Density & Built Form in Canada

Montreal-Place Roi-web

Place: Montreal

Height: 4 stories

Density: 80 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 21,000

Last June the Provincial Legislature changed the law making it legal to build row houses for the first time in British Columbia. The photos here are part of a Canada-wide survey completed between 2011 and 2013 of just this building type presented at various conferences and lectures. Two conclusions bubble to the surface. First, it is possible to achieve high-density — in the order of 100 units per acre — using fee-simple, human-scale product. Second, the quartiers or neighbourhoods that result are highly supportive of social functioning. They present values of community and values of place lacking in both the Modern suburbs and tower neighbourhoods.


Place: Charlottetown, PEI

Height: 3 stories

Density: 60 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 16,000

The houses in Charlottetown are very similar to houses in Montreal. Among the few differences wood frame buildings are interspersed with brick houses, and structures that tend to be one storey lower in height. However, in every other regard this place — and the resulting sense of place — is as high-quality here as in the Place Roi district of Montreal.



Place: Dartmouth, NS

Height: 2 stories

Density: 50 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 13,000

Locals identified this structure as a Newfoundland Salt Box originally built on dry-laid stone basement walls. The basement has been upgraded to hold a rental unit. We can see two doors to interior units on the first and second floors. The photograph also presents something of the quality of place. The block scale in historic Dartmouth is very walkable. The houses massing on the block perimeter provide good definition for the street, and a green block middle for the residents. The neighbourhood has a full compliment of shopping and services. Sea-bus service to downtown Halifax is not more than a 10-minute walk from all local front doors.



Place: Cabbagetown, Toronto

Height: 2 stories

Density: 40 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 10,500

The down-beat immigrant neighbourhood of mid-1800s Toronto — where residents grew cabbage in their yards — has gentrified. Today it is the paradigm for building high-density human-scale places in Canada. Note that these two houses share front yards without a fence. A postman calling at one house is just a jump away from knocking next door. The measure of social functioning in Cabbagetown is the rumour mill. Residents tell that moments after a house has sold, the entire neighbourhood knows the selling price. Someone else complained that it is impossible to get any gardening done in the front door yard because of constant interruptions by folks stopping by to chat.



Place: Hydrostones, Halifax, NS

Height: 2.5 stories

Density: 32 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 8,500

It is a feature of British 19th century urbanism that the east side of town was reserved for those of lesser means. A pattern we have seen already in Cabbagetown repeats here in Halifax where the east side was a socially and racially mixed neighbourhood well into the 20th century. During WWI a munitions ship blew up in Halifax Harbour killing many and causing a great deal of property damage. In its day the greatest man-made explosion, it wiped out an entire swath of the hillside neighbourhood in East Halifax. Reconstruction began immediately with U.S. manufactured fire-proof concrete blocks of brand name “Hydrostone”.
In the hands of a Scottish architect Thomas Adams the design of the district followed the best traditions of early 20th century urbanism. Sited at the top of the hill the row houses are in fact duplex, triplex and fourplex outfitted with rear yards and service lanes. Around front utility wires are underground, and each house in the row house district fronts a green boulevard measuring between 90 and 140 feet in width. These ‘green streets’ once end-grained on an arterial street carrying a streetcar line. Across the arterial is a park and a square. Behind them the land descends to the bay, and the remainder of the neighbourhood features cottage lots. At the western end of the row house district the entrance is marked by a cluster of shops.

In Halifax, as in the other places described here, the ‘proof of the pudding is in the tasting’. Hydrostone residents speak proudly of living in the neighbourhood for decades. The houses are kept in pristine condition, and when they are put on the market they sell quickly fetching competitive prices. In this place it is the quality of the urbanism that supports a higher level of social functioning.


Quebec City-web

Place: Quebec Citadel, Quebec

Height: 2 to 4 stories

Density: 100 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 26,000

There is one place in Canada where we can still see traces of a Baroque urbanism dating from the 1600s. My favourite place to experience it is on Rue Cuillard, in the Quebec Citadel. This street follows the simplest of prescriptions for hill towns: isotropic platting — the street twists and turns to remain more or less level as it courses the side of the hill. Side streets cutting across the grain of the land have street end vistas of the river (north) or the town (south). There is a grocer and a small restaurant that provide visitor and resident alike with last minute necessities, or a splendid spot for a quiet brunch.


Winnipeg-Market Square-web

Place: Market Square, Winnipeg (the Warehouse District)

Height: 4 stories (average)

Density: 100 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 26,000

The architecture of Winnipeg’s late 1800s warehouse district is superb. Brawny and consistent, it stands its own against any number of more famous places in British North America. Yet, its most telling feature is the central square. The warehouse district follows The Donut Principle — it is a place with a hole in the middle. This feature greatly enhances way finding. No matter where we are on its streets we seem to remember where we left behind the square.


Montreal-Rue Napoleon-web

Place: Rue Napoleon, one block from Place Roi, Montreal

Height: 2 stories

Density: 60 units/acre

Supported Quartier Population: 16,000

We return to Montreal for another lesson in urbanism: Small is Beautiful. Here the street is 50-feet wide and just 500-feet long. On the side that has not been redeveloped in the past few decades, the original houses are still going strong. I spoke briefly with the construction crew of one renovation project last time I visited. On this small street small houses provide unit types that suit a particular market segment.


Montreal-Place Roi-urban room-web

Place Roi, Montreal (1800s)

In conclusion we can examine a panoramic view of Place Roi in Montreal, a public place created in the mid-1800s when a family estate was subdivided. The subdivision process did not lose sight of the importance of providing an urban room in the middle. The Montreal houses that we have described here are arrayed on three sides of the square.

The fourth side is fronted by an unfortunate piece of Modern Architecture. Turning a back on the square it fails to take advantage of its superb location to open up a restaurant, or two or three, that might fill with people on evenings and long weekend afternoons. Today Place Roi is adorned by a piece of Modern Sculpture by Quebec-born Michel Goulet: Les Leçons Singulières (Singular Lessons, 1990). A set of cast bronze chairs — not meant for sitting —that presents just the right metaphor for a public space that contemporary architecture also refuses to use.

However, we will end on a positive note. The architecture of the fee-simple urban house represents the single, most agile cipher for a 21st century urbanism. A build out that must fit into built places, accommodate a broad-spectrum demographic, and support a level of social functioning impossible to obtain in either the low-density Modern suburb, or its high-density alternative, the tower district.



table of density-web

To make comparisons possible across different regions and historic times we made the following assumptions:

Unit size: 800 s.f.

People per unit: 2.2

Quarteir footprint: 120 acres


As always, I am ever grateful to Rick Merrill, of the Planning Partnership, Toronto, who accompanied me in this study.


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