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Among the Tower Renewal ideas being considered is developing the green space around tower blocks, creating new revenue and adding residents.Graeme Stewart

Living in the skies. This was a great dream of 20th-century architecture: towers that would house people high above the streets, swimming in light and air, surrounded by acres of green lawns.

Given that Canada has thousands of postwar tower buildings, we know how that dream turned out. The tower in the park, as this type of building was known, has evolved into the tower in the parking lot: They are aging, isolated, lacking services and community.

So how to fix them? A group of Canadian architects, together with non-profit groups, may have the answer. Or, rather, a bunch of answers. The effort dubbed Tower Renewal that is taking root in Toronto proposes fixes on many fronts, from energy efficiency to economic development. If that renewal works, much of our biggest city, and the lives of more than a million Canadians, will be transformed for the better.

That effort begins this fall, when the City of Toronto launches a new program to finance green renovations and repairs of these buildings. This week, Toronto and the Dutch consulate here hosted a symposium called "Enabling Cities to Grow Green," and new zoning changes this year should open the city's tower neighbourhoods, many of them needy, to welcome small businesses and bring better services.

But to understand the challenge, Canadians have to take off some cultural blinders. "We have to wake up to the fact that we are a country of highrises," says Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects in Toronto. "If you look at Ottawa, at Winnipeg – basically every city in Canada has towers; nobody really pays attention to them. But if you look at them on the national scale, it's significant."

Toronto and its surrounding areas lead the way. The city has the second-largest inventory of apartment towers in North America. A 2010 report from the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (CUG+R), a non-profit research group that includes ERA, counts 1,925 towers of eight storeys and up in the greater Toronto region, plus another 1,155 five- to seven-storey buildings. These add up to nearly 500,000 units housing about a million people. Some buildings are public housing; many are privately owned.

Most towers are concrete slab buildings with brick skins and steel balconies, and many are in the suburbs. (Stewart likes to show 1960s photos of brand-new concrete-and-brick towers marching up to the edge of unspoiled farmland.) Today, you won't find them on postcards or people's vacation pictures, but if you walk through Westboro in Ottawa or cruise the west end of Eglinton Avenue in Toronto, you will see them.

Why? In the postwar period, Canadian cities, particularly Toronto, grew differently from those in the United States, following a European-style model of regional planning. Regional governments insisted on building suburbs that were dense and housed people of all income levels. Apartment towers helped balance out the pricier single-family houses that middle-class people preferred – and a generation of new Canadians, and those migrating from rural Canada, arrived to fill those apartments. It was good planning on a massive scale, in line with the market.

Today, those towers are crucial but unglamorous parts of our housing stock. The problems are quiet. Fifty-year-old apartments, built and planned for people who had cars, are now the landing points for many new Canadians, and affordable housing for many more. They need maintenance. Their open spaces, privately owned, effectively belong to nobody.

There is tremendous social need here. Most of Toronto's 13 "priority neighbourhoods" – areas of social and economic need singled out by the city and United Way for extra investment – are dominated by tower blocks.

The biggest problem is not the form of the buildings. They are serviceable: Their large, simple apartment layouts still work well, and are able to house diverse groups of people, extended familes and people with multiple roommates. The issue is how they were placed in the city and in the landscape. Modernist planning deliberately kept them away from sources of employment, retail hubs and decent transit, and they were surrounded by vaguely defined spaces which created an unpleasant no-man's-land condition.

Remedying this stew of problems is where the challenge, and the brilliance, of Tower Renewal comes in. Stewart spurred the discussion in Toronto with a research project he completed as a student less than a decade ago, tracking how European cities have rebuilt and renovated their tower blocks. To renew a neighbourhood of towers, he learned, it is important to activate the street with pedestrian-friendly retail and community uses – to make these car-oriented neighbourhoods more walkable and mixed.

Another issue, crucially, is that old buildings are energy hogs, and this can be addressed efficiently through new cladding and window systems.

After years of work, Stewart and colleagues are making a real impact. In the spring, Toronto adopted new zoning that will allow new uses in six tower neighbourhoods – including small shops, home-based businesses and community services. These have previously been prohibited by strict zoning rules.

At the same time, the city has introduced loans for improvements to the buildings that will make them more energy-efficient – projects that are difficult to finance privately. The carbon footprints of the buildings will be reduced; property owners will pay back the loans over time, via extra charges on their property taxes, and profit over the long term; and tenants will live better. Everyone wins.

Bigger ideas, such as leveraging the green space around tower blocks for new development, creating new revenue and adding new residents, are also on the horizon for the think tank CUG+R, which is working on the issue for the province of Ontario.

Implementing such ideas could transform tower blocks and their surroundings. "These neighbourhoods are not functioning as well as they could be, and our task is to make them work better," says Eleanor McAteer, an engineer who runs the Tower Renewal office at the city of Toronto. This week, her office hosted the latest in a series of meetings with property owners to share ideas, and the event on green urbanization featuring Dutch researchers and municipal officials. That international advice – as with the good European examples that inspired Stewart's career in renewal – show the scope of the issues and their possible solutions.

"There are cities around the world that are facing exactly the same challenges as we are," McAteer says, "and in some ways that's heartening. But there's a tremendous amount to do, and we will win one battle at a time."