In today's bizarro world of government regulation, deregulation and re-regulation, it's easier to get City Hall approval for the tallest apartment building in Canada - the upcoming 78-storey Canderel Residential condo tower overlooking Yonge and Gerrard - than the smallest backyard chicken coop.
Chicken coops are illegal because they may violate health and safety regulations to do with noise and rodent control, while a flock of tall buildings violates no known rules safeguarding our physical safety or mental health and well-being.
That's because there are no such regs; governments don't legislate to promote mental health. (That's an individual matter, don't you know.)
Our skyline has featured high-rises since the 1950s and 60s, when Toronto was known for the number of office and residential towers across the entire city (as distinct from just downtown as in U.S. cities). Now, with 132 super-talls on the way, thereby overshadowing New York's paltry 86, Toronto is near the head of the pack in the global competition for biggest construction erection.
The upward trend is sometimes justified as intensification, a beneficial counterweight to suburban sprawl, which eats up farmland. And some, like the 38-storey Jade Waterfront going up in Etobicoke, use their height to offer "sky yard" balconies that might actually allow apartment dwellers to grow more green and biomass on the site than existed when it was wilderness.
But (and this might have been noticed if the people regulating high-rises also regulated chicken coops) there's a point in overcrowding when the pecking order gets scrambled and the collapse of immune systems requires constant antibiotic medication.
It will prove to be a super-tall order to reconcile a large number of super-tall buildings with good mental health and well-being.
In my view, the emerging findings of brain researchers - not mind, which is software, but brain, which is hardware - are so persuasive that further approvals of high-rises in already dense areas need to be put on hold in the name of the precautionary principle.
Life today involves an unrelenting set of assaults on our mental and physical well-being because the architecture of daily life is totally out of kilter with the capabilities of bodies, senses and hormones that evolved in less paved-over times.
Sitting longer than we were designed to sit causes weight, back, neck, hip and knee problems. We move less than we were designed to move, absorb information for longer times and with greater discipline than we (certainly young boys) were designed to. We hear more mechanical noise than ears and hormones can take without stress. We work and shop under the glare of unnatural light, then sleep when we must in order to work, not according to circadian rhythms related to the sun.
We spend more time indoors, where the air in our sealed-up dwellings is more polluted than outdoors in most industrial areas. We choke back our fight-or-flight instincts to hold onto jobs. We spend less time in nature, less time with friends, more time with necks craned over screens. And, of course, we swallow more eatable things that are the products of labs, not farms.
Thanks to the incredible advantages that population density and variety offer for collaboration and innovation, cities are the most powerful economic invention ever. But density casts a shadow as long as any building, and the pace of that creative destruction should be countered by activities and landscapes that relieve and renew bodies, minds and souls infected by post-industrial biohazards.
What needs to be examined is the cost of chronic psychological depression and its possible relationship to feeling isolated and overwhelmed amid massive structures. We need to explore whether an excess of density contributes to an individual's sense of confusion and aloneness. And to organize against the proliferation of towers unless the parks, services and transit actually exist, instead of building and hoping they will come.
Brain scientists can contribute to the diagnosis. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg's findings in Science identify a nature-loving (biophilic) portion of the brain that has its own needs. His piece came out at the same time as a tranquility study by Greg Watts identifying the value of natural sounds for overcoming stress.
Crosscurrents, published by Ontario's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, presented research on the importance of natural lighting based on the needs of the retina, not some cultural preference.
Given the direction neuroscience is heading, I think it's time for people who love cities and downtowns to crack the covers of books by Christopher Alexander. In The Timeless Way Of Building and A Pattern Language, he sets out the architectural version of chemistry's periodic table or biology's genetic code and comes up with the elements people need in order to feel comfortable in a place - things like natural light, curved lines, textured materials, nooks and crannies for chatting or watching the world go by.
Density has always been seen as a planning positive, but now I think we need a broader discussion of its limits and needs. The officials responsible for welcoming in towers should be sent back to their drawing boards.