Are Community Benefits a roadmap for the future?



That’s the idea behind groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on large infrastructure projects like Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.

Watch this video to hear more from our very own Pedro Barata, VP, Communications and Public Affairs, on what’s next for Community Benefits.

That means that in addition to building much-needed transit that connects communities, these projects can also provide pathways to better jobs, and more secure futures, for people living in poverty. This includes young people who face significant barriers to employment.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this legislation to fruition by working with our partners—including Crosslinx, labour unions, the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the provincial government and the City of Toronto—to get the green light on this exciting initiative.

And at a recent Board of Trade summit, Premier Kathleen Wynne signaled her support to commit to local employment targets on the Eglinton Crosstown project.

We’re hopeful this will pave the way for scaling up career opportunities for young people who have faced barriers so that everyone can contribute and share in our prosperity.

Why Community Hubs matter

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Laura Harper Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

Laura Harper
Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

What are community hubs? And why are they so important for people and families living in poverty across our region? If you’ve been following the news recently, you may remember that Hubs garnered an important mention in the Ontario government’s latest Throne Speech. That’s because these “one-stop-shops” for social and health services—all under one roof—play an important role in ensuring that everyone across our province has access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

To learn more about these important resources—a crucial part of United Way’s community-building work—Imagine a City spoke with Laura Harper, Senior Manager, Programs and Services, Agincourt Community Services Association, and Hub Manager at United Way’s Dorset Park Community Hub.

1. What is a Community Hub?

Working together with donors and community partners, United Way has opened seven Community Hubs throughout our region with an eighth currently in development. These Hubs serve more than one purpose. Although they act as a one-stop shop where people can access vital programs and services all under one roof, they are also places where residents come to build community. In 2005, Toronto identified 13 priority neighbourhoods that are home to some of our most vulnerable residents—many of whom are isolated from crucial social services, supports and infrastructure. Community Hubs bridge these gaps. Although neighbourhoods throughout our communities differ greatly, that’s the common thread between them. Whether a neighbourhood is made up of a high concentration of newcomers, residents living on a low income, single mothers or youth who aren’t graduating, Community Hubs bring together resources to provide a place that supports the diverse growing needs of a community.


2. What services do they offer? 

Community Hubs offer a wide breadth of services based on a community’s needs—that’s why the Hub model is so effective. We’re able to work with community leaders and residents to identify needs and discuss what their vision is for the space. For example, at the Dorset Park Community Hub, we were able to match community partners to the needs of the community to offer food bank access, newcomer settlement supports, early childhood programs and employment resources. We also offer recreational space including a computer lab and community kitchen.


3. Why are Community Hubs so important?

Community Hubs are an important part of building stronger neighbourhoods because they involve people who live in the community—and know the issues first-hand—in every stage of the development and ongoing operation. Residents are engrained in the decision-making process because they want to make their community better. When Dorset Park residents saw that a Community Hub was opening, they felt truly invested. They felt that a funder like United Way believed in them so they took ownership of the space. The Hub represents opportunity for the community—opportunity to have their needs met, cultivate new relationships, discover a sense of empowerment and to become active participants in creating a stronger neighbourhood. 


4. What role do local residents play in supporting the activities and ongoing operation of the Hubs?

Community Hubs could not thrive without the support of residents. Before the Hubs opened, residents wanted to get engaged in their community, but lacked the infrastructure, mentorship and organization to get community-led initiatives off the ground. They wanted a space where they could come together and start projects of their own.

An example I always highlight is the Women`s English Circle that started when a group of women identified that many newcomers in the community wanted to learn English. Though the program was initially successful, when it moved over to the Dorset Park Community Hub, membership grew exponentially. Now, 80 women actively participate in the program, most of whom were formerly isolated. This resident-led program not only gives women the opportunity to learn English, but perhaps more importantly, it’s connecting them with other women in the community. Now, the participants are actively engaging in other resources, have become volunteers and are even running initiatives of their own.

What if you could turn a parking lot into a community garden?

What if you could turn an unused parking lot into a community garden?


Pretty cool, right? That’s the idea behind a recent bylaw called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning that will give high-rise tower communities in priority neighbourhoods greater control over local development.

Why does it matter? Because in addition to creating opportunities to bring in new jobs, shops and services,  RAC zoning can also help to transform tower neighbourhoods into vibrant, livable and walkable communities.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this new legislation to fruition by working with partners, including the City of Toronto and ERA Architects.

Watch this video to hear more from our very own Pedro Barata, VP, Communications and Public Affairs, on what’s next for this exciting initiative.

Changemakers to watch: Zahra Ebrahim

It’s a new year—and we’re excited to introduce you to some trailblazing changemakers across our region. With innovation, passion and a whole lot of hard work, they’re helping change lives and transform entire communities.

First up? Zahra Ebrahim, Co-CEO of Doblin Canada, a design-led innovation firm based in Toronto that works to solve tough business challenges in the non-profit, government and private sectors.


WHO:  She’s been called a “civic rockstar” by her fans on social media. She was featured as one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life’s Most Influential issue. And she recently shared her city building passion as a featured speaker at TEDxToronto.  But it’s the urbanist’s trailblazing work connecting 75 youth from a Toronto priority neighbourhood with an opportunity to completely transform their local community hub that earned her a spot on our list.

WHY:  With a background in architecture and design, Zahra played an integral role in the Community. Design. Initiative., an award-winning collaboration between architects, designers, urban planners, academics and residents. The multi-year project is transforming a United Way agency—East Scarborough Storefront—into an innovative, 10,000-square-foot community services hub in Kingston Galloway Orton Park. “This project is a great example of finding ways to engage people who wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in a multi-year building initiative like this—including young people living in poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban agency,” says Zahra. Learn more here.


An architectural drawing of East Scarborough Storefront.

WHAT’S NEXT? Zahra will be busy in 2016! She’s currently fulfilling her dream of bringing design thinking education to high school students across Canada through her support of The Learning Partnership. She’s also helping some of the country’s biggest organizations rethink how they do business by introducing consumer-first strategies that put equal emphasis on financial and social bottom lines. Zahra also continues to be passionate about driving change in the non-profit sector by connecting communities and decision makers to create meaningful, sustainable change. “I believe passionately that we need to share ownership with communities. I’ve always been really focused on the ‘how’ of change-making in the non-profit space versus the ‘what’.”



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.


Moving toward complete, economically diverse, and convenient communities for apartment neighbourhoods

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto's tower neighbourhoods

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods


Our guest blogger this week is Graeme Stewart. Graeme is an Associate with E.R.A. Architects in Toronto where he leads urban research and design projects. Read more about Graeme here.

Over the past several years, United Way Toronto, the City of Toronto, Toronto Public Health, ERA Architects, the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, and many others have been collaborating on a project called Tower Neighbourhood Renewal.

Tower Renewal aims to enable the hundreds of Apartment Neighbourhoods found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and beyond to emerge as integrated, vibrant, and diverse community hubs across the city.

One aspect has been to rethink and modernize the planning and policy framework of these neighbourhoods – to match rules and regulations with the lived realities, and resident desired change within these remarkable neighbourhoods.

The current challenge stems from the fact that most of these neighbourhoods were designed and built in the 1960s and ‘70s. At that time, it was assumed that a good neighbourhood was one where you would drive to work, drive to daycare, drive to the mall, drive to see friends, and so on. Every convenience was just a quick drive away.

Toronto’s zoning by-laws reinforced this kind of neighbourhood design through single-use zoning – apartments in one area, shopping in another, with little or no room for change. That is why we see so few shops, cafés, grocers, community centres, and other conveniences near Toronto’s towers.

Today, Toronto’s tower residents are not typically drivers or car owners: they rely on walking and transit to get around. That means that the neighbourhood destinations of the ‘60s are no longer within reasonable reach, and many neighbourhoods find themselves isolated, lacking the needed shops, services, local food, local childcare, local opportunities, and other ingredients of healthy neighborhoods.

It’s time for a change. And that change seems to be coming.

Through research, advocacy, and collaboration, a new zoning framework has been developed – the “Residential Apartment Commercial” zone – and is poised for implementation in hundreds of Toronto’s vertical neighbourhoods.

This new zone will remove barriers for a range of exciting small-scale businesses and community services. With a new legal framework that aligns better with residents’ needs and wishes, Apartment Neighbourhoods across the city can begin the process of incremental change – toward more complete, economically diverse, and more convenient communities for the hundreds of thousands of Torontonians that call these neighbourhoods home.

From pop-up markets, to cafés, to specialized community services, the aim of the new zoning is to allow services in and to let people experiment – to open new opportunities never before possible.

A City-wide zoning change of this type is a first for Toronto, and would not have been possible without a diverse group of collaborators and stakeholders working together, often in new ways. It is a testament to what is possible through collaboration, and perhaps the start of new way for social agencies, local communities, architects, and the City to work together towards a brighter Toronto.

But changing the rules is just the start. The next phase of the project will be to work with residents, community organizations, and other stakeholders to realize this new zoning’s potential on the ground. This is an exciting time for Toronto, and there is much work ahead.



How to get the inner suburbs moving

Before we broke for the holidays, Imagine a City touched briefly on a surprising statistic that came out of the Toronto’s Chief Planner’s Roundtable last autumn: Up to 60 percent of residents in some of Toronto’s inner-suburban tower neighbourhoods don’t have a driver’s license. (City-wide, most neighbourhoods come in between 20 and 40 percent.)

The easiest way to get a handle on the issue is visually, so thanks to Global News for this map, showing that it’s precisely the parts of the city with the least transit access—distant from current and planned subway and streetcar lines—where residents are also least likely to drive.

These are neighbourhoods that were built around the automobile—when they were designed in the 1950s and ’60s, it was assumed that residents would use cars for most daily tasks. As a result, distances between employment, homes, shops and community spaces are often huge, transit service is less frequent, and, as architect Graeme Stewart wrote at Imagine a City in 2012, pedestrian infrastructure is lacking: sidewalks suddenly end, fences block shortcuts, and cul-de-sacs often make it impossible to walk straight from one destination to another.

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto's tower neighbourhoods

Pedestrian amenities are few and far between in many of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods

Limited mobility, of course, makes nearly every other barrier faced in these neighbourhoods even more pressing.

To take just one example: many of these communities have been identified as “food deserts,”  where large grocery stores or other sources of fresh, healthy, affordable food are sparse or non-existent.

Research by the Martin Prosperity Institute indicates that a neighbourhood as little as one kilometer from a major grocery store counts as a food desert:

Smiley face

That might not seem very far, but a round trip, on foot, in all kinds of weather, can be a major trek (especially with an armful of groceries). Instead, shopping at nearby corner stores and fast-food restaurants are the more convenient ways to feed a family.

In the fall, the Planner’s Roundtable featured a number of suggestions for tackling these problems, many of which are echoed in United Way’s research on tower neighbourhoods: enabling grassroots and resident-led businesses, encouraging flexible zoning to permit more commercial and community spaces closer to homes, and, of course, improving transit.

Join the discussion in the comments, and share your ideas on how getting around can get easier for the 500,000-plus Torontonians living in our tower neighbourhoods.