Posts tagged ‘Design’

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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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.

August 10, 2010

Sidewalk exchanges

When the small piano on my front porch begins to tinkle, I know a neighbourhood toddler has ventured up from the sidewalk, tired parent in tow. I keep it there just for that. In the winter, we meet out there when we are shovelling. Or we see each other early in the morning when we are running out with our smelly green bins. Clusters of us appear along the street as we return from our workday, visiting those already on their porch.

This, like any neighbourhood, is a neighbourhood where our sidewalks are important.

Our sidewalks also serve a trading function. Old bookshelves, dishes and lamps are regularly laid out well before garbage day in the neighbourhood for perusal and collection by others.  I recently met a new neighbour and realized I had her discarded lamp in my living room. (In my first house, most of the furniture “free-cycled.” My partner and I even learned the garbage collection schedule of several of the upscale areas around us—sadly, something I would be less likely to do now with the urban spread of bed bugs.)

These outdoor activities have grown out of the density of our neighbourhood where we live cheek by porch, exchanges which occur by design, by happenstance, by tradition and by local culture. They have made our neighbourhood a better place to be.

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Designed by Douglas ...

Flag of Portland, Oregon. Image via Wikipedia

Word now from Portland, Oregon, where a few neighbourhoods have formalized the opportunities for these daily communal interactions, including setting up a local outdoor tea cart and building neighbourhood “sharing posts.” Mike Lanza at Playborhood.com posted  on the this development after he took a trip to the west coast.  When Communities take over their own streets includes pictures of these great communal creations. Read it to enjoy!

Using the same creative approach, Neighbourhoods blogger Kevin Harris was one of the initiators of  a new, fun Facebook group called 50 ways to meet your neighbours (“Give a nod on the bud, Gus”). The group sprang out of a meeting Harris attended and some recent research he described that showed that Brits are shy about meeting one another.

Sounds familiar. Sidewalks are a low-risk way for us all to get to enjoy a little musical (or other form of) interchange.

April 24, 2009

City Planner Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs and her cohorts upon the defeat of lower midtown Manhattan expressway

“There is nobody against this – NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of … a bunch of MOTHERS!”

April 11, 2009

Crime: Targeting the few "bad apples"

The police division in which Riverdale and the Beach lies has the second highest Break & Enter rate in the City. Only the downtown core/entertainment area outranked Division 55 during this period (January  – October 2008). (See Toronto Police Service data and the Toronto Star crime maps for the source of this analysis. Another interesting website, allowing individuals to pool their collective knowledge is the Spotcrime website.)

So these high stats make one of the stories buried in the 2005 annual police report all the more interesting.

The Division’s Major Crime Unit developed a program to track serial offenders, out on bail for Break and Enter and other major crimes.

Through the program, police met with offenders and their sureties as they were released from jail and then tracked their bail conditions, making regular follow-up visits weekly.

A regular, rotating list of the Top 15 offenders was maintained. Police found, by tracking these few people, they were able to drop the break-in rate by 38%.

The pattern is reminiscent of the one described by Malcolm Gladwell when he wrote in the New Yorker about Million Dollar Murray, a homeless man who in the final years of his life absorbed a large portion of health, social and police services. Gladwell makes the compelling argument that the most effective use resources is not when they are spread across a population, but when they concentrated on the most needy.

It’s a focused tactic that runs counter-intuitively to our Canadian sense of fairness and universalism; however it’s one now seen in the Province of Ontario’s  poverty reduction strategies, the City of Toronto‘s and United Way‘s Strong Neighbourhood Strategies, and TDSB’s Model Schools for Inner Cities. Each of these strategies brings additional resources to those identified as most in need.

At worst, this tactic prioritizes the vulnerable. As best, it just may work.

September 21, 2008

The importance of front porches

I live in a neighbourhood where houses are either 12.5 feet wide, or the bigger ones are 16 feet wide.  It means we sit on top of each other. Literally. Taking your recycling out or having a drink on the porch means invariably being drawn into a conversation with someone else who has had a similar idea.

Because of this level of street activity, some folks spend entire seasons on their front porch. And those are the people whom we all get to know, the people that pull us out of our self-absorbed musings to remind us that the first of the month has arrived and so cars must be moved for parking authorities or that recyclables, rather than garbage, will be collected the next day. They become the glue to our community, exchanging tidbits about our lives to others so that by the time we meet, we already know something of each other.

The porch sitters serve the same function that small children or dogs do. They give us a reason to talk to each other, to build bridges between us, to visit for a moment or two.

These casual interactions are shaped by the architecture of the places where we live and how we move through our communities. It speaks to a number of design issues: the scale of our homes, the use of “third place” (not home, not work), the development of weak social bonds, the trust we have in each other (collective efficacy). The social networks which exist in our neighbourhoods are entwined with the structures of our neighbourhoods.

This blog will explore all these dynamics and how we can build places where we belong, one and all.

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