By Sheila Murray
It is near impossible to sum up our Lighthouse Project in the few short lines of an ‘elevator pitch.’ We could say that our pilot sites in Brampton, Toronto and Hamilton are working to create community resilience hubs or local resilience networks as a response to extreme weather events. But while most of us know what’s meant by extreme weather, how many have studied future climate projections and share our concerns about the increasing local extremes they will unleash?
Once that’s understood, there are more questions: “What is community resilience?” for instance, or, “How is a resilience hub different from a resilience network?” And when we include the other essential pieces of our work, such as emergency preparedness, asset based community development (ABCD), the enormous potential offered by faith based organizations, or the power of bonded, linked and bridged social capital, it can all start to sound like jargon and dreaming.
Connecting Care: Building a Network
“The protocol is not very complicated; it's just a matter of making sure the doors are wide open for people to come into our air-conditioned environment, and making sure water is available at all times.” Matthew Pearce, the CEO of Old Brewery Mission
The Lighthouse Project in Hamilton has been building a network of residents and community stakeholders in the interest of preparing neighbours for the impacts of increasing extreme weather events. This network is newly named as Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW) Hamilton.
A year-long pilot now approaching its end, the network is centered around the Beasley neighbourhood. Beasley has a high population of vulnerable people such as seniors, new immigrants and transient populations who are most likely to be impacted by weather related events. Many of these groups typically have weak social connectedness--and yet research on community resilience points to the critical importance of solid relationships for bounce-back to occur. Much of community resilience is about the strength of social capital and these pre-existing relationships.
Evolution of the Brampton Lighthouse Program and why I love my job!
I am the coordinator of the Lighthouse Program at the City of Brampton Emergency Management Office under the direction of Alain Normand. The program I coordinate started off as a series of studies and internship projects, driven by the need for surge-capacity resources revealed to us at a pivotal point in Brampton’s history: the December 2013 Ice Storm.
The York University study of Brampton’s emergency management program published in early 2013 proved to be prophetic. While there were many beneficial initiatives that strengthened the program, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and as the study suggested much work had to be done to build up resources both human and material for the needs of Brampton’s vulnerable sector before, during and after emergencies
Connecting the Dots
In November 2017, I was invited by Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW) and Faith & the Common Good, to animate a community climate resilience hub as a goal of the Lighthouse Project Pilot. The pilot site is St. James Town in downtown Toronto.
I am an Architect, and my graduate studies in Paraguay were of historical cities and heritage building restoration. I know that the important first step in building resilience in any community is understanding its history. Learning about the people who live there and the struggles they’ve been facing is knowledge that can be used to bring unity to the community.
My first strategy was to learn more about the neighbourhood’s history.
In the 1960s, and hoping to encourage a trendy neighbourhood for young
professionals, city planners and architects of the modernist movement replaced
Victorian homes with fourteen high-rise apartment complexes. These were
inspired by Le Corbusier’s Towers in the Park concept— but they chose to leave out the park! Each tower was named after major Canadian cities: The Winnipeg, The Vancouver, The Saint Johns, The Montreal, The Halifax, The Edmonton, The Quebec, and so on.
St. James Town, as it was originally conceived, was a failure. The neighbourhood’s middle class tenants moved out, protesting the lack of amenities and services with their feet. By the 1980s, the apartment towers were attracting poorer Canadians and new immigrants. In order to accommodate their needs for more and affordable housing, the city constructed four public housing buildings inside the already-dense St. James Town.
St. James Town’s more recent residents (64% are immigrants from a large number of ethno-racial communities, including Filipino, Tamil, Chinese, Pakistani, Korean, Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepali, Ethiopian, Somali, and Eastern European communities) continue to suffer from the legacy of that poor planning. Despite being one of the highest density neighbourhoods in North America, there is still no park—and planning is currently underway to build a new 51 storey condo tower as well as a number of mid-rise multi-unit buildings.
In my first months in St James Town I spent several days wandering around my target neighbourhood, visiting and meeting different stakeholders. I also mapped community assets including its physical facilities, community organizations and services providers, and the residents living in 19 high-rise buildings!
At first, I was totally overwhelmed. I was immersed in an absolutely massive vertical neighbourhood, where I could not see any connections between all these amazing assets. Even community organizations worked in their own silos. There is not even a green area, not a single park where all these diverse residents can gather—so my mission was clear: to connect the dots and find the missing connector or connectors.
Now a few months have passed in animating the pilot. We have held many community asset mapping sessions and have a good sense of where our strengths and weaknesses are. We have identified community leaders and invited them to become part of our St. James Town Local Steering Committee. In our monthly meetings we are discussing on how to create a more resilient neighbourhood in the face of climate change/emergencies and any other issues that may arise. It is nice to see how they are now more connected, even with their own buildings: I love hearing people refer to their buildings by name,“I’m from the Montreal and you’re from The Winnipeg.” It feels to me as though the all-important people-connections to a more personable and inclusive neighbourhood are already starting!
Finding resilience in small inspirations
In late March I was invited to speak at a Peace Luncheon in Hamilton. It was an opportunity to share my personal concerns about the need for climate change adaptation, and I did that. But I finished by describing the Lighthouse Project pilot work that is underway in Hamilton’s Beasley neighbourhood. Afterward, I was thrilled to meet people who asked me how they could use our small-scale, neighbourly approach to climate adaptation in their own communities.
We’re just a few months into our pilot and excited by what we see. Each of the Lighthouse pilot Animators use strategies that best suit their GTHA site and local objectives. Perhaps the simplest way to describe these approaches is “top down,” in Brampton; “a meeting of the middle” in Hamilton’s Beasley neighbourhood, and “bottom up” in Toronto’s St James Town. Regardless of their strategy, all of our Resilience Animators are leveraging or creating networks of social capital that will make their local communities more resilient to the multiple challenges brought by extreme weather and other climate related risks and hazards.
The Gift of Caring: Extreme Weather Preparedness
Weeks before Christmas. NYC. Uptown Manhattan. I’m in a room full of frighteningly extraordinary people: religious leaders who practice the art of disaster chaplaincy. Spiritual care givers, they are angels of hope to victims of mass trauma. I am the only Canadian in the room and the sole participant not affiliated with a religion. I have travelled 350 miles for this two-day “disaster chaplaincy” training, run by the National Disaster Interfaith Network (NDIN), where religious leaders learn how to prepare to serve in emergencies.
When the facilitator, Peter Gudaitis, CEO of NDIN asks us to tell what gifts we have brought with us to share, I have no idea what to say, I, who have not witnessed the terror of 9/11, who cannot conceive of the horror of Sandy Hook, or the Orlando shootings, who knows nothing about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Harvey, Irma, Maria.
I am filled with their brightness. We seem worlds apart.