RALPH SURETTE: The lowdown on high-rises: they fuel the climate crisis

(published in The Chronicle Herald, October 28, 2021)
(Halifax/Ki’jupuk) A global environment conference called COP26 is opening this weekend in Scotland to deal with the climate crisis that the world promised to deal with as far back as the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but has so far failed to control.  Some progress is being made, but far from enough to prevent more climate catastrophes, and in many ways it’s getting worse.

A construction crane dominates a neighbourhood at the foot of Quinpool Road (at the North West Arm) in Halifax in June. – Tim Krochak, Chronicle Herald

So perhaps the climate showdown we’ve avoided for so long is on for real. And in order to deal with it, every aspect of the wasteful ways we’ve built up since the 1950s have to be reamed out. Some of these, we don’t even think about, and may even be wrongly presented as the climate-friendly option.

One of these is highlighted in a report entitled Buildings for the Climate Crisis — A Halifax Case Study (at www.halifaxcommon.ca), coinciding with HRM council passing their complex “Centre Plan” this week that limits heights on the Halifax peninsula, but which opponents argue leaves developers wiggle room to jack them up to 30 storeys.

The standard presumption is that high-rises, by creating a dense population downtown, put a check on urban sprawl — which also means less commuting and suburban highways, thus better for the environment.

There’s increasing pushback on this. For one thing, according to the scientific calculations, building above eight or nine storeys is extremely carbon-intensive. So is the demolition of existing buildings to make way for these huge projects. And finally, since high-rise towers tend to have expensive rents, they also replace affordable housing, and that tends to push lower-income renters farther out, defeating the purpose.

Overall, buildings account for some 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Concern over this has focused on their operations — mainly heating and cooling — but has ignored the construction/demolition cycle, although it accounts for as much as 11 per cent of global emissions.

So if you need housing — and we do — what’s the alternative? The alternative, according to this and other studies, is “low-rise,” in which pretty well as many units are created (and preserved) as what the high-rise would offer, at lower cost and drastically reduced emissions — plus preserving some of the character of the city. 

Another study I found, by American and British researchers (available at APJ Urban Sustainability, an online magazine), which proposes to “decouple density from tallness” fingered Paris as an example of high-density, low-rise decent living. As in most European cities that are careful about their heritage, there’s hardly one apartment building over 10 storeys in the city.

The Halifax report outlines its own low-rise proposal for the areas in question in HRM’s Centre Plan and beyond. Although the high-rise philosophy still dominates in the world (taken to absurdity in Saudi Arabia, where they’re building a vanity tower one kilometre high), many cities are also turning away from it, notably Tokyo, as of now the world’s largest city. In addition to keeping apartment towers below nine or 10 storeys, low-rise involves renovating and expanding existing buildings: in Halifax, for example, adding a third storey to existing houses where it’s fitting, and other inventive ways to add an apartment here and there, and “in-filling’” — that is, building new units on empty spaces, of which there are a surprising number even on the peninsula, according to the report.

At any rate, it’s about stopping the rampant demolition, of which Halifax may be a champion. Between 2003 and 2020 some 2,535 demolition permits were handed out in HRM — many of them for historic buildings — with a floor space that would cover 17 city blocks, according to the report. 

And the tempo is increasing. The Royal Institute of British Architects has just put out a call to “stop the demolition” in Britain because it causes too many carbon emissions.

The report also states that low-rise is just as profitable for developers, as the materials are cheaper and the work is done faster. But, of course, it’s not as sexy and probably not as useful as a long-term investment. And Halifax, in its developer-ridden soul, wants stuff sticking in the air like the big boys. Or does it?

The Halifax report was prepared by the Friends of the Commons and Development Options Halifax, two citizens’ groups, with carbon calculations by Mantle Developments, an Ontario-based sustainable-construction consultancy.

And, yes, I know what some of you are thinking: isn’t that the gang that’s always agitating against development, if not “progress” itself in Halifax? If so, get over it. The progress you’re talking about is what brought us to this climate crisis, and is in bad odour at COP26 and beyond. You’re on the wrong side of history. Stop the demolition.