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Kitchens are available for use around the clock and fridges are set up so families can keep food separate from others at the new Ronald McDonald House, which officially opened Nov. 18 2011, in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Kitchens are available for use around the clock and fridges are set up so families can keep food separate from others at the new Ronald McDonald House, which officially opened Nov. 18 2011, in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)


Toronto has grown into a new label: the compassionate city Add to ...

There are myriad ways to label a city. We’re already hip to the livable city (previously Vancouver, now Melbourne), the eco-friendly city (Curitiba), the charismatic city (Paris), the highest-density city (Dhaka), the mosh-up city (New York) and the new metropolis (Shanghai). Toronto has been variously labelled, scoring high marks for its livability and suffering from that squirm-inducing title of “world-class city” ascribed by that curiosity of a mayor, Mel Lastman.

Toronto warrants an updated label. For here is a place where cultures from around the world are integrated, where a civil society accepts and even embraces difference. In many ways, according to the 2011 Corporate Knights Sustainable Cities survey, Toronto has become a gentle, noble teacher, the nation’s top performer for ecological integrity, economic security, infrastructure, built environment, governance, empowerment and, perhaps most notably, social well-being.

In Toronto, people have each other’s back. That’s what I have come to conclude after years of watching what and how citizens are building for each other. Our green-glass condo towers aside, Toronto has blossomed into a compassionate city, the kind that’s giving physical form to the desire to nurture holistically the spirit, mind and body of every citizen.

Just north of Queen Street East on Jarvis Avenue, the Salvation Army’s Harbour Light illuminates through architecture. Years in the planning, constructed for $19-million and designed by Donald Schmitt of Diamond + Schmitt, with project architect Thom Pratt, the facility sits quietly on a corner lot with an epic Sanctuary Room defined on the exterior by a thick wall of acrylic backlit to create a holy glow at night. Andrew Lennox, a senior vice-president at Scotiabank, led the charge on the Harbour Light board for the past decade. Though the Salvation Army manages several hundred beds for the homeless in the downtown east side, this five-storey brick facility uses finely crafted architecture and sustaining washes of natural light to provide an inspiring environment. Outdoor gardens are designed to gently transition men and women coming in from the streets. Clients gather in bright dining spaces on every floor. There are 98 mini housing suites and another 96 rooms for those undergoing a 14-week addiction treatment program. A sophisticated mechanical ventilation system prevents the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis.

The Sanctuary, designed to circulate 100 per cent fresh air, is entirely clad with horizontal slats of red oak – it honours the 300 people who gather there for meals on Sundays, but it could easily double as an event space for a gala. “It’s not just a big room – it’s warm and welcoming and all of that mattered to the Salvation Army. And they were willing to invest in it,” says Mr. Schmitt.

Ronald McDonald House, which opened this month on what used to be a massive surface parking lot south of the University of Toronto campus, is a remarkable hybrid of grace and civility designed to function as an urban hotel and as a refuge of wellness. The four-storey brick building is roomy enough to accommodate 81 families who travel with their children to Toronto to receive treatment at Sick Kids Hospital or Mount Sinai. There are 309 Ronald McDonald wellness facilities in the world, but the one in Toronto is the largest.

Behind a low stone wall and an artful wrought-iron gate, there’s a freshly planted birch tree garden, river rocks and a water feature that “washes away the sounds of the city,” says lead design architect Robert Davies, a principal of Montgomery Sisam Architects Inc. The building slices between the birch garden, designed by PMA Landscape Architects, and a protected quadrangle featuring barbecue stations and a playhouse in the shape of a tepee and clad in Baltic birch and maple. Inside, natural light washes over the space; the walls are painted apple green or deep orange and, in addition to the fitness and play rooms, there are lounge areas located directly outside the bedrooms so that parents can put their children to bed and relax within earshot. The board at the Toronto Ronald McDonald House had an extraordinary vision: It was no longer acceptable to turn away 70 per cent of the applications they received. Not only is the facility much bigger, it’s now a sophisticated, calming zone. There’s even an airy schoolroom overlooking the courtyard where siblings of the sick children can keep up their schoolwork.

Some 80 out-of-town families with children with cancer (30 per cent), organ transplants (20 per cent) and various other serious diseases can be accommodated here. Most will come from Ontario, others from elsewhere in Canada, and many will be aboriginal families from the North. It cost $33-million for the construction, design and outfitting of the building, but there were plenty of favours called in: Furniture and microwaves were donated by the builder, Deltera; and the construction arm of real-estate group Tridel managed to find some discounts on materials, such as concrete, being used on other, much larger projects. Construction workers rallied together to raise $7,500 to help the cause. (Tridel founder Leo DelZotto is a good friend of George Cohon of McDonald’s.)

“The Hippocratic Oath,” says Mr. Davies, who used to follow his father, a doctor, on his rounds on Saturday mornings, “is to relieve suffering. The environment too can play a role in the healing process. If you can feel calm, repose and being comforted – that will help you be restored.”

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