Is intensification the new urban renewal?

Is intensification the new urban renewal?
Posted on April 13, 2013 | Jay Baltz | Written on April 13, 2013
Letter type:

In the middle of the last century, “urban renewal” peaked as the cutting edge of urban planning. Renewal referred not to restoration or renovation of neighbourhoods, of course, but to removing large swaths of older urban residential areas. New developments were often large civic buildings, public housing, or highways. In Ottawa, the destruction of Lebreton Flats in 1962 was a federal urban renewal scheme that led to the loss of a huge area of housing, producing an empty area in the heart of the city that is just beginning to be filled in.

This type of urban renewal is no longer in favour these days. The preservationist movements that began in the late 1960s, led by urbanists like Jane Jacobs and her colleagues, decried the loss of historic urban neighbourhoods, particularly for highways. More recently, “New Urbanism” has championed the dense, street-oriented neighbourhoods of the same type that were often removed in renewal projects.

In addition, the fact that the older neighbourhoods destroyed by renewal were often replaced by non-residential or lower density uses helped promote urban sprawl and reliance on cars for transportation, as residential areas were displaced farther and farther into the suburbs. It also was clear that such “slum removal” targeted the homes of the most disadvantaged, removing this population from cities. The America novelist James Baldwin famously called urban renewal “Negro removal.” The reality was that urban renewal removed only areas in which the disadvantaged lived, and such wholesale cleansing came to be discredited.

Today, cutting edge urban planning involves “intensification,” increasing the numbers of residential or employment units in the urban area, particularly on land served by existing infrastructure and transit. A reasonable level of intensification has broad public support, although the amount of intensification deemed appropriate is often controversial. What we do not seem to be questioning, however, is whether we are avoiding all the mistakes of urban renewal in our current schemes for intensification.

In Ottawa, the greatest intensification is mainly targeted to a number of areas in the downtown core and in nearby urban areas within “Mixed Use Centres” and other designations near transit. One target for new units is in underutilized lands (vacant lands, brownfields, or parking lots, for example). However, it also appears that some covert urban renewal is taking place. Why else would fairly dense existing residential areas like Little Italy, Mechanicsville, and large parts of Centretown be given zoning (and frequent spot rezoning) that is guaranteed to lead to the replacement of existing affordable housing in those areas with high-end condos?

While the older, crude method of evicting the disadvantaged, leveling their houses, and building something new that characterized urban renewal would not be tolerated today, is this not just a more subtle way of getting the same result by encouraging parcel-by-parcel demolition and replacement with housing only for the affluent? Certainly none of the wealthier neighbourhoods are being rezoned in this way, even when they are equally close to rapid transit.

We do need to intensify our fairly low-density urban core in Ottawa. But we should also be asking why it is disproportionately low-rise areas inhabited by residents of lower socioeconomic status that are targeted for replacement, while more affluent areas of equally low density are to remain untouched.

About The Author

Jay Baltz's picture

Jay Baltz is a member of the Board of Directors of the Hintonburg Community Association and its past president, serves on the board of Heritage Ottawa, and is past chair of the City’s Built Heritage Advisory... More


Danny Handelman

Affordable housing, by my criteria, refers to dwelling units of higher density than detached housing. If the "affordable" housing is being replaced with a greater number of dwelling units, no matter how much more expensive, I consider it to be increasing the supply of affordable housing due to the greater economies of scale achieved in constructing, maintaining and municipal servicing it. Apartment property taxes being higher than the property taxes imposed on condos (1.8% compared to 1.22% in Ottawa) explains why the higher density dwelling units have been disproportionately condos since the early 1980s. The more affluent areas of low density are experiencing comparatively little infill due to these neighbourhoods having residents who have a higher voter turnout and noisier.

Phil Brown

The loss of existing affordable housing is indeed a significant concern, particularly in the absence of any significant program of new affordable non-profit housing development. However, intensification is affecting more affluent communities as well, in many diverse parts of the City.

I generally agree regarding urban renewal prior to 1980. The Jane/Finch area of Toronto, so blighted today, was an ill-conceived social experiment of the 1970's that cleared the slums of cabbagetown and relocated its denizens, who typically provided janitorial and other services to the office towers of downtown Ottawa, from sub-standard housing that was at least within walking distance of their jobs to nice new housing 45 minutes away in the burbs. The housing may have been an improvement, but the social dislocation was a disaster.

Usually, these urban renewal projects resulted in higher densities (such as St. James Town and Regent Park in Toronto) but I agree that this was not always the case. Several streets in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood are cases in point, where rooming and boarding houses gave way to renovated mansions for the wealthy.

And if intensification really is about increasing density, why aren't large suburban lots bring targeted for replacement with huge condo towers?

Mitch Brisebois

The mayor often states the goal of intensification is a means of limiting urban sprawl - yet with every occasion has allowed Kanata developers to bypass stringent environmental assessments. The ever-expanding urban boundary is yet another sign the city is not serious about limiting sprawl. So, what's the real reason for intensification?

Good point Mitch. Actions speak louder than words. The City often makes conflicting statements and decisions, which point to an internal conflict between the policy wing of the Planning department, who advocate for a sustainable City, and planners, who work very closely with developers.

You could also argue that the common theme in both these approaches is that intensification inside the Greenbelt and urban sprawl outside the Greenbelt bring in more tax dollars. No matter the type of development, it usually results in more tax dollars for the City. So, instead of becoming more efficient and working with its means, the City seeks only for ways to bring in more money. Despite the drawbacks and the lack of a consistent, long-term plan.