This past weekend, I returned to Toronto for a family event and witnessed the high-rise explosion that has continued in the years since I've left.

Like many cities, Toronto has been experimenting with their own application of Vancouverism. Along the waterfront, the skyline has been a jagged edge of glass and cranes for as long as I remember. The boom continues, with a new blue-green building in the 30-storey range materializing between each of my visits home. The development is meant to provide lots of housing with a great view, close to transit and amenities, and excellent street life. I used to live in this area for a brief time and found the waterfront access excellent but the ground-floor city life lacking. I was happy this trip to see that the area has aged well so far, or maybe reached critical mass. The sidewalks are full and stores, cafes, and restaurants with patio life are filling the gaps where before you'd find lower activity tenants like dry cleaners or medical services. I wouldn't call it a mature neighbourhood or even a neighbourhood at all at this point, but there is a lot of housing becoming available in an extremely expensive rental market so I'm exercising patience and reserving judgement.

Take a look:

These buildings utilize underground parking. When I lived there, I was given the option to pay for a parking space. My friends in similar buildings in the area could also negotiate underground parking spots into their lease. Parking is not a given here because it is expensive and often unnecessary.

A long way away, up the hill and out of bus and bike territory for me is this other booming area:

Photo by Cassandra Carr

Photo by Cassandra Carr

Fair enough, it's mid-rise not high-rise, but still, this was considered a win for density reasons. Here's an aerial view with only about a third of the buildings constructed.

This is our local version of an apartment boom and the contrast got me thinking about how parking can quickly communicate the logic behind a development.

In the condo forest of Toronto, underground parking is a no-brainer. Land is so expensive and land-use restrictions so considered that you'd never be able to supply surface parking for tenants of the glass towers. Nor would you want to - the street life is already tenuous and surface parking would kill it off completely.

What do these large surface parking lots in this Fredericton area tell us about our local situation?

  • Maybe there are excessive parking requirements. You don't get an option to opt-out of parking. By default, it's included in the price of rent because developers are obliged to build x spaces per unit.
  • Maybe the land is priced too low so it gets paved with low return land-uses.
  • Maybe the building is worth so little that it can't afford to include underground parking.

I could go on with these speculations and inferences for a while but they sit behind the point. The real question is this:

Large apartment buildings with surface parking... are these two things irreconcilable in the world of good city-building?

Let's say you're building an apartment building with over 20 units (arbitrary number). If it's not obvious that your parking should be opt-in and underground, maybe the development isn't a great idea to begin with?

At Strong Towns, we've been looking for easy ways to communicate complex ideas. For example, I loved the Strong Towns Strength Test which asked, "Take a photo of your main street at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?" Maybe parking lots are another weather-vane with built in wisdom. It's not to be relied upon, but can give you a good hunch to start from. See a large apartment with a surface parking lot and you should immediately be suspicious.

Is this consistent with your findings?

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.