If you’ve ever walked down the street on a wintry, but sunny January day in Toronto, you can really see the importance of direct sunlight. The south side of the street, usually cast in shadow, will be nearly empty of people, while the sunnier north side of the street will be bustling.
Turns out the Toronto District School Board agrees. They’re fighting a development proposal at Church and Wood Street that will cast their schoolyard in shadow for a portion of the day. Residents are not happy. The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, says removing opportunities for sunlight is “almost a criminal act.”
The City, which is also fighting the development at the Ontario Municipal Board to where it has been appealed, has suggested the proposed 38-storey building be reduced to 25-storeys so that its shadows fall within already shadowed areas. We shall see what the OMB—in all its unelected unwisdom—decides.
The tug-of-war between developers who want to build higher and residents who are worried about the ever-lengthening shadows those buildings cast on public spaces is not new to the city. But it is one that is intensifying as the hyper-development we’re seeing in the downtown results in more and higher buildings and the shadows begin to accrue and overlap. I mean, my god, we’re already talking about minimizing the shadow impacts of a proposed building on a downtown park that hasn’t even been built yet.
This is not a challenge that is unique to Toronto. New York is going through its own battle with residents who are worried that new super-tall towers that provide housing for the super-rich will cast super-shadows on Central Park.
In San Francisco, critics of high-rise developers whose buildings cast shadows over parks have the backing of a 1984 law, called Proposition K—otherwise known as the Sunlight Ordinance. This law blocks any development of a building over 40 feet that casts shadows on parkland “unless the Planning Commission decides the shadow is insignificant.”
But as with many things in life, it gets complicated. What is one person’s “insignificant” is another person’s “significant.”
And as usual, developers and their planners argue that all shadows are “insignificant.” See how slender the shadow is, they cry. Look how quickly it passes, they exclaim. We already reduced the building height from 45 to 38 storeys, they shout, what more do you want from us?
But the problem really isn’t with any one individual shadow. It’s with what Wong-Tam nicely called “shadow creep”—the cumulative and growing effect of multiple shadows from an increasing amount of towers. A single slender, quickly moving shadow is one thing, dozens and dozens of them are quite another.
Sunlight is important for public spaces. As William Whyte discovered through his observations of public spaces in New York, people are drawn to the sunny parts of parks and plazas. Shade is nice in the height of summer, yes, but the rest of the 10 months we get in Toronto we need those sunny spots to feel warmth on our face, to allow trees and gardens to grow and flourish.
Turns out, sunlight is not a renewable resource after all. Once we block it out, it’s gone.
Is that worth an extra 11-storeys on a building?
the photo is actually a picture of the lovely Anish Kapoor sculpture in Simcoe Park, but I liked its angry-ish shadow