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?

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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.

Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes

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Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 7 to approve the interim report on the city’s poverty reduction strategy: TOProsperity. The plan calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to tackle the effects and root causes of poverty. United Way played a key role in the development of this strategy, by helping residents in priority neighbourhoods connect with city staff during the public consultations that took place.

Here are three things you need to know about #TOProsperity moving forward:

1. A final report on the city’s Poverty Reduction Plan will be presented to city councilors in the fall. The plan will outline a roadmap on how the City and its partners will implement the key recommendations contained in the strategy, including short- and long-term targets and a multi-year funding plan.

2. 2035: The deadline set to achieve an equitable city with opportunity for all Torontonians including: access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food, and supportive services.

3. United Way will continue to work with community facilitators and residents to engage people with lived experience of poverty in the implementation phase of the strategy.

Residents speak up on poverty reduction

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United Way community facilitator Harriet Cain

The City of Toronto recently released its Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy,which calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to end poverty. The City of Toronto partnered with United Way to ensure the strategy was reflective of those voices with lived experience of poverty. Working together, we helped identify 23 community facilitators from priority neighbourhoods and community agencies/groups. We then partnered with the Maytree Foundation to train residents to lead small group discussions aimed at engaging community members in the process. A total of eight, City-led “Days of Dialogue” were held across Toronto earlier this year.  Imagine a City spoke to Harriet Cain, one of United Way’s community facilitators, on why it’s vitally important for residents with lived experience of poverty to add their voice to the conversation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I’m originally from Barbados. I moved to Toronto in the late 1980s. I lived in Brampton for a year and then moved to Scarborough. I came here on a work permit from my country and I had high hopes for building a good future. But I didn’t get a lot of help from friends and family when I first got here. Back then there were no Community Hubs and it was hard to access social services. I found it difficult to pay the rent and my work as a cook and personal support worker was never steady. I relied on food banks.

Tell us a little bit about your neighbourhood: I currently live in Taylor Massey, which is considered a priority neighbourhood. It’s a big community, and many times, you cannot walk from one part of the neighbourhood to another without having to go around something. These physical barriers cause us to be isolated from one another. It’s quite dismal and dark in some parts of the neighbourhood. In terms of food, I would call our community a ‘food desert.’ Healthy, fresh food is far away from us. We also find that the grocery stores around here are expensive. We are a very diverse community. We have European, Caribbean and South Asian cultural groups. But many of us are struggling for food, for rent, for jobs and for childcare. It’s very frustrating for the women who have professions and can’t find jobs that utilize their trained credentials. Mental health is also a challenge for many people in our neighbourhood.

How did you become involved in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction consultations? Describe your role as a Community Facilitator. I have been a volunteer with United Way’s Action for Neighborhood Change in Taylor Massey for about seven years. I was really happy when they asked me if I’d be interested in helping to lead small group discussions among residents with lived experience of poverty.  My job was to listen to the others, to make sure they understood and to motivate them to add their voice. I helped keep the dialogue running. I was able to use my own experience of living in poverty to help other residents clarify, and expand on, their own challenges and experiences.

How important was United Way in helping facilitate these discussions? United Way has long-term, well-established relationships with residents and community groups/agencies in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. They helped the City bring residents to the table to have these important conversations. They helped give us a voice and allowed our voice to get stronger and to get bigger.

 What did you hear from residents at these community consultation sessions? We heard from a wide cross-section of people across Toronto. They’re struggling for food, they’re struggling for rent, they’re struggling to get daycare so that they can go to work. One young woman we heard from had just graduated from college and was frustrated because she couldn’t find a job. She had to give up her apartment and move back home because there was no money coming in. Lots of residents spoke about their struggles accessing healthy, affordable, nutritious food. We also heard a lot about employment. Some residents felt they were being discriminated against because of their postal code even though they had all the credentials for the job. Many of the people we spoke with were employed, but were earning minimum wage. They were working two jobs but still unable to purchase healthy food. They found it very difficult to find extra money to take their children to extracurricular or entertainment activities, even just once a month. Finding money for transit was problematic too.

Why is it so important for resident voices to be included in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy? People who are impoverished are not ignorant, we understand our needs. That is a big myth that needs to be removed. Even the uneducated person still knows what they need. If we are going to reduce, or end, poverty in our city, it’s vitally important that the people with lived experience of poverty have a say in how the problem gets fixed. You might not be able to give me everything, but to honour and help me, I believe that you need to talk to me. If I needed shoes, for example, you might think I need shoes with heels. But I don’t even like shoes with heels. It’s important to take the time to really understand how I’m going to benefit from your help.

What did it mean to you to be personally involved in these City-led consultations? I was very moved that the City was at the table with the residents. They heard the voices and saw the faces of poverty.  They heard about our struggles, they heard about our frustrations and they heard that residents are eager to do better. They came into our neighbourhoods and let us know that they are here for us. I am hopeful that we can work together to create real change.

TO Prosperity: Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy goes to City Council on July 7 and 8, 2015, for approval. Follow United Way on Twitter and Facebook for updates and use #TOProsperity to join the conversation.

 

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.

 

Designing a blueprint for social change

sm_Zahra EZahra Ebrahim is the principal and founder of archiTEXT, a design think tank and consultancy in Toronto. She is also the recipient of a 2014 Bhayana award for her role in the Community Design Initiative and teaches design at OCAD and the University of Toronto. Imagine a City spoke with this up-and-coming urban designer to discuss how design can be a powerful vehicle for social change.

Tell us a little more about archiTEXT and the idea behind ‘design thinking’: Our organization works primarily with the public sector—government, charities and not-for-profits—to help support community projects. Design thinking brings an added layer to projects by finding ways to engage communities—particularly those that might otherwise be left out of the process—throughout the entire life cycle of the project. This approach takes analytical thinking and equally values imaginative thinking so that communities can really take ownership of both the process and the outcome. Designers and architects are so well positioned to understand people. By strengthening our ability to understand the experience of other human beings, we can design projects that have the highest impact possible, even with limited resources.

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The transformation of The Storefront is 50% complete and will include an additional 6,000-sq.-ft. of internal/external space.

Describe the Community.Design.Initiative: This project is a unique collaboration between architects, designers, artists, urban planners, academics and residents that is transforming East Scarborough Storefront-Tides, a United Way Toronto-funded agency, into an innovative, 10, 000-sq.-ft. community services hub in Toronto’s priority neighbourhood of  Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). We engaged 75 local youth—many of them facing barriers like poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban community agency. We started six years ago and we’re about half-way done. This past summer, we installed a splash pad and sports structure and we’re about to launch a capital campaign to expand even further. 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.

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The Sky-o-Swale, a splash pad and sports structure designed by local youth, was installed last summer.

How has this project led to meaningful social change in the Kingston-Galloway community? CDI is about so much more than just a building. The project has dramatically increased the decision making and leadership capacities of local youth. It’s also transformed the community into an amazing place to stay, to build your life and to invest in. Residents know that their contributions are reflected in the projects they’re involved in—and are truly valued by the community. Youth in KGO know that whether they’re going to design a building, a service or an afterschool program, the first thing they need to do is convene the people they want to serve and ask them what they want. There’s this connective tissue that grows between the professionals, residents, youth and social service providers. The social infrastructure has become so strong. The community trusts its own capacity to change itself.

Design isn’t just about bricks-and-mortar. It can also be used to re-imagine processes, projects and services within the social sector. Any examples? Our studio also works with charitable organizations, foundations and governments to help them use design thinking to more creatively approach their projects. We’re currently working with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and its Youth Opportunities Fund to fundamentally change the grant-making process for youth-led initiatives. We also led the design workshops for last year’s 101 in 1 Day, a civic engagement festival supported by United Way Toronto and Evergreen CityWorks. We’re also working with Evergreen and the McConnell Foundation —a co-created national urban agency—to engage citizens in 30 cities across Canada to develop a policy agenda together.

What are you most excited about moving forward? Design thinking is still a fairly new field. If we can continue to approach social change from a design mindset, I think it will be transformative for the social services sector. It will make entire communities more resilient by increasing collaboration and strengthening their ability to understand each other.

 

Closing Toronto’s prosperity gap

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Beth Wilson, Toronto Region Board of Trade Chair

Our guest blogger this week is Beth Wilson, chair of the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Managing Partner of KPMG’s  Toronto office. She also leads the auditing firm’s community leadership strategy and has been active on  United Way Toronto’s Campaign Cabinet and with the Women Gaining Ground initiative.

Imagine 520,000 new jobs opening in the Toronto region over the next five years. This is not just an idea but a reality of what we could be seeing based on economic and demographic growth, and the retirement of older workers. At the same time, imagine that despite all this growth, many of our own residents will not be able to tap into these opportunities.

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“Closing the Prosperity Gap” examines solutions for achieving economic and social success.

A report released last week by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way TorontoClosing the Prosperity Gap, reveals the emerging paradox of workers who should benefit from an increase in the number of jobs openings, but could continue to face barriers to accessing these opportunities.This is a prospect that is, quite simply, unacceptable. In a region that prides itself on balancing a high-degree of social cohesion with a high quality of life and economic competitiveness, this potential reality is troubling.

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40% of people in Hamilton-GTA are precariously employed

As the report highlights, we are facing a prosperity gap in our region. It is based on geography, job quality and is generational. We are seeing that where you live determines the level of access you have to services, transit and good jobs. There are also more and more people working in temporary and part-time jobs, often with no security or benefits.

For our young people finding jobs is increasingly difficult — youth unemployment is above 18% across the Toronto region and nearly 22% in the City of Toronto. Newcomers are disproportionately affected as well. In fact, we’ve seen that undervaluing newcomer’s qualifications and experience is costing our economy. As the Board revealed in 2010, the estimated cost to the Toronto region’s economy is between $1.5 billion and $2.25 billion every year.

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Education to employment programs help young people like LaShane succeed

Fortunately, there is a way forward. Closing the prosperity gap is possible, but it requires immediate political leadership and action. During this election, the Board and United Way are calling on all civic leaders to commit to working with business, labour, the community and educational institutions to respond to these big challenges. A better quality of life for residents is not only better for the community as a whole, it’s good for business — it will attract investment, create jobs and spur wealth creation.

We are making an important contribution by providing new labour market forecasts for the region over the next five years. This regional job demand data—a first for Toronto in many years— provides five-year projections based on industry, occupation and geographic locations in the region. The report tells us the fastest job growth is expected to be concentrated in finance, insurance and in professional, scientific and technical services. The second fastest sector will be health and social services.

This information is critical now because it will enable job seekers, career counsellors, and colleges and universities to make informed decisions about career paths and educational programs. By understanding where the region’s labour market is headed, young people, newcomers and others embarking on new career paths can successfully transition into rewarding employment.

The report draws attention to some real solutions that leaders can champion and embrace across the Toronto region. They include ideas like community benefits provisions in major government procurements, intelligent zoning, social enterprise, and nurturing business clusters — all of which will help create local opportunities and strengthen our region.

Overall our report underscores the need for collaboration — having every sector, public, private, labour and non-profit at the table ready to work in new ways.

We can, and must choose to build a strong region with a high quality of life and a growing economy. The time for a more prosperous, productive, and socially inclusive Toronto region is now.

I like where we’re headed with tower renewal

I love the way Graeme describes the potential of Toronto’s high-rise rental apartment buildings. He paints a hopeful picture of what the future could be. With community gardens, playgrounds and restaurants, things that bring neighbours together, these buildings could be more dynamic and more sustainable. Better for everyone. Continue reading

Toronto’s future is in tower neighbourhood renewal

Toronto is unique. The Greater Toronto Region contains over 2,000 high-rise apartment towers built in the post-war boom. Unlike any other city in North America, these towers are found in nearly every community, from city centre to outer suburbs, and are home to more than one million people. These towers and the neighbourhoods they form are at the core of Toronto’s diversity, its urban form, and its future potential. Continue reading