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What if versus should be city planning

Witold Rybczynski makes an interesting comparison between military and civilian (city) planning in a recent blog post called, “The Fog of Life.” Here’s an excerpt:

Good military planning, as I understand it, is based on preparing for “what if,” that is, developing different scenarios. What if this happens, or that happens? City planning is different, more like advocacy, that is, what should happen. This advocacy is based on certainties: open space is good, density is good—or bad, depending. The problem is that what planners think should happen—separation of pedestrians and cars, superblocks, megastructures—often runs into trouble when it hits the fog of life.

These are two very different perspectives. “What if” planning responses assume that a thing has already happened. You’re not working to affect a particular outcome, you’re responding to one that already exists. Does this necessarily make this approach more reactive than proactive?

Either way, what should happen implies that the thing isn’t currently happening, but that it should — presumably because the thing is nice and desirable. It could also imply that the thing is sort of happening, but just isn’t happening quite enough.

Let’s use the example of 3-bedroom condominiums and apartments, which is a topic of discussion that has been circling in Toronto for as long as I’ve been in the business. Developers here, are generally encouraged or mandated to build a certain number of larger family-sized suites in every new housing project. Oftentimes this number is 10% of the total unit count.

The reasoning behind this is sound. Cities should be inclusive and they should work for the young, the old, the single, and for families, among others. The problem is that, for a variety of reasons, the market, when left to do its own thing, tends to build more small units than large units. At least that’s the case here in Toronto. (I’ve talked about some of the reasons why in previous posts.)

There is a view that if only developers built more large units that more families would choose to live in apartments. It’s an issue of supply and availability, and also a question of design. You need to design for families too. This you could say is a “what if” approach. Families want to live in multi-family buildings; so let’s build more and better family-sized housing.

But is this really the case or is there some advocacy going on here? All things being equal, does the market want low-rise or does it prefer higher density? It’s a fascinating set of questions, but unfortunately all things aren’t equal. It’s not just a question of availability and design, it’s also a question of economics. Large family-sized units cost money.

I suppose this is the fog of life.


  1. Interesting observations. But I don’t understand why a large 3-4 BR unit should cost more on a PSF basis. After all, it’s the kitchens and bathrooms that cost the most and in a large unit there is still only 1 kitchen, and while there are more bathrooms, it’s not one for each BR, probably (Sometimes ostentatious residences brag about how many bathrooms there are, but that seems more done for places where large parties will be held a lot, not for families with 2-3 kids).
    Living rooms and dining rooms come one to a unit too; they’re just larger in larger units, but that’s mostly empty space.


  2. Pingback: Small suites — responding to the market or social engineering? – BRANDON DONNELLY

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