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Exterior of apartment buildings on Teesdale Avenue in Scarborough. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Exterior of apartment buildings on Teesdale Avenue in Scarborough. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Aging apartment towers can be humanized Add to ...

It is easy to despair about the high-rise neighbourhoods of Toronto’s inner suburbs.

Builders threw up more than a thousand apartment towers in the fifties, sixties and seventies to accommodate a growing population. They stand in vast, windswept spaces along the broad suburban avenues of Scarborough and Etobicoke. Many are showing their age, with rusting balconies, broken pavements and scruffy grounds. Built in an era of cheap fuel, they are energy sieves, badly in need of retrofit.

But, as a remarkable National Film Board project argues, giving up on them is not an option. These aging towers house more than half a million people, many of them struggling new immigrants who arrive straight from the airport with their suitcases. More than half of the city’s rental stock is in apartment towers. Tearing them down and starting over is not an option.

In One Millionth Tower, an interactive web-based documentary by director Katerina Cizek, an NFB team pulled together architects, animators and residents to imagine how to humanize these outmoded structures. The project is the latest in a series that includes the documentaries Out My Window and The Thousandth Tower. It focuses on two buildings in Kipling Towers, a cluster of 19 high-rises in North Etobicoke that houses up to 20,000 people from all over the world. The biggest groups are from Haiti, Jamaica, South Asia and, most recently, Iraq.

Residents were full of ideas. Why not do something with the bare, underused party room? Or put terraced gardens on the ravine slope? How about putting a farmers’ market in the plaza outside the buildings?

Architects refined the ideas and animators drew them up for display on the NFB’s Highrise website. In their vision, a barren tennis court surrounded by a forbidding mesh fence becomes a colourful community space reached by a wide, shallow staircase. Children scamper around a playground or shoot hoops.

Only some of this has become reality. A new playground has indeed taken shape. An Etobicoke gardening group pitched in to help lay flowerbeds. With the aid of the buildings’ owner and the city’s Tower Renewal office, the party room was spruced up for an after-school program and a dance group. Most of the rest is still only a nice idea, but the project presents a hopeful picture of what could be.

“These buildings are the future of the city, but we’ve done a pretty poor job of supporting these neighbourhoods,” said Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects at a panel discussion on Tuesday.

Making the towers more livable, he argues, is not as impossible as it seems. At one apartment project in Berlin, builders removed the ground-floor apartments, put in a small restaurant and added an awning and a terrace. In Moscow, a pedestrian mall and shopping complex brought the buzz of street life to a vast housing project. In Amsterdam, new bike paths connect once-isolated clusters of high-rises.

With government money in short supply, Mr. Stewart concedes, “we’re not going to get a billion-dollar program” to fix Toronto’s towers. The Tower Renewal office, set up in 2008 and championed by former mayor David Miller, consists of just four people. But most of the towers are structurally strong and, at a relatively modest price, “they could be viable for another generation.”

A little effort and ingenuity of the kind displayed in the NFB project could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of the city’s most disadvantaged residents. “If you just drive by,” says one Kipling Towers dweller in the NFB doc, “you may just see a high-rise building that is ugly. But for us, this is home.”

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