On a stretch of Kipling Avenue between Finch and Steeles there are 19 postwar apartment buildings on the east side of the street forming a superblock of concrete towers.
"If each tower has 1,000 people, just on average, that's 19,000 people," says Pritvanti Patel, who lives in one of the high-rises. "But none of them has a medical clinic."
That's because these apartment neighbourhoods are zoned only for residential use – almost all commercial activity is prohibited on-site.
This spring, city council will consider the first step toward changing this scenario, with the introduction of a new zoning category: the residential apartment commercial (RAC) zone. Endorsed by the city's planning and growth management committee in October, it would allow for small-scale retail and community services in these neighbourhoods.
Poverty tends to be concentrated in these isolated tower clusters in the inner suburbs, like Kipling and Finch, where access to goods and services requires a car. These aging high-rise neighbourhoods are home to more than a million people across the GTA. And according to Toronto public health, the lack of shops and services is having a negative effect on the well-being of their residents: they have higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases, like diabetes.
Removing zoning barriers has been a primary goal of the Tower Renewal project, the city's long-term plan to revitalize high-rise areas.
These tower clusters, which were built between the 1950s and 1980s for middle-income residents, were seen originally as the preferred alternative to downtown living. Surrounded by an expanse of green space, these "towers in park" were just a short drive away from shops and amenities. But as the city's demographics shifted, apartment high-rises became the de facto source of affordable housing, especially for recent immigrants, many of whom do not own cars.
"The idea of segregated uses doesn't work any more," says Graeme Stewart, an associate at ERA Architects (one of the firms involved with Tower Renewal) and a co-author of a recent Toronto public health report, Toward Healthier Apartment Neighbourhoods. "The irony is that thousands of people live in apartment neighbourhoods but when you go there, often they feel like ghost towns."
The RAC zone would bring a "small-village quality to tower clusters," says Monica Campbell, the director of healthy public policy at Toronto public health. Businesses, like a green grocer or hair salon, could open on the ground floor; common rooms could be rented out for exercise classes or health-care services; and temporary structures, like outdoor markets and food trucks, could fill the open space around the towers.
Integrating these mixed uses into apartment neighbourhoods would not only increase access to vital goods and services, but it could also create jobs, foster entrepreneurship and build a stronger sense of community, says Elise Hug, project manager at the Tower Renewal Office. "The most correlated factor to people's overall health is socio-economic status. So if you can help people in the neighbourhood get better access to jobs and employment, you're also going to be, overall, impacting their health."
Ms. Patel has been working with several tenants in her building and the one next-door to find ways of improving their communities. A daycare centre, medical clinic and co-operative grocery store top their list. They also want to see more recreational programs for children.
"We need to have different facilities on-site," says Hadi Hamza, who lives with his wife and three children in one of the Kipling high-rises. "It's not that we are lazy. But we need to have the resources near us."
City staff are now looking at potential apartment neighbourhoods where the RAC zone could be applied. "Some are probably more suited than others to undergo this change," says Joe D'Abramo, the acting director of zoning bylaw and environmental planning. If the planning committee approves the recommendations, the bylaw will go to city council for a vote in April.
North of Kipling and Finch, there are signs of change. Mr. Hamza and Ms. Patel beam as they show off the children's playground and hopscotch pad that were recently installed outside their highrises. There are also plans to spruce up a derelict tennis court, the concrete cracked after years of neglect. Ms. Patel says most people who go by the area see only buildings. "But for us, they are homes."