Posts tagged ‘Community hubs’

June 2, 2013

Community heros lifting above their weight: The story of a community hub in Hamilton

Don MacVicar once broke three world records, lifting 10 times his weight combined in a single competition. Now, he’s doing bigger things. He’s lifting a community on his shoulders.

The familiar hallways of a school now open into community resource rooms.

The familiar hallways of a school now open into community resource rooms.

For the past eight years, McVicar has led a renewal project in the industrial north end of Hamilton, Ontario, creating a hub in the  Robert Land school when it was faced with closure. Re-named the Eva Rothwell Centre, the former school now hosts a job resource centre, recreation programs, youth drop-in, summer camps, community health programs, police services (staffed by chatty volunteers, with handouts on everything from crime prevention to bed bugs), and a clothing bank.  It’s also one of the sites of Pathways to Education (the strange rumour in the community being that the tuition bursary may be abolished). There is even a miniature railroader club in the school’s basement, art out of metal, rails and wiring and a full-size railway car on delivery, to be a new literacy centre. And, yes, of course, there is a weight room.

This is, like many stories of community change, the story of heroes — how often local improvement is made by the determined efforts of a small group of people. (In fact, that Margaret Mead reference is on the home page of their website.)

When the school faced closure, MacVicar and a group of community member approached the Hamilton school board and proposed to buy it. Private donors stepped in with some quick funding to pony up close to $350,000, giving the community association time to incorporate as a non-profit corporation.

Two weeks ago, the centre hosted five bus loads of elementary students from the Toronto District School Board to attend the ribbon-cutting for a new draw: Team Canada 72 room filled with hockey memorabilia and team players.  It’s part of MacVicar’s plan to make the centre a destination where people want to visit. Next fall, he hopes to bring in the Stanley Cup.

Heroic as these efforts were, the visit to this re-purposed school highlighted two key lessons, at the micro-level and the macro-levels.

At the micro-level is the importance of taking action. Asked how he had accomplished this, MacVicar softly explained “If I join a committee, and they’re not doing anything within three months, I quietly move on.”

The second lesson, though, is broader. This good work needs to move beyond the efforts of small groups. Community hubs, such as these, should be supported at the system level because relying on local heroes to make this happen shouldn’t be a record-breaking event.

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October 9, 2012

Neighbourhood centres: From the history of social justice among settlement houses to community hubs’ modern place-based approach

Photograph of early settlement house, Toynbee Hall circa 1902.

Toronto’s University Settlement House, by the Grange, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

St. Chris House, in the west end, has also reached the century mark. Not far away, Central Neighbourhood House, founded by students from University of Toronto, has also celebrated 100. Also, in the downtown core, Dixon Hall is eighty and St. Stephen‘s is fifty. Reputedly named after Reverend Wood and Reverend Green, WoodGreen, where I work in the east end, has just turned 75 years old.

Each of these neighbourhood centres cluster in the centre of city, reflecting the downtown area’s history as a place where new immigrants and low-income lived. As demographics have shifted and need has spread, other neighbourhood centres – and community hubs – have emerged across the city.

Over these decades, these centres opened their doors, drawing on a model from 19th century Great Britain called a Settlement House. More than charitable service organizations that focus on individual needs, settlement houses emerged from wider ideals of social justice. Settlement referred not to, in the modern sense, of working with immigrants, but rather to a call to university-educated young people to settle in poor neighbourhoods, bring their talents to bear on local problems.

In a sense, settlement houses worked to ensure the intellectual and social capital of a neighbourhood were not stripped away. They also preserved the idea of social contract between rich and poor. Most settlement houses enjoyed the patronage of wealthy donors.

The tradition of Settlement House offer a few key touchstones to modern-day hubs and centres:

Wrap-around services: As multi-service organizations, neighbourhood centres are able to address the various needs clients have. Need a job? food? compantionship? housing? They have it all. Dixon Hall, for instance, defines itself by its multi-service approach.

On-the-ground knowledge: Neighbourhood houses have also acted as early warning systems. Some of urbanist Jane Jacob’s critique of the “towers in the park” emerged  from New York contemporary and settlement house social worker Ellen Lurie, who tracked what happened to her clients who were being moved into this newer form of public housing from their old neighbourhoods. Even now, seeing the changes in its neighbourhood, St Chris House sparked the research into how gentrification was changing their downtown neighbourhood, leading eventually to the Three Cities report by David Hulchanski. After hearing more and more stories from the sector, WoodGreen supported a fight for permanent funding to control bed bugs.

Commitment to creating opportunity at the individual and system level: Recognizing that charity work and case management would not create the systemic change needed to end poverty, advocacy and community development became a core part of centres’ work. Childcare, youth programs, and adult literacy programs were all staples of early programming. University Settlement House’s Music and Art program was established in 1921. Later decades would see these social programs adopted and funded by governments at all levels. In more recent times, St. Chris House led the cross-sectoral policy table, MISWAA, which examined income supports for working age adults. In short, it’s about social justice.

Innovation: Because they are alert to changes and are able to bring a wide set of services to any social problems, neighbourhood centres also act as incubators, creating solutions to complex problems. WoodGreen, for instance, partnered with the Toronto District School Board to create the first seamless, full-day kindergarten class at Bruce Public School.

Community building: Early neighbourhood centres were the original community hubs creating links across difference, strengthening local community. St. Stephen’s Resolution program actively in neighbourhood disputes, and has trained hundreds to do dispute resolution. Multiple ages walk through their doors and learn about each other. Free, non-commercial space is increasingly precious. The community hubs springing up across the city are based on these same community development principles. Place-based approaches to problems sometimes work better than those which work with only specific client populations.

Settlement houses, neighbourhood centres, community hubs — whatever you call them — seem a tradition worth celebrating.

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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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October 8, 2010

If hubs are the solution, what’s the problem?

The following are comments I presented on a panel at the recent Social Planning Toronto symposium on schools as community hubs:

We know the research. Concentrated disadvantage, growing inequality, all shown in reports like Poverty by Postal Code, the Three Cities, and Social Planning’s own work, the ten year social demographic retrospective, authored by Beth Wilson, this past summer.

These are entrenched problems, ones seemingly intractable.  In his book, The Persistence of Poverty, philosopher Charles Karelis uses the metaphor of bee stings to explain how poverty cannot be cured through a singly-targeted effort. If one has many bee stings and only a little balm, it’s not worth trying to soothe just one of the stings. Each of the stings of poverty, the lack of a job, the lack of childcare, the lack of housing, the lack of a safety net, has to be treated at the same time.

This is why place-based interventions, like community hubs, make sense.

It’s startling to see what passes for common sense these days:
Hubs — Co-locating services so people don’t have to travel? Neighbourhood centres have been doing this for over 100 years.

Full-day kindergarten — Offering learning opportunities and childcare in the same space? Who knew this, but a parent?

Because funding structure and legislation have focused on populations and singular, simple problems, we have not made the traction we want on issues of poverty, things that are true to the common good and our civic values.

So, in response to the first part of this session which posits “If Hubs are the Solution….,” what problems are community hubs supposed to solve?

Using a place-based lens, hubs offer the ability to address complexity and entrenched problems. (Place-based solutions can rightly be critiqued for their own drawbacks — that many issues are beyond the scope of the local — but that’s another panel session.)

Hubs are one form of other institutions that use a place-based, wrap-around model; others are such as neighbourhood centres, settlement houses, multi-service agencies, community health centres, and even, once, community schools. (My children’s school was built in the 1960s so that the school library could be used as a public library, with a separate entrance build into the structure. That failed and now the library is down the block.)

The “system” has now adopted hubs as an answer that makes sense. Within Toronto, that means bringing community space to the inner suburbs where infrastructure supports, like meeting space and community programs, is too scarce.

The Strong Neighbourhood Taskforce and the resultant Strong Neighbourhoods strategies at the City government level and at United Way Toronto promoted hubs as one strand of the solution. The POL funds, major donor gifts, and funding through the Youth Challenge Fund helped to realize these new resources.

When the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce examined service levels across the city, in comparison with the needs of the local population, the one map that showed coverage, washed calm blue instead of fiery red, was the map of access to local schools. Schools are in every Toronto neighbourhood.

That’s why the concept of schools as community hubs makes such sense.

The  Toronto District School Board has grown this idea, through initiatives such as Sheila Cary-Meagher and Cassie Bell’s Model Schools for Inner City initiative. (Note these schools do not rigidly fall within the Priority Neighbourhood Areas – poor kids are more widely dispersed in the city). And, more recently, Director Spence began to open Full Use Schools. Both these programs open schools to the community and the community to schools.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has also recognized the sense of this. They have funded the Community Use of Schools program, which opens up school space to community agencies in the summer and after school, and, more recently, launched the Priority Schools Initiative, which provides support to grassroots groups to do the same.

“Schools as hubs” is on the radar.

In the midst of this municipal election, we hear candidates talking about schools as community hubs. The City has still to figure out how to work with the school board – the Community Partnership Strategy, for instance, is skirting  this boundary issue as it maps out the resources and assets in Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

So if there is all this wisdom, what’s the problem? Why are there not more hubs?

This summer I had the chance to work on a report on community hubs for the ICE committee, and that will soon be forthcoming.

But here’s a short list of some of the challenges:

Parental resistance – we still have to figure out how to work through the “stranger in the school” problem

System coordination – The multiple orders of government and even the silos within them make an integrated take, like this, challenging. Competing deadlines and funding criteria don’t make this easy.

The Funding Formula still funds school boards on a per pupil basis with targeted special grants laid on top. When school boards lost their taxing authority, they lost much of their flexibility to be innovative about local issues.

The burden of moving all this forward falls upon on two already burdened, under-funded sectors (education and community service agencies).

Listen to this semi-facetious “To Do” list for anyone developing a hub. Here’s what they have to develop:

  • Visioning
  • Partnership-building
  • Capital dollars fundraising
  • Operating dollars
  • Location identification
  • Community consultations
  • Resident engagement
  • Needs assessments
  • Zoning/permits, Design & space allocation
  • Service planning
  • Governance model
  • Administrative model
  • Feasibility studies
  • Lease agreements
  • Cost-projections
  • Cost-sharing ratio
  • Program space design and allocation
  • Operating hours
  • Outreach and communication strategy
  • Itinerant partnering protocol development
  • Staffing models
  • Job descriptions
  • Source funding
  • Emergency preparedness plan….

And we wonder why it can’t get done.

My job today was to provide evidence of why hubs are a good idea.

But we know they are. That’s why we’re all, three hundred, here.

This is less a rational debate where we need to convince each other of the merits of a good idea, but much more a discussion about our civic will and priorities and the administrative structures and resources required for this “good idea” to be realized.

Thank you.

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December 29, 2009

Neighbourhood vitality in Toronto's towers

Toronto’s residential towers are flung far across the city’s inner suburbs, tossed over subway lines or sprinkled along ravines and major roadways, further from transit. E R A Architects made the strong case for the renewal of these urban structures, and the City’s (now being re-branded) “Mayor’s Tower Renewal Project” has focused resources on these vertical neighbourhoods.

Wading into the issue soon will be a new United Way Toronto report on housing and neighbourhood vitality, tentatively titled (until the marketers get a hold of it),The Role of Housing in Neighbourhood Vitality: An investigation into the impact of high-rise living on personal well-being and neighbourhood vitality. It will examine the quality of housing in these mainly private marker towers located within the poor neighbourhoods in Toronto’s inner suburbs; it will also measure residents’ satisfaction levels, the impact on health and well-being for themselves and their families, their attachment to the neighbourhood and the experience of various populations groups within this housing stock.

United Way laid the groundwork for this study as part of its Building Strong Neighbourhoods focus. Part of this earlier work was laid out in an exploration of the elements of neighbourhood vitality. That report went so far as to recommend useful data variables which could be drawn from primary and secondary sources.

Scheduled for release sometime in the first half of 2010, the donor-funded report is a rigourous and sweeping undertaking with a total survey interview sample of 2800 tenants and additional focus groups. York University researchers (led by Robert Murdie) are already undertaking to replicate the survey in the Parkdale neighbourhood.

The data collection was completed through the fall with a team of interviewers and 3 field coordinators. Data cleaning and analysis are now underway.

The research is being done in partnership with the

  • Social Housing Services Corporation, looking at the potential of a provincial roll-out
  • Toronto Community Housing, to compare social housing tenants and private market renters
  • Toronto Public Health, to understand the impact of housing on health
  • Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, to inform the new provincial housing strategy
  • City of Toronto, to create a a baseline of knowledge and also test the limitations of the complaints process, and
  • Apartment Association of Greater Toronto, who has provided access to private market rental stock.
June 21, 2009

Community hubs recommended for young and old

The same week the Pascal Report on the implementation of full-day kindergarten in Ontario was released, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) released a Call to Action on building age-friendly communities. Bracketing opposite ends of the life cycle, the reports shared some very similar recommendations.

Both reports emphasized the role and importance of community hubs and the integrated delivery of services. Pascal recommended that schools serve families and the broader spectrum of their needs, while the OPPI called in a series of recommendations for government services to be delivered locally and for seniors and children’s services to be co-located. Both also addressed expanded learning opportunities for each age group.

The reports underscore the point that a focus on place-based strategies aids those who are most needy and least mobile: the elderly, parents with strollers, newcomers with more limited social networks and low–income people who rely on transit.

The benefits of this strategy are also shared. As the former mayor of Bogotà, Columbia, eloquently explained about some of his innovative strategies:

“Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children we will have a successful city for all people.”

—Enrique Peñalosa to Yes Magazine


A few other praiseworthy notes on the report by Dr. Charles Pascal, the Premier’s Special Adviser to the Ontario Premier on Early Learning:

  • By addressing the entire 0—12 age range, Pascal affirmed that the introduction of full day kindergarten was not a panacea to the challenges that many children face (he cites Willms’ research estimates of up to 60% of all children are vulnerable). As, as economist James Hechman shows, early investment must be followed up to be effective [emphasis added].
  • Pascal also recognized and named the summer learning loss which occurs for most low–income kids. The opening of schools as community hubs should bridge some of that gap.

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May 19, 2009

An electronic front porch

Web 2.0 is re-shaping the way individuals communicate to those living near them, and, concurrently, social media needs to re-form to meet the demands of local communities.

I found an interesting article with a long name, Networking Serendipitous Social Encounters in Urban Neighbourhoods, written by Marcus Foth and published in Australia, which makes the above argument very well.

I had been considering it since another Twitter friend, Michael Cayley (@memeticbrand), challenged me last year to consider how social media supports the way we interact in our neighbourhoods. As Social Capital Value Added blogger and the founder of Riverdale Rapids ning, Cayley’s question is an honest one.

Here’s what I learned from Foth’s analysis:

  • If so designed, Web 2.0 tools can compliment community development work, allowing on-line communities of choice to merge into communities of place. Social media supplement and enhance local channels for communication. (U of T professor Barry Wellman had written extensively on this dynamic, as well.)
  • In times before electronic communications, we relied on neighbours and came to know them. “The fact that people residing in the immediate surroundings were known also established a feeling of security, community identity and a sense of belonging – a feeling that clashes with the experience of living in today’s high density, compact urban environments.” (Foth, 2009) We find community in other places now.
  • The construction of physical “town squares” and other public spaces has becomes less important in these technologically connected times. Electronic communications now facilitate personal interactions and, often, ways of meeting physically. Community connections are strengthened in different ways now.
  • Caution is required as traditional power dynamics can get played out through social media. These electronic “front porches” also have a hierarchy. Those with more social capital gather more social capital.
  • People won’t be attracted to place-focused web 2.0 tools simply because of proximity. Websites like Neighborhood Fruit or Wikimapia or the ubiquitous Craig’s List all offer some more concrete reward for interaction, whether it’s a fresh peach, esoteric knowledge, or a new job.

Foth identifies a social media project he is working on in three Australian cities to develop “urban tribes” which offer enough diversity for on-line subscribers to find others to be self-sustaining, .

In the end, it was a compelling article to find. The magic of the Web2.0 internet is that it offers serendipitous encounters, like those afforded by sitting on a front porch. (In fact, as our neighbourhoods become more homogeneous, the chances that our communities of interest and our local communities will overlap only rises. Our interconnections will only be stronger.)

Only a few days ago, I was talking to a neighbour, by phone, about how the two of us were both sick and therefore house-bound. The only interactions we had had for a few days were through things that plugged into walls. It seemed sort of sad at the time.

Now I can see we were riding the crest of the future.

March 5, 2009

Are hospital visitors targeted for parking violations, or are we just negligent roadhogs?

My parents go to the hospital so frequently that the last time I escorted them, they carefully coached me in how to avoid getting a parking ticket. It’s energy well-spent, given the frequency with which parking tickets are handed out around hospitals from York region, to Ottawa, from Newfoundland to Australia.

Whether you are visiting, attending a doctor’s appointment, or rushing there for an emergency, parking tickets are a common part of the hospital experience, along with high parking fees, shortages of spots, and meters which expire in short intervals.

A recent piece in the Toronto Star highlighted how frequently hospitals visitors are stung by the green hornets here in Toronto. The streets around hospital made up half of the top ten sites for parking tickets in 2007. The Ottawa Citizen found similar patterns in their examination of the issue in 2007. The Vancouver Sun also found the same, to a lesser degree.

It’s the sort of thing that drives people crazy, filling Bulletin Boards and other blogs (see here for a hilarious list of the ten worst parking tickets ever issued).

Some places in the world are trying to find a solution. Scotland now offers free parking at most of its hospitals, and Wales is considering the same, while recognizing the complexity of such an endeavor, and wondering how to discourage “freeloaders” without setting up another expensive bureaucratic layer.

Some argue, perhaps fairly, that if you own a car, you need to take responsibility for it. Residents who live near hospitals have to put up with slackers on a daily basis. It must grow tiresome.

However, hospitals are one of the likeliest places in the city where some administrative discretion should be used. People attending hospitals are often ill, or escorting those who are, and they have little control over the sorts of delays they may face once inside.

I have my bias in answer to the question: I remember a sweet and random act of parking kindness  I received at my local hospital once, when I raced, daughter in my arms, son at my side, into the emergency room. When we left, all safe a few hours later, I realized that I had parked by the entrance and not even noticed the meter by my car. But there sat my car ticket-less.

Someone had put some money into the meter.

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January 26, 2009

Local school reviews: The problem of declining enrollment, pt. 1

Our local school is undergoing a Local Accommodation Review, one of those bureaucratic phrases which raises the specter of school closings. It’s the sort of thing, not long ago, during the Harris years, which would have brought parents out in swarms.  It passed nearly unnoticed last week at a school board sub-committee meeting.

Of course, there are fewer of us to notice now. When my high-school-aged daughter started school there, enrollment was twice what it is now.

Neighbourhood demographics have shifted, and homes which housed one or more families in apartments now house singles, childless couples or smaller families. Babies are still being born into the neighbourhood, however our homes are now considered “starter” homes, with a large homes in the neighbourhood have three bedrooms. By the time the babies are ready for school, new siblings have arrived, and families move away.

Most schools around the province are seeing declining enrollments. Birthrates are down everywhere. The only schools left with portables are “receiver” communities, where Canadian newcomers are settling or where new (and bigger) housing is being built.

Declining enrollment continues to hurt the idea of neighbourhood schools. The Liberals have yet to substantially change the funding formula, which is still driven by the number of students enrolled in a school board.

Year over year,  school boards have had to continue to cut back as their revenues dropped, even while some of their costs remained the same or grown: fixed costs such as a full-time secretary or janitor or rising costs such as energy and maintenance of older buildings. And it has meant that school are undergoing Local Accommodation Reviews.

What this calls for is creativity and the willingness to look at new ways of managing these resources which sit at the centre of every city neighbourhood. But perhaps what it also means is that government, school boards and communities will demonstrate a willingness to take some risks to preserve the idea of local schools.

More on these solutions to come….

December 16, 2008

The Underestimated Role of Community Based Agencies

Community-based agencies have gotten short shrift in recent Ontario government reports. Community agencies are almost invisible in  the Roots of Violence and Poverty Reduction Strategy reports.  Yet, they should be central to any policy solution.

Provincial (and national) governments need to make the same adjustment that has been made on international stage over the past decades. Development aid used to be flowed between governments; but from the 1970s onwards, non-government organizations were recognized as being a more capable, effective and responsive means to respond to human need. When given the resources, NGOs are more nimble and able to provide what is needed on the ground. This truism has not been recognized at the local level.

If, as one academic defined it, social disorganization is “the inability of a neighborhood to solve its problems together,” community agencies act as a counterforce to social disorder. In sum, community-based agencies sit at the centre of what creates “good” neighbourhoods and therefore healthier populations. That is they provide

o Common physical space (third place),

o Community services, to meet need, and

o Social networking, and therefore civic engagement, opportunities.

The first element is about the value of community-based organizations in the provision of community space, the evolution of the idea of “third place,” spaces outside private homes and workplaces, where community connections can develop. Community agencies provide this – with no or little fees.  All the Social Determinants of Health debates discuss the importance of social belonging and community connections, fostered through interactions with those around us.

Community agencies are defined, most commonly, through the second element, that is community programs. It also is the source of almost all funding.

However, I want to flag another research vein which has emerged around the third element they contribute.

Some recent research from Harvard Professor Robert Sampson (who co-developed the idea of collective efficacy) is finding:

“that dense social ties, group memberships, and neighborly exchange do not predict a greater propensity for collective action at the community level in the city of Chicago. The density of community nonprofit organizations matters instead [emphasis added], suggesting that declines in many forms of traditional social capital may not be as consequential for civic capacity as commonly thought.”

Community-based organizations are qualitatively different, he argues, in part, because they are tied to the public good more than to private interests (such as those found in resident associations, faith groups or bowling leagues).

See Sampson’s groundbreaking study for more details. Because of the breadth of the analysis and the innovative theory development, this is, if I can be “un-academic” for a minute, such a good study

In 2005, the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce grappled with the idea of a “neighbourhood effect” when it identified priority neighbourhoods which had low levels of community infrastructures. This gap analysis made sense at that point, as a counterbalance, because so much of the focus had been on social need. However, Sampson’s research underscores a different understanding of how neighbourhoods work: neighbourhoods with low levels of community infrastructure are the poorer precisely because they lack social service structures. If a lack of community structures results in more isolation and deprivation, any remedy has to involve creating and supporting these same structures.

Support for community-based agencies must be explicit in any policy solution. So, why isn’t it explicit?

Community agencies are being left out because they are seen as a means rather than an end.

That’s a serious underestimation.

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