Posts tagged ‘Cities’

November 23, 2012

A tree grows in the road

A regal tree in the middle of a square, traffic flowing around it? Sure. (See the beauty I found in Bath, England.)

But, on a recent visit to Athens, I found a tree growing straight out of the pavement, guarded by one warning sign so that vehicles had to swerve around it. Motorcycles, cars and buses all bent around it on the narrow, one-way street.

The Lorax would have been pleased to see this tree, so respected in the Athenian suburb of Kifissia. I visited it twice in my four days there.

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Coincidentally, days after my return news from Quebec on a hydro pole in the middle of a highway. Not nearly as poetic, I suppose.

April 20, 2012

Gentrification signifiers: A story of one neighbourhood

When two grandmothers stopped on my street recently to tell me their adult children had bought a nearby house, I didn’t tell them why the young family who lived there was moving out. They had moved in with high hopes to this same freshly-painted and pot-lighted house, ignoring the “as is” in the stipulations. The house had undergone a quick flip from a man who bought it after a house fire burned out the tenants who lived there. The house attached to them had also suffered fire damage, but those tenants, renting rooms, stayed on in a more deteriorated house.

And then last summer, it got bad. A man with a violent criminal history moved in — and took over. We neighbours sat on our porches and watched the drug deals and solicitation. It had happened before on the street. The normal knock-and-run behaviour of drug buyers played out along the sidewalks where kids pedaled past on their bikes, part of the ballet that Jane Jacobs described. But this time, it was scarier.

Physical fights became the norm, and the local men became protective, taking to long smokes at the ends of their porches. The police raided the house almost weekly through those hot months. By-law officers arrived and spent three days carting refuse away. The landlord, a former neighbour, was rumoured to be incapacitated, unable to intervene or maintain control. Then, too late, a woman died there of an overdose. The house was padlocked and put up for sale.

I couldn’t tell all this to the cheery women I met. But I recognized their story — their children had got “such a good deal!” But I did recognize this stage of gentrification – the grown children had moved eastward, having rented in Kensington Market – and had  been not able to afford a home closer to the downtown core.

When neighbourhoods shift from working class neighbourhoods to higher income ones, several signs and stages are notable.

Neighbourhood Market

Neighbourhood Market (Photo credit: omegaforest)

First arrivals were people like me, my partner and our new baby. We had some family connections to the community, but while comfortable here in the neighbourhood, we were no longer working class. Higher education had boosted our personal prospects. So, our arrival acted as a signal, that the neighbourhood was “safe.”

Others like us soon came, and the occupations of my neighbours switched from taxi drivers, factory workers, and train conductors, to book editors, teachers, and non-profit workers. Single women thronged to the neighbourhood’s small houses, and young families used the low housing prices as a launching pad until they could afford a larger place. Homes which had housed multiple children (and sometimes a couple of families) were converted to single households. Population density dropped, and racial diversity paled. As housing prices rose, residents told each other this neighbourhood was “arriving.” (One elderly neighbour, disbelieving the rising house prices, chortled to me, “Diane, we’re quarter millionaires,” as housing prices rose over $200,000 for a 12.5 feet wide lots.)

Next, come the speculators. Housing flips are common in the neighbourhood now. Another couple, lured by granite counter tops and a street-front entrance, all at the price of a condo, has moved in across from us, but lawsuits have ensued as the rotted timber covered by the new drywall had been discovered. Our neighbourhood had become a bit of a destination point.

As a critical mass of newcomers builds, another sign emerges: residents’ associations. Their focus is often on remnant parts of the neighbourhood: ‘common’ concerns such as traffic flow, garbage, run-down properties (like the ones up above), and most often the desire to “clean up” the neighbourhood. Every couple of years, these small citizen efforts have emerged. GECO (eerily echoing Michael “Greed is Good” Douglas’ character in Wall Street) is the most recent incarnation, springing out of some of the sentiments expressed in the comments section of BlogTO’s recent article, What ails Little India?.

One of GECO’s members explained to me she thought it was important to have “more diversity” in the neighbourhood commercial strip, that there are “too many sari shops.” Toronto Life described this more diplomatically as “new businesses…revitalizing a dreary stretch of empty storefronts, noodle houses, laundro­mats and hair salons.” Others explain they hope for a Starbucks or “nice” set of restaurants like nearby (upper-income) neighbourhoods have. After all, they say to me, they have paid a lot of money for their homes and they want the neighbourhood to look good. A neighbourhood blog cooed “A few more cool shops on gerrard (sic) and even the Queen Street hipsters will allow us Northerners to be part of Leslieville.” Academics have described this as commercial gentrification. In fact, some have described how Toronto’s “ethnic neighbourhoods” can act as a branding mechanism, in the same way artists do, attracting others and driving up housing prices. It’s a familiar process to those who know Little Italy or Greektown, where many of the original ethnic stores are closing and residents have moved on.

But tolerance for social difference is limited. Another long-time resident, one of the original working-class residents who’d watched these changes with more good humour than I, reported one of new neighbours were discomfited to learn a gay (!) couple lived next door. So he explained to the new couple that good people lived up and down our street.

But the revanchist sentiment has grown.

The final stage of gentrification is when the higher income folk arrive, when the place has been sanctioned as “clean” and “safe.” Cleanliness is defined by such amenities as granite rocks and Japanese maples in the front garden and new windows adorning the home. Safety is not the definition of old, of neighbours knowing when a new neighbourhood child has gotten a tooth or who can be depended upon to hold a spare key for nearby neighbours. Safety is more about beaming spotlights and alarm codes. This final stage concentrates wealth to the point that some researchers call it super-gentrification.

More and more of the neighbourhoods in the old City of Toronto are undergoing this transition. Affordable housing stock is disappearing. The latest move by Toronto Community Housing to sell off single family units means the touted ideal of mixed-income neighbourhoods will be further away. New developments aggravate the problem, filled with homes all in the same high price range, inclusive zoning not yet a practice.

As income inequality is carved into our housing structures, our neighbourhoods suffer. Those who work in neighbourhood shops, filling our coffee orders, or the education assistants in our children’s grade school, won’t live in our neighbourhood, won’t be our neighbours. Our children won’t know difference. This is not Toronto, our motto “Diversity, our strength.”

Driven by individual choice, we are losing a common good.

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September 26, 2011

A critical look at international city rankings

“Well, big deal,” the Montreal Gazette sneered in Montreal and its place in the world, its editorial response to a recent international survey on urban quality-of-life. Montreal was behind Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. As a native Montrealer, I have to concur with the Gazette’s summary:

…rankings tend to favour an ideal, cleanly scrubbed and tidily tended city – which is essentially a suburb.

The editorial consoled readers, throwing in that New York City came 56th on the list.

So how accurate is the measuring stick for the wide range of surveys which rank cities?

This is the question that Toronto’s Intergovernmental Committee on Economic and Labour Force Development (ICE Committee) asked when it commissioned a review of the various urban ranking surveys last year.

As expected, the final report found methodological weaknesses in the comparisons and poor interpretations of the findings by the media and public creates more confusion than clarity when it came to grading the world’s cities. The report author reviewed forty-four rankings and identified seven key lessons:

  • Audience and purpose matter
  • Beware of over-simplification
  • Look at the scores, not the rankings
  • Be wary of data that has been overly manipulated and processed.
  • Longitudinal data are more useful than one-off “snapshot” studied, but watch out for iterative studied that change the rules as they go.
  • Stale source data may leave a false impression.
  • Make sure that apples are being compared to apples.
Probably the fairest explanation for why these studies continue to pop up in the media is attributed to Joel Garreau:
 “These lists are journalistic catnip. Fun to read and look at the pictures but I find the liveable cities lists intellectually on a par with People magazine’s ‘sexiest people’ lists.”

(Still, if you lean towards parochialism, patriotism, or partisan, if you believe Toronto is the centre of the world, you will be glad to know that Toronto generally does well on these international scorecards.)

April 28, 2011

Community Hubs in Toronto

Charles, Prince of Wales outside the White Hou...

Image via Wikipedia

Last summer, Prince Charles announced the Pub is a Hub program had spread to over 400 English villages. Offering community services in the unused rooms, the program expects to save the institution of the hub and alleviate some of the needs of rural communities.

HRH explained,

The key is to identify what is needed in each community and meet that need using spare rooms or land at the local pub, whether it is a shop, playground, meals for the elderly or even allotments [community gardens]. There are so many benefits.

Community hubs serve three important functions in neighbourhoods:

  1. Services: A wide range to meet local need, providing wrap-a-round to a client’s multiple needs.
  2. Space: An accessible, neutral place for local residents
  3. Synergy: A critical mass of services which improves access and delivery to residents, and which creates the opportunity to strengthen social networks

It’s what neighbourhood centres have known and practiced for a long time: Respond to local need, build community.

Jane Jacobs (another timely reference with Jane’s Walks days away), explained that community hubs are

always where there’s a crossing or a convergence. You can’t stop a hub from developing in such a place. You can’t make it develop if you don’t have such a place.

In Toronto, community hubs are popping up in schools, in strip malls, street corners and libraries. The City government has incubators for business, fashion and food;United Way Toronto has thirteen in development or launched; the Toronto District School Board is launching Full Use Schools alongside its broader Community Use of Schools initiative; and community groups ranging from Artscape creating community art spaces to church congregations looking for new uses for old buildings are exploring the concept of creating neighbourhood spaces.

This week, the Intergovernmental Committee on Economic and Labour Force Development (ICE Committee) released a summary report  and profiles I wrote cataloguing these many initiatives. It’s just an overview but should create the opportunity for more discussions.

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February 15, 2011

What’s important to you about community services in your Toronto neighbourhood?: City consultation open

The City of Toronto is looking for our help as part of the development of its Community Partnership Strategy. The Community Partnership Strategy is an  initiative that will help the City make sure that Toronto neighbourhoods have community services that work well for residents, and a strong community service sector to deliver them.

Together, with the Centre for Research on Inner City Health (CRICH) at St. Michael’s Hospital, they have gathered 50 ideas about the things that the City could pay attention to so that it knows how well community services are working for residents in Toronto neighbourhoods.

They are now asking Toronto residents, community service organizations, funders, businesses, and others to say which of these ideas are the most important. The City will use these opinions to help decide what work needs to be done to ensure Toronto has community services that work well.

Our input  is invited. There are three ways to do this:

  1. A researcher from CRICH can come to your organization and to meet with a group for about 30 minutes. They would explain the study and ask participants to fill out a short questionnaire and rate the collected ideas.
  2. Attend one of the two ‘open houses’ that being held:
  3. Participate online by sending an e-mail to smh.toronto.study@gmail.com for more information.

Participation is set to run from February 22, 2011 – March 15, 2011.

(My thanks to Sarah Rix for forwarding this to me.)

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February 11, 2011

A successful city

It had been a long day at the Civic Action GTA Summit of, as Ursula Franklin calls it, “awfulizing.” Transit woes, labour market mismatches, social inequities.

Then the final speaker, Carol Colleta, the Chief Executive Officer of CEOs for Cities, arrived. Coletta is  a city builder a few times over, an advocate for the creative force of cities as described by Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida.

“With cities, there is no permanent success, and there are no permanent failures,” Coletta, in a rousing speech, told the 700 delegates who had been there since early morning.

The success of cities, she explained, is directly related to a city’s:

  • quality of talent
  • quality of place, and
  • quality of opportunity

Toronto, Coletta said, has to be a place where talent sticks, and to make talent stick, a city needs each of these.

Investments in quality of place last a very long time, and so, she reminded the crowd, it is important to get them right.

Opportunities have to be apparent and good, so that people see a future for themselves.

Getting all these things right means tapping into wider knowledge circles. This means finding creative ways to invite those who aren’t in the room to be part of city-building. She pointed to Give A Minute as an example of a new crowd-sourcing initiative already in a few American cities.

So how then to move towards success? Long-terms goals are not achieved without short-term behavioural changes. Colleta outlined three steps:

  1. Have a measurable goal. It drives behaviour;
  2. Have an achievable goal. It gets buy-in; and
  3. Have a short-term goal. That drives short-term behaviour.

All of this, Coletta explained, is propelled by a final element: quality of leadership. She left the crowd with a final question, “Does Toronto have the leadership in place to make this happen?”

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August 25, 2010

Community Partnership Strategy: Community Space

This is a long-delayed follow-up to some earlier posts on the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy which is currently under development and will measure community resources in neighbourhoods across the city.

Bonnie Green writes in the recent issue of the Agora Foundation’s The Philanthropist about the tale of two non-profit organizations in search of program space in their local communities. The article, Creating Social Space in the New Urban Landscape, captures the challenge many non-profit organizations and neighbourhoods face: a lack of community space.

Good neighbourhoods need more than services; they need the space to deliver these community programs and places where community can gather. Much of the challenge of delivering service in Toronto’s “inner suburbs” has been one of carving program space out of basements and strip malls in order to bring community services to local residents. These community spaces are the places where literacy and health programs are found, where sports leagues and seniors’ groups run, where we can access the services we need or where we organize and work with others, from and for our communities.

Good neighbourhoods also need places where neighbours can meet each other, spaces like front porches, school yards and parks, corner stores, coffee shops, places of worship, recreation centres, school yards, dog runs, and even sidewalks. These are the spaces where we can go, outside of our homes and work, where we can meet each other on neutral territory.

Academics describe both these kinds of community gathering spots as third places, and maintain that they are vital to the social fabric of a neighbourhood.

The website Cooltown Studios describes such places this way:

If you aren’t motivated to leave home or your workplace, chances are you don’t live around too many successful third places.

So, it makes great sense that the City of Toronto’s Community Partnership Strategy (CSP) proposes to use these third places as an indicator of the strength of the community support system within a city neighbourhood, combining it with two other structural components: the presence of community organizations, and funding.

The CSP’s definition of community space will measure “space for residents, informal groups, community-based organizations; meetings, programs, administration; multi-purpose [and] dedicated space.”

Two types of  measurable spaces have been identified: community meeting space, which allows informal and grassroots interactions, and community program space, which is more likely to be booked and permitted for service delivery.

Similar to the work of the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce, the measure could also include the percentage of the population with one kilometre of meeting space, such as in libraries, recreation centres, and community-based organizations.

However, the CSP is more than an inventory of local resources. In consultation with community, city staff are exploring the “when is enough, enough” question to answer what benchmarks would work: how much space is needed in a neighbourhood and what functions does it need to fill? How do the needs of various neighbours differ? What’s the baseline requirement for any neighbourhood?

Not enough research — or policy-wrangling — has been done to determine these answers yet, so the early stages of the CSP are more likely to provide an effective way of comparing Toronto neighbourhoods to each other. Now, thanks to the CSP, that conversation will have a good evidence base.

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.

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February 9, 2010

Toronto Community Partnership Stategy: Councillors get it

An update on a posting in January on the Toronto Community Partnership: Priority Neighbourhood Areas Revised:

On February 22, Toronto City Council will consider a recommendation to adopt a new Toronto Community Partnership Stategy (CSP). The Strategy was approved at the City Committee on Social Development and Recreation at its February 3 meeting. Councillors in attendance were supportive – although perhaps the 100 deputants waiting to speak on the issue of rink time were distracting them.

It’s a system which builds on the work the City has already done in the childcare, homeless, and arts sectors. Acting as a set of indices, the CSP’s goal is to develop “a broadly available, fact-based system for community and political discussions,” according to City staff.

Neighbourhoods which will be prioritized, in planning and resources, are those with low levels of economic security, education⁄ literacy levels and social inclusion. If the CSP’s adopted, the strategy will be piloted in 2011, focusing initially on issues of access and accessibility.

A parallel tool which will facilitate these discussions in the development of an evidence- based, publicly-available, on-line Neighbourhood Wellbeing Index (NWI). The NWI will map out the demographics, local services and “operational metrics” across Toronto neighbourhoods. City staff are pulling together a panel of expert researchers through the summer to determine a structure for the NWI. If all goes well, the NWI may be ready in the fall.

January 29, 2010

Toronto Community Partnership Strategy: Measuring Community Based Organizations

Do community-based organizations affect the strength of a neighbourhood? The City of Toronto says so.

A new City report argues that community-based organizations allow the municipal government to “extend its service and strategic goals.”

Community organizations are active in almost every area of social, economic, and community life – in health care, education, economic development, social services, employment, training and skills development, financial services, the environment, culture, the arts, recreation, religion, and spiritual pursuits.

In fact, the presence of community organizations across Toronto neighbourhoods is on the verge of being systematically evaluated.

On February 3, the City’s Community Development and Recreation Committee will be examining a newly proposed strategy, the Community Partnership Strategy (CPS).

The CPS would “pilot and assess” a new way of measuring neighbourhoods, and a key part of the strategy will be to map the presence and capacity of local not-for-profit organizations (including faith-based organizations, but not hospitals and schools).

The strategy will start with the measure of access used in the Strong Neighbourhood Taskforce in 2005: % population within 1 km of an appropriate organization. (One kilometre = walking distance)

It’s an easy calculation, but a biased, and therefore faulty, one.

Suburban neighbourhoods are more likely to score as underserved compared to downtown neighbourhoods with more compact and dense populations.

For example, if a suburban has 1,000 residents, of whom only 40%  are near a community organization, 600 people would be unserved. At 40% coverage, the community would be ranked as underserved.

And, if a more densely populated downtown community has 80% of its residents within walking distance of an organization — no matter how small or appropriate those services are—, it looks like it is well-served. However, with a possible population of 10,000, 2,000 people are not getting service.

So which neighbourhood is needier?

The smaller neighbourhood has half the service level of the more populated one (40% compared to 80%).

Yet, the number of unserved residents in downtown neighbourhood (2,000) is twice the entire population in the entire suburban neighbourhood.

A focus on percentages rather than numbers of people explains why neighbourhoods like Parkdale, Regent Park, St. Jamestown and Alexandra Park never were identified as Priority Neighbourhood Areas. By comparison in 2005, they were “overserved.”

The CPS is going to have to do some fast footwork to ensure a more balanced set of measures is used to assess neighbourhoods. And City staff have already indicated they will.

Ground-breaking and insightful thinking has gone into the CPS. It can’t stall here.

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