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"Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas."

- Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellin, and a candidate in this month's presidential election in Colombia


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Is it wrong to compare Toronto to Medellin? Yes, for all kinds of reasons. But when it comes to the massive rethinks - and redesigns - of housing for the poor, the marginalized and new immigrants, the two cities share plenty of common ground. As it is in Medellin, Toronto architecture is stepping up to a compelling kind of social inclusion - on a smattering of sites downtown, as well as at Regent Park in the east end, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in the west end and at the funky, life-giving 60 Richmond East Housing Co-operative in the city's core.

Medellin was once the capital of the cocaine wars in Latin America, but over the past 10 years there's been a remarkable revitalization led by Sergio Fajardo, a mathematician turned politician. On mountainside slums, long abandoned to violent drug gangs, was launched a campaign to build inspired civic architecture that not only provides safe haven but also tells people to believe in themselves. Where once there were gang members posted high on tin rooftops - outfitted with binoculars and machine guns - there are now jaw-dropping libraries lording it over the favelas. Newly installed gondolas rise over the dense, steeply sited neighbourhoods to provide easy access to and from the city that lies below.

Wherever it occurs in the world, architecture that integrates otherwise marginalized people in intelligent, seamless ways is a powerful indicator of a tolerant society. At 60 Richmond East - a new home for many former residents of the massive postwar social-housing project of Regent Park - natural breezes flow into hallways, and there are invigorating views into the building's 10-storey courtyard. Designed with flair and originality by Teeple Architects for Toronto Community Housing on land donated by the City of Toronto, the building kicks aside the conventions of the nondescript mid-rise "background" building - an urban politesse in Toronto that has become oppressive over the years - to deliver architectural heft and optimism.

It's a gutsy, in-your-face building with a rhythm of bumped-out three-storey modules. There's a monumental white courtyard and deeply recessed porches - painted in deep earth tones, says lead architect Stephen Teeple, "for the joy."

Invisible to the eye are the building's many environmentally sustainable gestures: excellent insulation (R30, compared to the huge inefficiency of window wall systems used by most glass condo towers); fibreglass window frames, the best on the market for thermal seal; a sophisticated mechanical system capable of capturing excess energy from the building's warm south side; drain-water heat recovery from the common laundry facilities; rainwater collection from the roof for the irrigation of courtyard gardens; and perennials that climb the walls.

But it is the movement of natural air (flowing from operable windows) inside the apartments and in the hallways, where women in flowing saris walk with their toddlers, that most obviously signals a transformation in the city's affordable housing. Goodbye to the squat, anonymous apartments at Regent Park, with their porches barricaded behind chain-link fencing. Hello to a place where people can breathe with their lungs and with their minds.

In the past, social-housing projects across the Americas have been physically separated from the rest of a city, their streets cut off from the surrounding urban grid. People already struggling to cope are more removed than ever from systems of hope. One of the pleasures of 60 Richmond, constructed for a modest $20-million, comes in its design not only as a player on a main downtown street but as an incubator of creative urban production. Valuing the potential of your residents - that's the message of Medellin, to be sure, and of the emerging social-housing projects in Toronto. Regent Park, for one, is making way for a massive, enlightened redevelopment, designed by some of the city's most talented architects.

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Here's how 60 Richmond taps into the needs of its residents: The tenants living in the building's 85 units typically work as sous-chefs, kitchen help or hotel-cleaning staff. Many of their jobs are in the city's downtown hotels - within walking distance of the newly opened co-op. On the building's ground floor, generous glass windows welcome foot traffic into a resident-owned-and-operated restaurant and training kitchen - expected to open in the fall - that includes a cappuccino bar where new baristas can learn to create artful coffee.

Once the gardening committee is up and running - the building has been open only a month - the substantial, sixth-floor courtyard gardens will be planted with herbs and vegetables, enough to supply that ground-floor restaurant. Organic waste from the resto, meanwhile, will nourish the gardens upstairs. There are only nine parking spaces on the ground floor but, wisely, lots of bike racks. Added up, it's an inspired template for environmental responsibility and human self-sufficiency - part of the reason that 60 Richmond East is expected to achieve a LEED Gold rating.

Importantly, the building has rejected the sexy appeal of the glass box - a perfectly inefficient heat sink - to explore a massing that combines 60 per cent solid surface and 40 per cent glass. The foundation walls of the building that previously stood on the site - a homeless shelter run by social-services agency Dixon Hall - were recycled as shoring for the new construction. The second-floor amenity space offers a protected courtyard area for children, and there's a hookup for gas barbeques.

The design team, including Chris Radigan, Richard Lai and William Elsworthy, has provided plenty of delight. Still, with encouragement from Toronto Community Housing, they could have warmed up the humanity of their aesthetic even further. Yes, the twisting tubes of light in the hallways are cool, and the red doors leading into the apartments are a nice touch. But the metal catwalk that crosses to the sixth-floor courtyard gardens feels like something out of Alcatraz; and real wood, rather than the fake laminate around the elevators and recessed porches, would have given the building extra depth. The residential units, ranging from one- to four-bedroom, are designed with engineered ash flooring and good flow, but the concrete ceilings won't get a lot of love.

Attempting to heal blighted postwar neighbourhoods through street-friendly architecture has become commonplace over the past 20 years. In the United States, most of the Hope VI redevelopments of social-housing projects (a multibillion-dollar federal initiative launched in the mid-1990s to heal myriad communities) have favoured a new-urbanism style of design - with front stoops, pitched roofs and paths leading directly to sidewalks. Toronto's remake of social housing, which typically includes a mix of affordable units and rent-geared-to-income accommodation, is bent on defining denser, mid-rise living that recognizes the planet's finite resources.

It's less quaint than the American model. It's not warm and fuzzy. Designing social inclusion as a permaculture - that's the beauty of 60 Richmond East, because its architecture is more than skin deep.

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