An extensive green roof, surrounding high rises and a lively street life are the main features of the view from our condo balcony. This new way of living after many years in a house has been both challenging and exciting. The whole downsizing enterprise was unquestionably tedious, sad but ultimately liberating. The most unsettling part was wondering whether there would be a true community that we could be part of.
If you’ve been connected to your community through your children, their schools, their friends and their friends’ parents, it’s disconcerting to let go and begin anew in a different environment. Even if you’re still connected to the old neighbourhood through friends, you’re no longer truly a part of it. So, how to begin making connections in a vertical neighbourhood where residents seem to have more differences than similarities among them?
I remember moving into my first high-rise apartment in Toronto many years ago when first married, going to school and working. We were both busy, had friends spread out all over the city, and knew that our rental arrangement was temporary. Our plan was to buy some kind of a house. We did not make an effort to meet our high-rise neighbours and neither did they. I cannot remember a single person who lived in that building. Were we unfriendly or unapproachable? I don’t think so but we were pre-occupied with our plans, our future, and oblivious to immediate surroundings. It was also a time when many Torontonians carried more of the Anglo attitude of keeping to oneself, and we obliged.
Once in a house and starting a family we turned to our neighbours for conversation and connection, especially after the long Toronto winters, and because we had an actual porch and a back yard. Eventually we became involved and committed to our community because we intended to stay there and wanted to make it great.
Trying to replicate this sense of community in a condo is not unlike doing it in a neighbourhood of houses. It depends on the people who live there and how much of a commitment they want to make. For those who intend to stay put – they tend to be older and many have had the community experience – they are eager to connect with other residents. Our condo neighbours started a book group, a chess club, yoga and tango classes, and a walking group. The mid-town location of the building also makes it easier to be part of a greater community since it is close to restaurants, cafés and stores of all kinds.
To what extent this becomes a true community where people are genuinely interested in the well-being of their neighbours and care about more than their property values is uncertain. Of course all homeowners care about the value of their home but it is the commitment to more than this that makes a real community. Largely, it depends on how much you want to look outward. It is very easy to walk down the hall, close your door and survey the neighbourhood from your window rather than try to get to know the people living next door. So much depends on your life situation – whether you live alone, have family and friends, work long hours or are involved in the larger community. From our experience, we have not let where we live define our way of living or how we engage with the world. We have found that it’s equally easy to ignore your community, whether you live in a house or a high-rise. It depends on your way of life and how much you are willing or able to contribute.
It is possible but challenging to create a sense of community in condo buildings where units are tiny and most residents are renters – typically younger, unattached and transient. Like us in our younger days, they are contemplating their future. They are looking beyond their immediate surroundings hopefully only for now.
Photos by Miria Ioannou
I enjoyed your piece on high rise living – made me think of London after they knocked down all the terrace houses and relocated people to “streets in the sky”. Of course in that case it was a disaster because they were relocating the poorest of the poor and destroying existing communities in the process. They never did manage to recreate a sense of community in high rises, mothers with small kids needed communal places to socialize and safe places for the children to play – can’t really send them outside when the only play area is a trash strewn, vandalized concrete strip 22 floors down. Of course the disaster that high rise living was for those forced there by ignorant planners was the opposite for wealthier, mainly older people who bought apartments in desirable neighborhoods. They built The Barbican in the City of London intending it to be ‘mixed’ occupancy but it soon became the enclave of wealthy bankers and the like who loved the convenience of living in the City and didn’t care that there weren’t facilities for children or any of the amenities that make for a sense of community. I think you have to work super-hard to create links between residents when the only common areas are the foyer and the elevators – and also when that ‘glue’ of society – children – are largely absent.
Viki Carter, Massachusetts