By Kate Salmon, The Roundtable Inc.
The following is a recap of one of the 11 city tours that made up ULI Toronto’s Symposium 2018. On November 7th, hundreds of urban professionals from the region and beyond came together to explore the leading edges of North America’s fastest growing metropolis, exposing the contemporary tensions and innovative approaches to building a global city region.
Toronto is shaped by and for the people who live here. At the ULI Toronto Symposium on November 7th, the DiverseCity tour travelled to four key landing pads and cultural hubs for new immigrants in Toronto and Markham. Participants learned how different groups of newcomers are impacting their built environment, and how municipalities and city builders are responding to the unique needs of each new community.
Travelling to Thorncliffe Park, the Ismaili Centre at the Aga Khan Museum, Markham Centre and the Aaniin Community Centre, the tour showcased a range of possibilities for civic engagement, from grassroots intervention to large scale master planning consultation. Architects, community members, developers and municipal representatives spoke about the unique needs and values of each community and how different groups of newcomers are shaping the urban environment, from programming to built form.
First, the tour group visited Thorncliffe Park Public Library and its neighbouring park, both key gathering places and service providers for the low income neighbourhood of predominantly South Asian descent. Attendees learned about the essential settlement
services provided by the Toronto Public Library, and the many community initiatives taking place to improve the neighbourhood’s public spaces. Sabina Ali, Chair of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, shared the group’s challenges with getting City approval on initiatives like a park cafe and a market. “Now, the City comes to us before they install electrical outlets,” Ali said. “Because we are the ones using them, they ask where they should go.”
In visiting the Ismaili Centre, attendees witnessed the injection of infrastructure reflecting diverse cultures on a much grander scale. Built as a place of worship and an “ambassadorial building” by the leader of the Ismaili faith, the building and its surrounding complex incorporate the cultural traditions of the East African, Iranian, and Afghan immigrants who make up its community. The building provides a sense of place and identity for Ismaili Canadians, explained Sheherazade Hirji, President of the Ismaili Council of Ontario.
Travelling north to Markham Centre, the DiverseCity tour explored the opportunities presented by the development of an entire master planned community.
Representatives from the City of Markham, Remington Group, York University, and York Region Transit explained the unique makeup of Markham, one of Canada’s most entrepreneurial and ethnically diverse cities, with the highest number of tech companies per capita and nearly 80% of residents self-identifying as visible minorities. One resident of the York University incubator Y Space said that he preferred Markham over working in Toronto because the city is more “scrappy.” As a result, the City has created programs that support new businesses and developed a rapid transit system, which the tour group was able to experience through a ride on a VIVA bus.
The tour concluded at the newly constructed Aaniin Community Centre & Library, designed by Perkins+Will with significant input from the surrounding community. As the last in a series of three community centres designed by Perkins+Will for the City of Markham, Aaniin benefitted from the inclusion of spaces, like a sensory room for people with autism, that had been well received in previous projects. However, as Perkins+Will Principal Duff Balmer explained, “the community input resulted in a complete overhaul of the design, bringing disparate program spaces into a grand central space that could support the large cultural events desired by the community.” Little touches like blinds around the pool demonstrate the diverse needs factored into the design, while unique programs and services like a teaching kitchen and makerspace are bringing people of all ages into a community centre for the first time in their lives.
After witnessing so many examples of cultural integration in the GTA’s diverse communities, symposium participants reflected on the underrepresentation of minority groups in urban design roles and the necessity to include community members in city building in a meaningful way. Looking at everything from Thorncliffe Park’s small infill interventions to Markham’s massive new builds, from grassroots initiatives to centralized planning, it appears the best approach is one that marries the big picture thinking of urban designers with the practical applications of people on the ground.