Toronto’s building boom is stealing our sunlight

City has established a "no net new shadow" policy for key gathering places, but we need to prioritize sunshine across whole neighbourhoods



As the city continues to grow, it’s getting harder to find the sunny side of the street. 

Sunlight has unconsciously shaped our neighbourhoods. Our most popular patios, like the Black Bull’s on Queen or Café Diplomatico’s on College, are on northeast corners – areas that receive the best afternoon sun. 

In traditional European villages, butchers are often located on the south (shady) side of the street, while greengrocers, bakeries and cafés congregated on the north (sunny) side. 

But now that taller and taller buildings are casting entire streets into shadow, sunlight is becoming a precious commodity. How can we use design to maximize sunlight? 

Vitruvius, often referred to as the founding father of architecture, set out the first requirements for access to daylight in the first century BCE. He suggested that sky views be protected and drew a correlation between sunlight and space. 

His wisdom carries through to the modern day, in cities like New York, where the 1916 zoning code was developed to protect access to sunlight on public streets. The code resulted in the wedding-cake shape that’s unique to the city’s iconic skyscrapers. 

On street level, it’s sunlight or the lack of it that shapes how public space is used. 

Walking through Toronto, people naturally congregate in the light – whether its families and sunbathers at Hanlan’s Point beach or university students waiting for class on the steps of Ryerson’s new Student Centre. 

Some designers have found clever solutions to satisfy our innate desire for sunlight. 

The One Central Park tower in Sydney has a motorized heliostat (a mirror-type device) suspended from the 28th floor to track and reflect sunlight back onto retail and amenity spaces at ground level. 

In London, England, the proposed design for No Shadow Tower relies on a series of concave facades to reflect sunlight onto a shared public plaza. 

But we need an approach that prioritizes sunlight and access to sunshine across whole neighbourhoods. 

San Francisco pioneered such an approach with the 1984 Sunlight Ordinance, which protects major public parks from new shadows. Similar laws can be found in other cities that understand the need to preserve the character and vibrancy of public space. 

Toronto recently established “no net new shadow” policies for key gathering places like Queen’s Park, Nathan Phillips Square and Redpath Parkette in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood. It’s being strategic about the development of new neighbourhoods, too. 

In 2014, Perkins+Will prepared a study examining the area by the lake between Yonge, Lower Jarvis, Lake Shore and Queens Quay, commissioned by Waterfront Toronto. 

Inspired by San Francisco’s Sunlight Ordinance, the plan prioritizes public space and especially sunlight. 

Winter sunlight was mapped to identify a central area that receives sun from 10 am to 2 pm on the darkest day of the year, December 21. 

Proposed at the site is a park, with shorter buildings to the south to maintain sun exposure and taller buildings to the north, where they would throw shade onto the Gardiner Expressway. 

The area will receive enough sunlight to attract people to the park and retail spaces and support a natural green canopy that will provide shade in the hot summer. The surrounding buildings will also have greater and more equitable access to sunlight. 

Toronto is one of the world’s most livable cities. It’s pivotal to the health of the city and its residents to shift how we design around the sun.

Paul Kulig is an architect and urban designer at Perkins+Will. He leads a Jane’s Walk of the sunniest areas of Toronto on Sunday (May 7) at 4 pm. Go to janeswalk.org for details.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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