The following article originally appeared on October 30, 2016, in the Toronto Star as part of a special insert on United Way. It features the inspiring work of community champions and dynamic duo Mojgan Rasouli and Amitis Nouroozi.
At the heart of any strong, healthy community are its residents.
That was the resounding message during a recent series of educational workshops created by two United Way volunteers, architect and RBC Immigrant Awards 2016 finalist, Amitis Nouroozi, and urban planner, Mojgan Rasouli.
Nouroozi and Rasouli live in the Bathurst-Finch area and met in 2013, bonding quickly over a shared love of their community, and the desire to improve it.
The following year, the pair led their first Jane’s Walk, a movement of free, citizen-led tours that happen across the globe, inspired by the late activist and urbanist, Jane Jacobs.
Last spring, Nouroozi and Rasouli hosted a six-part workshop called You Are Where You Live in hopes of energizing people to become involved with making positive changes in their areas.
The series ran from April to June and was made possible through a United Way initiative called Action for Neighbourhood Change, which supports community members looking to lead changes through local projects and enhancements, such as increasing parks and garden spaces, and boosting recreational and cultural activities.
“The power of the individual is a fact we can’t ignore,” says Nouroozi, who came to Canada from Tehran in 2013, the same year she met Rasouli.
“It’s not just one person. I can take something and report it to, say, my daughter, and my daughter takes that knowledge with her to school,” Nouroozi adds. “Involvement of the individual is so powerful, and engagement of the immigrant helps them to feel at home, that I can do something to make this city a better place to live, and this helps me feel responsible. It brings a sense of belonging.”
The workshops addressed the needs of an area that’s not downtown, but also not in the suburbs. In other words, the inner suburbs—commuter communities built in the ’50s and ’60s for those working in the downtown core.
“We have lots of immigrants coming each year to this neighbourhood,” explains Rasouli, who immigrated to Canada from Iran in 2010.
“We need to give them the sense that they are in a very good place, so they can accept that neighbourhood as their home,” she says. “Changing a neighbourhood is very hard. For immigrants, understanding their city is important. They have adopted this city and this neighbourhood and the residents need to be educated about how it works.”
Densely populated, the inner suburbs are often teeming with a vibrant mix of cultures and cuisines. Yet, they also face unique problems, some that may seem unfamiliar to those living downtown.
“The inner suburbs can be described as communities in the City of Toronto that form a ring outside of the old city,” explains Alex Dow, director of Neighbourhood Initiatives for United Way.
“We know these communities tend to have less access to services, less walkability, higher populations of racialized persons, higher unemployment and underemployment and less transit access. As well, our research tells us these communities also welcome large numbers of newcomers and immigrants. The inner suburbs contain high volumes of dense tower communities as well, many of which are apartment towers surrounded by green space, but little in terms of services and commercial activity.”
Due to the design of these areas, another notable characteristic reins—vehicle dependency.
Picture the contrast between being able to stroll through one’s neighbourhood, chatting with locals at shops and cafes, with the isolation of driving, or taking multiple public transit routes, to even find such places.
“The inner suburbs often have a number of challenges related to their auto-oriented design and lower-density built form,” explains Dow. “There are plentiful green spaces and parks, however there are fewer opportunities for citizen engagement and more barriers to participation in ensuring that these spaces reflect the needs of the community.”
Dow offers the example of a high-rise community situated near a ravine and watershed, but without trails or access points. He says such spaces can be upgraded by adding entrances that allow residents to get out and explore the nature surrounding them.
These are some of the improvements Nouroozi and Rasouli are pushing for.
“There is a big gap between the newcomers and long-time residents,” Nouroozi explains. “There needs to be a way of exchanging local knowledge and encouraging newcomers to participate in their neighbourhood. There needs to be public spaces where residents can get connected. People talk about wanting to have patios and meeting areas to make it more alive, vibrant and livable, which is not really that difficult to do.”
During the workshop, organizers offered insight into how city planning works, offered ideas for getting involved and implementing change, and examined ways of building sustainable, walkable communities, among other topics.
“This is our adopted country,” says Rasouli. “Here we are living in a democratic country and there is a lot of opportunity to take part in how a community develops. If you educate people and inform people, you can raise their ideal of how they are living.”