Ryerson research project studies North Etobicoke high-rise towers and quality of life for immigrant newcomers.
Toronto’s downtown is booming, with cranes building glittering high-rise condo towers on practically every block. But in many areas outside the core, high-rise housing has seen significant disinvestment over several decades. This has left many housing towers and their surrounding neighbourhoods in poor condition and with inequitable access to urban opportunities or health supportive infrastructure. Assistant Professor Sara Edge–along with her colleagues Sutama Ghosh, Ann Marie Murnaghan and graduate student Emily Brown of Ryerson’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies–asks how these conditions are affecting residents, particularly the city’s immigrant newcomers.
Thanks to the support of RBC, Edge and her team has spent the last two years studying the conditions of neglected high-rise buildings and surrounding local environments in North Etobicoke/Rexdale, a diverse neighbourhood home to a high percentage of lower-income immigrants. The team has documented the buildings’ problems, such as unreliable plumbing, infestations, access/mobility barriers, overcrowding, etc. with emphasis on gathering first-person accounts of residents’ lived experiences and working with local community-based service providers to collect and share data.
What they’ve discovered paints a striking picture of urban need, and substandard conditions that unduly impact newcomers, low-income residents and visible minorities. They’ve also found stories of resilience and innovation.
“We have a lot of data on how the conditions of the buildings and neighbourhood impacts health and welfare…but our research extends beyond a focus on individuals or families in isolated units, and examines the broader scaled impacts of substandard housing. Taken together, building conditions affect whole neighbourhoods. So, in a disinvested place you start to see potential school closures, businesses failing, predatory lending coming in while banking institutions leave the area, less frequent buses along certain routes, as well as public health issues and social isolation,” says Edge.
The research is contributing to the growing base of evidence on healthy built environments and improved life quality for people, and asserts the importance of applying an equity and inclusion lens to these studies.
But as Edge says, “a large part of our project is focused on the ‘so, now what?’ piece.” The team is examining opportunities for increasing the participation of immigrant residents in shaping the revitalization of the area. This could be through, for example, processes involved in Community Benefit Agreements (negotiated concessions with prospective urban developers), or dealing with slumlords who are unwilling to make improvements through resident advocacy groups or municipal support programs. “We are identifying the barriers unique to different newcomer populations to overcome, and making recommendations on how to better support their inclusion,” Edge says.
Despite decades of disinvestment, there are positive stories of change happening in North Etobicoke/Rexdale.
“A number of local organizations, such as the Rexdale Community Hub and Rexdale Women’s Centre (a key community partner in the study), provide services to the community, including settlement and integration services,” says Edge. “In some high-rise towers, whole units have been converted into meeting spaces to support community-organizing, community kitchens, social events or resident-based microenterprises. Or some towers are integrating community gardens through support by initiatives such as the City’s Tower Renewal Project attempting to inject revitalization into this community.”
Edge notes that gentrification will soon be an additional challenge to the area, as unaffordability pushes people outward from Toronto’s core areas, and as new services like the Finch West LRT and new commercial enterprises (ex. the Woodbine Casino) enter the area.
“It will be important for planners and developers to make sure these developments uplift the whole community, not just a subset of people, or tourists and students passing through.”
When asked if this research is applicable to other areas of the city, she says, “That’s the next step. To expand our social and spatial analysis of how trends vary across the city, and compare how core housing need correlates to other variables such as income, ethnicity, immigration status, voting, etc.”
Edge and her colleagues recently presented their study findings to participants, service providers, tenant advocates and residents’ associations in the Rexdale community, where they sparked ideas and exchange on how to integrate community members into neighbourhood revitalization efforts, especially the most vulnerable.
Edge commented, “Ultimately, our goal isn’t just to fix the buildings, but strengthen the community through broader equitable and inclusive neighbourhood renewal, city building and development.”
This research was made possible through a Partnership for Change: RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project Grant at Ryerson University. Dr. Edge and her colleagues are currently working on finalizing multiple journal publications, and presenting results at local and national conferences. Dr. Edge’s next goal is to organize a knowledge mobilization event based on this research project that would bring together stakeholders focused on immigrant wellbeing with those focused on city building planning and investment.