A cluster of rundown high-rises in two of Toronto's inner suburbs will be getting an injection of funds to rehabilitate shared physical space and improve living conditions.
The United Way announced Thursday a $800,000 investment in pilot projects in the Kipling-Finch and Kingston Galloway-Orton Park neighbourhoods.
United Way President and CEO Susan McIsaac says funds for the two-year pilot project will be used to rehabilitate underused community spaces and fund outdoor renewal projects like gardens and playgrounds. The organization will work with landlords, residents and community groups to identify what can be improved.
"When we work in conjunction with residents and landlords to fix things like elevators and locks and putting money into the grounds, it enhances the sense of safety and security, and creates a sense of community," she said.
The announcement follows a 2011 United Way report that identified poverty as being most concentrated in neighbourhoods outside Toronto's downtown core. The report pointed to crumbling infrastructure, vermin infestations and physical isolation as catalysts for increasing "vertical poverty" in the city. More than 40 per cent of families living in high-rise buildings are poor, the report said.
United Way will work with the East Scarborough Storefront in the Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood. In Rexdale, the Community MicroSkills Development Centre will co-ordinate efforts for the Kipling and Finch neighbourhood.
Ms. McIsaac said successful community programs and renovated spaces in the Kipling and Finch high-rises were the jumping off point for United Way's latest project.
"They have a space for kids to use computers after school, and it's also where seniors go for yoga in the morning. It's a communal space that can be used by everyone in the building."
East Scarborough Storefront director Anne Gloger said it's too early to speculate on what the final result will look like, but said residents are floating ideas about turning vacant parking lots and unused green space into a dog park or a splash pad.
"Things like benches and a performance space are also things that come up," she said. "There's a lot of talent hidden away in some of these buildings, and people want to have space where they can have a band perform, or a dance, or my personal favourite, theatre."
Significant improvement to the high-rises will also required changing outdated zoning laws. ERA Architects associate Graeme Stewart said his firm has been working with the City of Toronto and partners at the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal to update bylaws that haven't been changed since the 1960s, when the high-rises were built.
Toronto has the largest number of high-rise apartment buildings outside of New York City, but Mr. Stewart said many of them are frozen in time.
"It's illegal to do almost anything except residing," he said. "It's about creating markets, gardens, room for small businesses, or even a daycare or a tenant association to provide the kind of social capital to make these places thrive."
Mr. Stewart said that if the city doesn't invest in improving the buildings now, Toronto will lose a significant amount of affordable housing when the buildings inevitably have to be demolished.
"Either we can invest and the buildings are going to last another 50 years, or they're going to have to come down," he said. "Our push early on with this project was to say let's make sure that doesn't happen."
Ms. Golger sees the project as the first step towards incremental change in an aging neighbourhood to make the buildings as effective and efficient as possible.
"We're seeing this initial outdoor project as relationship building," she says. "The residents don't have a tenants council or anything that allows them to gather and say what do we want, what do we need, how do we get it. We're working to change that."