized in many North American cities. Altogether, Toronto’s condo neighbourhoods in and around the urban core have the distinctive ability to create long-term problems for sustained and affordable urban home ownership (Webb and Webber, 2017).
In the short-term, these condos satisfy an immediate need for pricey, confined housing, but Webb and Webber (2017) continue to emphasize that this model is not physically (i.e. lifecycle planning) or socially sustainable beyond immediate tenancy that fits a narrow demographic. Altogether, experts have effectively accentuated a lack of comprehensive planning strategies and end-of-lifecycle solutions for citizens of the GTA (see Sewell, 2009; Sorensen & Hess, 2015; Webb and Webber, 2017; Filion, 2010). A lock-in of small one bedroom or studio apartments in downtown Toronto means a distinctive lack of diverse housing opportunities suitable for diversified populations – one of the chief drivers behind R-Hauz’s creation of these targeted housing solutions.
Adding onto under-utilized or empty space, R-Hauz products offer a range of innovative housing structures, intentionally designed to be inclusive of the wide range of demographics inherent in our urban populations. The current spatial makeup of downtown Toronto means that there will be fewer opportunities for large-scale development projects, so R-Hauz’s focus has been centred around maximizing the city’s existing inventory. Filling in the necessary space in between, R-Hauz’s mixed-use mid-rise buildings and customizable laneway homes offer prefabricated solutions for landowners who want to enhance their properties without compromising on an established location. By intensifying areas that are already served by municipal infrastructure, citizens can enjoy the benefits of enhanced walkability in their neighbourhoods and a declining dependency on their cars. The extensive social and psychological benefits of this type of smart growth will be discussed at length in the following series. Practically, R-Hauz’s housing solutions should encourage more environmentally-friendly growth patterns (i.e. avoiding sprawl) and embolden widespread sustainable development in a top-down manner – setting the tone for an increasingly sustainable city.