The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in condo towers in Ottawa as the city made urban high-rise development a key element of its vision for sustainable planning.

The idea is that high-rise intensification ensures the kind of high density cities need to build more compact, sustainable, livable communities. As urban centres become denser and denser, with more people living in smaller spaces, the thinking goes, the less pressure there is to sprawl. Ottawa has certainly taken the idea to heart, and now 20-, 30-, 40-storey behemoths are rising into the sky.

The LeBreton Flats area is on its way to becoming a skyscraper city all its own.

Now, city-building experts are asking cities to back off what some call “vertical sprawl.” Urban planners, designers, architects, visionary politicians and scholars from around the world meeting in Ottawa this week warned that high-rise development is not the answer to cities seeking to respond to the need for more housing.

The experts told the International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference that high-rise intensification is more about profit and economic growth than sustainability. And it “may prove more toxic to humans and the planet” than suburban sprawl, says IMCL co-founder Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard. 

“The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain,” a U.K. House of Commons report says. “They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid or low-rise development and in some cases are a less than efficient use of space. … Tall buildings are more often about power, prestige, status and aesthetics than efficient development.”

One of the issues, the experts say, is that high-rise buildings, largely condos, are so expensive only the wealthy can afford them. They drive up the cost of housing for all. It is well documented that purchase of condos by investors, foreign or otherwise, drives up prices even for the middle class, forcing many into undesirable neighbourhoods, and accentuating poor living conditions in cities.

High condo prices, coupled with a lack of decent affordable housing, have been known to force people into suburbia.