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!