Archive for April, 2010

April 24, 2010

My beautiful laundromat, grocer, library…

While some espouse the merits of a clothesline, I like laundromats. Stories about them stick in my mind.

Early British suffragettes did some of their best community organizing in the town laundries, away from the strong pitching arms of visiting farm boys who lobbed rotten produce at them when the women stood on the back of wagons at village markets calling for the vote. Describing this scene in her autobiography, Hannah Mitchell, a working class suffragette, explained how community laundries were invariably a safer space where they had a legitimate right to gather.

Or, there is the kindergarten teacher who could not convince local families to visit the school. So she took a pile of books to the nearby residential building’s laundromat, sat down on a stool and began reading out loud. Drawn in, the children loved this reprieve from their long, dull waits, and families began to trust her. It’s a technique well-recognized in community development circles.

Even Jane Jacobs reflected this lesson in her critique of the “tower-in-a-park” style of public housing, according to author Alice Sparberg Alexiou. In a speech at Harvard University in 1956, Jacobs described the basement laundromats as the “heart” of the buildings, the only adult social area, lying in the bowels of the buildings. Laundry rooms are one of the few spaces with the buildings where tenants have any sort of extended contact.

Laundromats are fundamentally social places – third places, according to sociologist – places, outside our homes and workplaces, where we meet each other.

According to the New York Times, laundromats are becoming scarcer, as are many local businesses.

E.B. White once described the elements of his mid-century New York city neighbourhood:

no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar, a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen, a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drug store, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.

It was this commercial chaos which inspired Jane Jacobs, soon afterwards.

Jacobs joined the board of the Union Settlement Association, a New York neighbourhood house, after seeing the good work it did documenting the shifts in East Harlem as housing projects were introduced. One of Union Settlement’s social workers, Ellen Lurie, documented the effects in detail.

Lurie described the effect of the disappearance of local stores which had been razed,

Shopping, which was a time in which neighbours met, now is a long, impersonal, tiring business, especially with children in tow. (Alexiou, Jane Jacobs Urban Visionary, 2006 — a great book)

Canadian research is showing how, since the 1970s, grocery stores have been growing larger and more dispersed with urban environments, and because of restrictive covenants are not returning to urban neighbourhoods. We now have to go further to bigger stores to buy our food among strangers.

There is push-back. The call for walkable neighbourhoods has focused on these dynamics. Chris Smith, for instance, cleverly describes his 5-, 10- and 20- minute neighbourhood in Portland Oregon. Green Changemakers offers tips regularly on “living responsibly.” The American Institute of Architects is even bringing this design sensibility to offices and seniors’ housing.

A walkable neighbourhood ensures two important ingredients of a strong community:

  • access to service, especially to those among us who cannot range far, such as seniors, families with young children, and low-income people, and
  • strengthened social connections which allow us to work together for a common good.

If, as Lewis Mumford said of suburbia, it is “a collective effort to lead a private life,” an urban neighbourhood is impoverished without its laundromats, coffee shops, corner stores, public libraries and other spaces where we meet each other.

read more »

April 11, 2010

Community Partnership Strategy: Neighbourhood Well-being Index

(Updates – July 1, 2011: The NWI is has been re-branded and launched as Wellbeing Toronto. July 29, 2010: This should now be referred to as the Neighbourhood Well-being Indices. Revised by the City researchers.)

Statistics and geography is about to get a whole lot more fun in the City of Toronto. City staff are working to create interactive, flash maps which allow users to explore neighbourhood-level indicators.

This fresh concept of a way to measure the vitality of a neighbourhood has now evolved into a first draft of the Neighbourhood Well-being Index (NWI). The NWI will collect neighbourhood-level information from a broad range of sources, including Statistics Canada demographic data and the City’s own administrative databases.

The NWI  is a new and separate initiative from City of Toronto staff, but it dovetails neatly with Council’s newly adopted Community Partnership Strategy, providing the broad evidence base for the strategy. The NWI also complements the move towards open data initiative, OpenTO, acting as an open data warehouse.

Some of the data to be mapped data is already available, in less friendly formats, through the City’s neighbourhood profiles, the Community Social Data Strategy and TO iMapit. The NWI will enable users to identify key populations groups or services of interest and then produce a user-friendly map of the data.

Several good examples from the U.S.A. give a preview of what the NWI might look like:

  • The New York City website Envisioning Development Toolkit is a friendly tool which compares neighbourhood rent and incomes.
  • California’s Healthy City is a more data-rich site which allows users to map local services and demographics.
  • The Reinvestment Fund’s Policy Map compares a range of data across numerous American cities.

In a sophisticated web-based interface, Toronto residents will be able to select the indicators and identify their own “priority neighbourhoods,” a shift from the current Priority Neighbourhood Areas that were selected using more universal indicators which don’t always match specific local priorities. Service-providers for youth or newcomers or seniors will able to identify the highest need neighbourhoods for each of their own populations.

Two overarching data clusters will be used as measures of a neighbourhood’s wellbeing, allowing a more granular examination of Toronto neighbourhoods. These are

  • Population Characteristics, such as Age, Gender, Language, Ethnicity, Family structure, Income.
  • Human Service Infrastructures, from and about Community Centres, Libraries, Parks, Police Stations, Schools, etc.

The NWI’s ten domains and particular indicators will likely expand as additional neighbourhood-level data becomes available. The first draft is exploring the following areas:

  • Arts, Culture and Heritage: Agency Funding & Grants; Community programs; Neighbourhood-permitted events
  • Civic Engagement and Social Inclusion: Agency Funding & Grants; City Beautification Initiatives; Community Meeting Spaces; Donations; Volunteerism; Voter Participation
  • Economic Security: 211 Calls for Service; Child Care; Community-based Services; Debt Load (excluding mortgages); Local Neighbourhood Employment; Long-term Employment; Social Assistance; Unemployment; Variety of Local Businesses; Wages & Benefits.
  • Education: Community-based Services; Early Development Instrument (EDI); High School Students applications to college/university; High School Drop-out Rates; High School Students passing Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT); Library Circulations
  • Environment: Open Space; Pollution/Toxic sites; Soil conditions
  • Housing: social housing waiting lists; property taxes; affordability (sales); adequacy (standards); rooming houses; Streets-to-Homes placements; Long-term Home Care Services survey; Toronto Community Housing tenant profiles; Homelessness & Hidden Homeless; 211 calls for information; and community based services.
  • Recreation and Leisure: Participants and drop-ins users of parks and recreation programs; waiting lists; facilities capacities
  • Safety: By-law inspections/Standards complaints [although these tend to rise with the income of a neighbourhood]; Calls for EMS; Community-based Services; Crime by major categories; Domestic Violence; Fire Code inspections; Firearms shootings and victims; Fires & Arsons; Grow Ops; Pedestrian & Cyclist Collisions & Injuries; Toronto Community Housing Safety and Incidents;
  • Transportation: Commuting; Public Transit Access; Wheel Trans Use; Traffic volumes. [One potential but unnoted measures is walkability]
  • Personal and Community Health: Birth Outcomes; Communicable Diseases; Community-based Services; Vulnerable Children (with data from Children’s Aids Societies)

Reviewers, both academic and from the community sector, are being asked to review the indicators, help identify priorities for the roll-out, and advise in the creation of an index for each domain.

The hope is that the NWI will be ready to launch in the next 16 – 18 months.

read more »

April 1, 2010

Social spaces of apartment-dwelling children

Vertical Living Kids, a new report out of Melbourne, Australia, got a lot of international media play today. Researchers Dana Mizrachi and (former Montrealer) Dr. Carolyn Whitzman look at how children living in apartment buildings interact with their surrounding environment. Mizrachi and Whitzman pursued this question because, like most urban apartment buildings, these homes were not designed with children in mind.

The preliminary report focuses on forty children, aged 8-12, living in public and private market apartment buildings over three stories tall. Children’s excursions were tracked using GPS devises, travel diaries and surveys of parents. Mimicking Photovoice methodologies, the children also used cameras over the course of a week to document parts of their neighbourhoods which they liked and disliked.

The children described their sense of ownership of public space, their comfort travelling across neighbourhoods and using public transit. Children in private and public housing showed some parallels (social natures of excursions) and some differences (range and proximity of areas visited). The researchers found all the children raised “legitimate concerns about amenity and maintenance” of these spaces.

More than half of the children in public housing complained about quality of the play areas, yet none felt comfortable enough to range further. For instance, the report describes

None of the 13 children we interviewed in Carlton housing estate walk 500 metres to Carlton Gardens, with its large and new adventure playground and the Melbourne Museum, both of which are free to children. Instead, they cluster in the rather tired playground equipment on their public housing estates and play in the leftover spaces between residential buildings.

In contrast, children in private market housing were more likely to list greater access to a broader range of play spaces, including pools, tennis courts, skate parks, commercial enterprises, and public libraries. Those who live further from school were more likely to feel isolated from their immediate neighbourhood and so, perhaps, were more likely to travel.

One of the principal findings of the study was how children viewed dedicated/designated play areas: for many of them, the attraction of these spaces is the presence of other children rather than the equipment provided. Playgrounds, playing fields and such places are primarily social spaces for children, and the authors recommend, rather than being hived off from the broader community, should be designed as such.

Mizrachi and Whitzman’s study is particularly relevant to Toronto urban planning for two reasons: One-third of our city population live in such apartment buildings and, two, the critique of many newly-built condominiums that are not child-friendly.

read more »

%d bloggers like this: