Can a “problem” be a solution? University of Toronto School of Cities rethinks Toronto’s aging apartment towers

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In Toronto and other cities around the world, clusters of aging high-rise apartments surrounded by trees are a familiar feature on the urban skyline.

Once touted as a haven for the middle class, the ‘tower in the park’ planning model was popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but is increasingly seen as anti-urban and a hindrance to further development. great densification. At the same time, many of these concrete giants are crumbling and housing more and more low-income and marginalized tenants.

Yet where many see a problem, the University of Toronto Fadi Massoud sees a potential solution.

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design says buildings and, in particular, the surrounding open spaces can actually carry the seeds of urban resilience. – a means of countering future climate risks. as well as socio-economic tensions resulting from income inequality and mental and physical health problems.

“Green spaces – especially mature trees and canopies – have the potential to mitigate the urban heat island effect, purify the air and reduce flooding,” Masoud said, noting that many Toronto’s concrete apartment towers were placed in the middle of green spaces such as the Black Creek sub-watershed in the city’s heavily urbanized northwest region.

“But we rarely see these green spaces as essential infrastructure to deal with climate change.”

The idea is explored by Masoud and his interdisciplinary team through a project entitled “Towers in the Park: A Prospective for Equitable Resilience”. The project aims to assess the social and environmental value of public and private open space assets – including the parks surrounding Toronto’s high-rise apartment buildings – in relation to the city’s overall resilience goals. It will also explore the potential for integrating adaptation and mitigation strategies into tower neighborhoods.

This is just one of the innovative interdisciplinary research projects supported by University of Toronto School of Cities. The school is part of the university Institutional strategic initiatives (ISI), designed to address complex global challenges by harnessing the University of Toronto’s top-quality academic talent across multiple areas of expertise. Each initiative brings together flexible, multidisciplinary teams of researchers and students from all faculties and campuses, as well as industry, government and community partners.

“I like to say that the School of Cities teaches the world why cities are important for prosperity, sustainability, justice and inclusion,” says Karen chapple, the new principal of the school. “Cities have the solutions to many of our problems, be it climate change, inequality or systemic racism. And cities cannot be the solution, and schools can only teach the world if we can tap into interdisciplinary research.

“This is why our ISI status is so important to us. “

The school, in fact, was a model for the ISI program. It was founded in 2018 with the aim of bringing together the formidable resources of the university to address the many challenges facing the world’s urban areas, where more than half of the population now lives.

“Instead of the traditional approach, involving town planning and maybe some of the social sciences, the thinking was: ‘Why not also tap into computer science, biology, ecology, history, English and all the wonderful things the university has to offer? “says Chapple.” That was our founding concept from the start. “

Concrete example: Masoud’s team includes professors from six other university departments on two campuses, including experts in landscape architecture and urban design, environmental sciences, civil engineering, geography, public health, social psychology and physics . The project was initiated by the City of Toronto resilience strategy in 2019 – which included the renewal of the city’s aging apartment towers, as well as their surrounding green spaces, as a key element.

“Often it is believed that greater densification – turning these underutilized and under-programmed green spaces into more buildings – is the best way to deal with tower communities,” Masoud said, adding that the city has also intend to see the towers renovated. to improve their energy efficiency.

But he notes that nearly a million people who live in tower communities across the Greater Toronto Area may not be able to afford the higher rental costs that would inevitably be passed on to them by landlords. which would result in displacement, gentrification and less affordable housing.

“So we started to say, ‘Well, if modernizing the mechanical systems of the towers themselves could create problems, what about all the open space around them? »Said Massoud. “Can we capitalize on the green and gray surfaces – the trees, ravines, public parks, malls and squares, which are the fabric of this city – in a way that would help alleviate some of the problems for s? to ensure that these tower communities become more resilient? “

The team is holding conversations with community representatives to hear their views on how to improve apartment tower communities through a series of ‘knowledge exchange’ events hosted by the Center for Connected Communities. Team members mapped the city to see the overlap between these vertical neighborhoods, urban heat islands, local flooding, and the canopy. At the end of the project, the group will produce a report with recommendations to the city.

The research is carried out under a Urban challenge grant from the School of Cities, which aims to meet the major challenges of the field.

Chapple notes that alongside the Urban Challenge Grants, which have also covered topics such as supply chains, food sources, and smart villages, the school is running global online seminars that have reached urban institutes in 162 country. At the University of Toronto, it also brings together student researchers from all departments – both at the postgraduate level and for fourth year projects in partnership with community organizations in the Multidisciplinary urban crowning project design course. The course is led by Mark Fox, professor of industrial engineering at the Faculty of Applied Sciences and of Engineering and Computer Science at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Urban studies student Randa omar, sociology student Yi Li, student in international development and human geography Rajpreet sidhu and business student Tianyi Wang were among those who participated in a flagship project involving Indigenous public art during the 2020-2021 academic year. He was supervised by Danielle Kwan-Lafond, Assistant Professor, Education, Sociology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, who describes herself as Métis and a member of the Aboriginal community in Toronto who does not identify as Aboriginal.

As the project evolved, students focused on examining the well-being of Indigenous artists within the arts industry and developing recommendations that non-Indigenous arts organizations could implement to create supportive work environments and lasting relationships with Indigenous artists. With funding from the School of Cities, the students worked with Haudenosaune / Anishinaabe artist Lindsey Lickers and hosted a panel discussion with several other Indigenous artists and professionals.

“We started by going back to the basics that are good working environments and good relationships for Indigenous artists,” says Omar.

Li says she learned a lot about indigenous history and culture.

“Some artists mentioned feeling symbolized – just used and never contacted again,” Li said. “It was almost as if there was little point in building relationships, which is an important part of their culture. It hurts aboriginal artists a lot. There is a lot of trauma. “

Sidhu adds that in cities, it is important that everyone is exposed to works of art that reflect indigenous ways of knowing and living. “If you are walking in a park and it’s just statues of old white colonial men who committed acts of genocide, as a Native you won’t feel comfortable,” she says. “And as a settler, you should see Indigenous public art on Indigenous lands and begin to better understand your role and the space you occupy. “

Kwan-Lafond says the project reflected the diversity and community orientation championed by the School of Cities, as well as its emphasis on interdisciplinarity. “It shouldn’t be just designers and planners who plan a city,” she says. “Sociologists have some interesting things to say and so does our business student.

“We would have had very different conversations if we were all from the same field. “

Chapple agrees, noting that the school has already had an impact on the hundreds of students it has brought together, as well as its global partners. “This type of approach recognizes that problems are wicked and complex, in cities especially, so you need to have multidisciplinary teams to bring them out and solve them.”

The same is true when it comes to reimagining Toronto’s aging concrete apartment towers as a potential response to the city’s sustainability challenges.

“Without the School of Cities, we would not have been able to carry out this project”, explains Masoud. “I wouldn’t have been able to meet other academics at the University of Toronto and work collaboratively with them. The research would have been much more difficult to do.

This article is is part of the Groundbreakers series about the University of Toronto’s Strategic Institutional Initiatives program – which aims to make life-changing advancements in everything from infectious diseases to social justice – and the research community that drives it.


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