In 1867, cities were effectively made “creatures of the province,” subject to the same law-making powers that applied to hospitals, timber, prisons – and yes, saloons and asylums. This is a reality that persists to the current day. Brodhead believes that cities are all too often starved of the money they need to thrive. Nevertheless, he is an optimist.
“Canada’s cities regularly finish in the top three of global livability and resilience rankings,” he points out.
There is lots of work to be done, but the country starts from a place of relative strength.
Evergreen CityWorks has a focus on policy, financial levers and the kinds of productive partnerships that can further bolster livability and resilience. This is an area in which experimenting with new policies and structures can be fruitful, even though the word “experiment” combined with “$50 million retrofit project” might appear daunting.
This is exactly the spirit that infuses the Tower Renewal program.
Two thousand concrete apartment towers rise over the landscape of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, built primarily between 1950 and 1970, representing the second-highest concentration of high-rises in North America. Seventy-seven per cent of these towers are located in low-income communities and, in many cases, require major repairs. Their renewal presents a huge opportunity to address housing affordability, environmental sustainability and social life.
In 2008, several civic actors, including the City of Toronto, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and the University of Toronto, started to work on a new vision for Toronto’s high-rises under the banner of the Tower Renewal program. The vision is one of working with residents to reinvigorate these neighbourhoods through social and environmental retrofits to the buildings and surrounding areas, making them more livable and energy-efficient, while bringing new community amenities to the sites.
Brodhead is quick to acknowledge the mindset shift he experienced when CityWorks, with seed funding through Cities for People, became involved with Tower Renewal. “We thought the assets were the towers, but, in fact, the assets were the land around the towers.”
What has become apparent is that if sufficient funds are to be raised for retrofitting the towers, the value of the surrounding land will have to be realized. Currently, much of this land consists of little more than neglected, sun-scorched or winter-withered patches of grass. Seeing this land differently and acknowledging its potential to be turned to diverse use – low-rise development of the kind championed by Jane Jacobs – has been catalytic. There are now plans afoot to open up the space for playgrounds, public access computer hubs or cafés, to name just a few ideas. This approach has made it possible to overcome financial barriers, by offering opportunities for new investment, but has also exposed other barriers: the city’s own zoning bylaws. The city had prohibited commercial use and other activities in these areas.
The Tower Renewal program’s unique mix of players succeeded in influencing the city to change its laws. Now the spirit of experimentation continues, as the program zeroes in on one $50-million housing estate slated for a makeover, which could provide the valuable “proof of concept” to spur similar redevelopments, not just in Toronto, but across Canada.