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Reshaping the Cities That Shape Our Lives

Toronto Skyline
September 28, 2015

On September. 25th, during his visit to New York,  Pope Francis delivered a powerful speech about those who have become largely overlooked by the growing disconnection of our city lifestyles:

“Living in a big city is not always easy. A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be.

Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA

But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.‎”

Toronto Skyline

In cities, as he asserted, it seems that sometimes it is the most vulnerable who become disregarded and fade into the background of our daily lives. However, with people living in such close proximity to each other now, and an added 3.4 billion people joining urban life in just 35 years time, the need for building community and togetherness is more important than ever. We can no longer turn a blind eye to those who are most susceptible to being shut out of our communities.

Dominic Richards of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, who was a part of our Community Resilience panel during the “Overcoming Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness” symposium in Toronto last year,  has also recognized the fracturing of community bonds that has occurred due to the overwhelming number of people moving to cities.


One of the goals of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community is to help provide people with the tools to design their own urban lives – and in doing so, design their own happiness. In an interview with the Globe and Mail last year, Prince Charles explained the purpose of this charitable division, saying “I have long believed that a great deal more needs to be done to create urban areas that encourage a sense of community and pride of place and which improve the quality of life for everyone who lives there.”

According to Stats Canada, the Greater Toronto Area is now home to more than six million people – a result of a recent immigration boost. Development is happening throughout the GTA to cope with the growing population, and new condominiums and high-rises are popping up all over the city. While there is an obvious need to plan properly for future development, a corresponding need has been identified to acknowledge and remedy problems associated with existing Toronto high-rise developments. Such problems include social isolation and its effect on the mental well-being of the current residents.  

In recognizing the need for improving the quality of life for the residents of these towers, the City of Toronto’s Tower Renewal Program is currently undergoing a five-year review. As a result of this review, the City’s Planning Department has provided some further recommendations regarding the retrofitting process. These recommendations have been made in an attempt to tackle some of the social issues facing the people that live in these developments.

In the 2011 report, the Tower Renewal Program cited that there were over 1,000 residential tower apartments in the city, built between the 1940s and the 1980s. Many of these high-rises were originally designed for middle-class, car-owning residents, but changing Toronto demographics has replaced the original owners of these buildings with low-income minority residents. Mark Byrnes notes that the Thorncliffe Park towers in East York were originally designed in the 1960s to house 12,000 people – and now a staggering 30,000 South Asian residents call the very same buildings home.

With numbers like these, regular structural up-keep is, of course, necessary as a result of heavy use and over-population. Yet, one of the key issues addressed in the Renewal Program is the lack of opportunity for social connection in place for residents and the importance of building community life.

The City’s Planning Department has recommended that the commercial by-law restrictions are loosened, which would allow for some new commercial operations to open at the base of the buildings. Adding barbershops, grocery stores and coffee shops would add local points of interaction thus helping to promote community in a place where residents are “currently isolated from such services.” The Department is also supporting efforts to establish community gardens and better access to fresh food for residents, who without vehicles or easy access to transit, find it difficult to acquire healthy food options. The social benefits related to these initiatives are endless.

In addition, the Planning Department is recommending stricter infill guidelines: proposed future development must benefit the exisiting residents and strengthen the community, either by renovating current facilities or increasing amenity space. Ensuring deeper consideration in infill development may engage residents and create deeper neighbourhood connection. In an article for Urban Toronto, Stefan Novakovic affirms that, “a commitment to maintain quality of life and strong community bonds is vital to ensuring the well-being of a city at risk of becoming increasingly socially stratified.”

During the Community Resilience panel, Richards’ quotes Winston Churchill, saying “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Indeed, we need to continue to recognize the importance of revisiting the structures we’ve built, re-examine the socio-economic changes associated with their urban evolution, and rejuvenate these buildings to create and engage a community.

View the 2011 City of Toronto Tower Renewal Program Implementation Book.