Planning for change in Tower neighbourhoods

Jennifer-Keesmat_606x544As the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat is committed to creating places where people flourish.  Over the past decade, she has been recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners and OPPI for her innovative work in Canadian municipalities.  Most recently, Jennifer was named as one of the most influential people in Toronto by Toronto Life magazine and one of the most powerful people in Canada by Maclean’s magazine. Her planning practice is characterized by an emphasis on collaborations across sectors, and broad engagement with municipal staff, councils, developers, business leaders, NGOs and residents’ associations.  Jennifer is also a member of United Way Toronto’s  2015 Campaign Cabinet. Imagine a City spoke to Jennifer on why community consultation is key to building more livable neighbourhoods.

One of your key priorities as Chief Planner is to make neighbourhoods across Toronto more livable. What does this mean exactly? Livable communities are complete communities. They’re neighbourhoods where you can undertake many activities, and access most services, within walking distance from home. Things like work, childcare, doctors’ offices, food shops, community centres and playgrounds.  In order for neighbourhoods to be safe and to thrive, they need lots of diversity. They need diversity in terms of ages groups, in terms of uses and in terms of how you can move and walk around.

We know that livability in our city’s inner-suburban “Tower Neighbourhoods” is a serious challenge. Toronto contains the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America. Today there are more than 1,000 of these concrete towers across our inner suburbs. When they were designed in the 1950s primarily for the middle class, they were designed for one “use” only—housing.  Tower Neighbourhoods weren’t planned to be diverse. You couldn’t go to the doctor, you couldn’t buy groceries, you couldn’t go to a restaurant. They quickly became less desirable places to live than other vibrant urban centres. They weren’t well-connected in terms of their pedestrian access and they weren’t connected to transit. These communities were subsequently abandoned by the middle class and became landing pads for new immigrants, many living in poverty.

United Way’s Tower Neighbourhood Renewal strategy aims to improve quality of life for residents in these high-rise communities. An important part of this strategy is consulting with residents who live there and engaging them in the planning process. We consult with thousands of residents in this city every year. But one of the things we’ve discovered is that the participants in our planning process are generally white, middle-class homeowners. Last year, as a result of collaborations with a variety of different partners, including United Way Toronto, we were able to bring in voices from Tower neighbourhoods that desperately needed to be at the table: voices from immigrants, voices from marginalized residents, voices from people struggling with poverty, voices from people that don’t have English as a first language and voices from people who are more reliant on social services in our city. These are the people that typically have a really hard time accessing our processes in the first place. United Way has worked very hard to build trust and relationships within the communities that we would like to better engage in our planning processes. They’ve helped us to understand the poverty that exists in this city and the need to work more intensively in the Tower Neighbourhoods.  Broadening participation in our city building processes underpins creating an equitable city for all Torontonians.

What was the outcome of this community consultation? As a result of tremendous on-going analysis and new collaborations that have involved United Way Toronto, Public Health and the Tower Renewal Office—to name just a few of the players—approximately 500 existing apartment sites in Toronto’s inner suburbs have been identified for inclusion in a new zone—the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) Zone. Zoning is essentially the regulations and laws that we have in City Planning that determine which uses—commercial, residential, etc.—can go where. The RAC Zone bylaw loosens up what types of uses are permitted in these Tower communities. For example, it will allow small shops, food markets, cafes, learning centres, barbershops, doctor’s offices, community centres and places of worship that are of benefit to local residents. This is a key step towards creating more complete, livable, walkable communities in Toronto’s Tower neighbourhoods.

Talk about some of the other ways you’re engaging Torontonians in the city planning process? We are broadening participation in City Planning with the goal of making Toronto the most engaged city in North America—at least where planning is concerned. We’re beginning to see social media as an essential tool for communicating engagement opportunities with the public and for people who might not otherwise feel comfortable participating in a community meeting due to physical, financial, family or work constraints. As part of our extensive Eglinton Connects study, for example, 25% of participants heard of the opportunity to participate through social media. We’ve also been working with the City Manager’s Office to pilot IdeaSpaceTO, which is a social media tool that facilitates a high-quality online discussion between residents and the City.