Our Digital Citizenship HIGHRISE project  — about the digital lives of highrise residents around the world (see here) is growing more relevant by the day.

This week, on the world stage, the digital is colliding with the vertical in a story that is grabbing front-page headlines in India. HIGHRISE team members, Paramita Nath, and Prof Deborah Cowen, recently headed a research trip on digital citizenship in Mumbai, and here’s a dispatch, with Paramita’s images and Deb’s words.


MUMBAI — At eleven am on the 11th of November 2013, Mumbai’s municipal government prepared for yet another mass eviction of its citizens. Hundreds of police barricaded the streets, followed by hundreds more from the demolition team. Oversize military-style paddy wagons and massive bulldozers rolled into the area, met by residents and a sea of reporters from all of India’s major news outlets. Residents were arrested, along with a number of politicians who had joined them in their fight.

Already garnering front-page coverage across India for weeks, what made this incident standout from the long string of violent evictions in this city was the social standing of residents. Campa Cola is not a slum settlement but a largely middle class apartment complex in a gentrifying neighbourhood of the city.

A surprising target for demolition, the story of the Campa Cola complex is increasingly common. Recently revealed is the astonishing fact that almost half of all constructions in Mumbai of the last decade are illegal. The exact figure, obtained by activists through India’s recent Right to Information Act (RTI), is staggering. More then 56,300 buildings in Bombay hold this same status, and so could face a similar fate.

RTI is one impressive new technology in the struggle over urban land in a country where corruption is common and authority often arbitrary. But it is not the only new tool – social media has also become a powerful weapon. The youth of Campa Cola led an elaborate campaign on facebook, twitter, and ‘whatsapp’ that catapulted their saga to the center of national public debate. These well connected residents and their tech savvy kids mobilized the support of a wide cross section of Indian society. Through their Facebook page, people from as far away as Dubai, Iran, Australia, the US and the UK also signed their petition and supported their campaign. Official support from all the major political parties followed.

And yet, despite all this, a standoff that lasted for hours started as the dense morning smog lifted from the Worli neighbourhood, and the slow work of taking homes apart eventually began.

If the figures of Mumbai’s illegal buildings are surprising, the story becomes even more staggering in the rapidly spreading suburbs that surround the city. In areas like Mira Road to the north, more then eighty percent of buildings are ‘illegal’ and a whole economy is emerging around the demolition and reconstruction of apartment towers that are often only a few years old. Ironically, these suburbs are increasingly home to people displaced from the city through forced evictions tied to urban renewal schemes, by skyrocketing real estate prices that are now firmly inserted into globalized land markets, and historically – because of the riots. Displaced from the downtown, residents are often then displaced from their new vertical suburban homes, only to find themselves temporarily re-housed in buildings that are also ‘illegal’. Highrise residents have become pawns in an elaborate economy of illegality.

Far from exceptional, Campa Cola’s illegal status has become something of a norm in the new Mumbai. A feature of real estate capital run wild, of staggering rents through international financial speculation, of deepening economic and political polarization, and of deep seated corruption in a city where a powerful ‘builder-authority nexus’ acts as judge, jury and execution in the making of urban space.

Bold proposals from municipal and state authorities and their corporate partners, taking funds and directives from the World Bank, aim for total transformation of the city’s built form and social geography. With lofty visions of transforming ‘Mumbai into Shanghai’, the city’s concept plan proposes massive across-the-board hikes in density to accommodate an imagined population of 44 million by 2052. Increasingly, slum settlements are transformed into vertical spaces through schemes that put highrise ‘slum rehabilitation projects’ in their place, regularizing their legal status. This makes the Campa Cola case even more curious.

The official explanation for the planned demolition of the Campa Cola towers’ illegality is ‘Floor Space Index violation’ (known simply as ‘FSI violation’)– meaning that they exceed the allowed density for the site. The municipality sentenced everything above the fifth floor for destruction. For some of the buildings this would mean demolition of a handful of floors, while other towers will see as many as 12 and 15 stories shaved off the top. All this is underway, ironically, as authorities engineer plans for a newly and intensely vertical urban form.

Residents learned the details of their buildings’ illegal status in 2005 – more then twenty-five years after its construction. They have been living in the complex since that time, making the suddenness of the situation absurd and the timing questionable.

Why this building and why now? Until recently, the municipality was happy to collect taxes and look the other way. But residents point out that things changed when a developer purchased an adjacent lot. This neighboring site, never legally severed from theirs, has no density allowance by virtue of the overdevelopment of Campa Cola. The developer next door stands to gain the density to be recycled through demolition. Inheriting FSI is as good as the gift of gold. The language of ‘land grab’ circulates widely in Bombay these days.

After elaborate protest and legal challenge, the fate of the complex was unclear after the Supreme Court issued a stay delaying decisions for seven months. Renewed eviction notices were recently delivered to the residents with a deadline of May 31 to vacate the premises. The Supreme Court declined a further stay on evictions, but residents have been granted one more chance to make their case before the Supreme Court on June 3rd.

The ironies of ‘illegality’ are bitter. Despite lip service and a proliferation of policy, little is done to shelter Mumbaikers from a string of recent building collapses – most of which have been illegal, or to house the many millions who live on streets and in slums.

Without a doubt, the violence committed against people living in poverty in the struggle over urban space is far more brutal – actual rather then potential – and often lethal. Slum settlements of many thousands have been raized repeatedly without any significant media attention or parallel consideration by the courts – but so too have suburban towers that house a growing share of the city’s population, including large numbers of the new suburban poor. There are no guarantees that the intervention that could come on behalf of the Campa Cola residents would in any way benefit poor people in similar situations without valiant political organizing. Nevertheless, the Campa Cola conflict and the epidemic of ‘illegality’ crafts important precedent for this megalopolis, where the vulgar use of law and land for profit sculpts the future shape of the city.

Deborah Cowen is Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Planning at the University of Toronto. Paramita Nath is an independent documentary filmmaker. They are both part of the HIGHRISE project.


Today at SXSW, HIGHRISE is proud to announce a new collaborative project with The New York Times. It’s an interactive documentary series, called A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE.

It all began last year, when HIGHRISE was approached by Jason Spingarn-Koff, the commissioning editor of the NYT Op-Docs section, a remarkable new forum at the paper for short, opinionated point-of-view documentaries.

Jason’s idea was that we might do to something about highrises in the city of highrises – New York City. Meanwhile, we at HIGHRISE had always wanted to do a “short history of the highrise” around the world. So when Jason offered to open up the NYT undigitized photo archives (a collection of 5-6 million photographs) to us, Gerry, the HIGHRISE Senior Producer, and I were really intrigued by this incredible opportunity for deep collaboration.

I spent a week in the archives, affectionately known as “The Morgue.” It’s 3 floors underground below Times Square — no cell phone connection, no internet down there, time warp to circa 1995  — with the formidable archivist Jeff Roth. Jeff pulled thousands of photographs for me in file folders organized by, um, building names. Many of these stunning images, portraying the triumphalist rise of the city in the 20th century, have not been seen for decades.

I pulled over 500 photographs, and over the next several months, began assembling a series of (very) short films, spanning 2,000 years of human high-rise history. We are supplementing the collection with additional visual research by the crackerjack team of Elizabeth Klinck and Jivan Nagra.

Above, the “Morgue” and my library cart of file folders of photos.

And, we are thrilled to have the ace team at Helios Design Lab as our animators on this project.

There’s a whole other aspect to this: The New York Times social media department is putting out a call for submissions from the paper’s readers, who can submit their own photos depicting their lives and experiences in and around high-rises from around the world. From these images, we’ll create the final chapter of our whirlwind tour of the highrise history. Upload your photos here

Last but certainly not least, we are also working with the New York Times interactive team to build the whole thing as an interactive cinema experience. Extremely exciting.

Check out The NYT press release.

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE will premiere later this spring at and subsequently at and distributed internationally across many platforms. Watch for news here.

Check out some of the press coverage of our announcement: BBC Click, a mention in The Globe and Mail,, Playback, Chinokino, and idocs.


Picture 6

Still image from recently found footage: An uncle’s self-documentation 20 years ago with a super 8 film camera in a Toronto highrise.

This remarkable footage is providing clues for Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam,  HIGHRISE community media coordinator,  in her documentary about the mysteries of her uncle’s immigration to Canada, and his struggle with mental health issues. I asked Maria to guest blog about how she found the footage, her uncle, and how it unexpectedly relates to HIGHRISE.


My father was convinced he had no films of his brother Pandi. While I was interviewing him on camera, he insisted on showing a box with a super-8 projector in it that belonged to Pandi. He had barely put his hand inside the box when he came across a smaller box, with a roll of developed film inside!

To our surprise the projector was working. We were taken aback by dizzying shot of his shoes from above. Pandi is standing on the balcony of his highrise apartment by Yonge and Eglinton. There’s a sudden  a low-angle of his face with a beautiful view of the city in the background and the CN Tower.  He appears intense and solitary, yet empowered —it was probably the first time he had ever shot with a film camera.

My father had never seen any films his brother had created, nor had never visited Pandi’s apartment.  Pandi’s life in Toronto was a complete mystery to us as he started developing symptoms of bipolar disorder. “Wow, it’s as if he’s looking at us,” cried my father in awe. Pandi is letting us in. He continues to film around his small, empty apartment, revealing a framed photo of his parents, playing with focus on a figuring of a royal mounty police bear. He must have just moved in. Like many newcomers to Canada, a highrise building was his first home in Toronto. He had moved there with his friend in 1993 to start earning a living.

Pandi had been living in Chennai, India where he was having trouble finding a job in the film industry. He believed Toronto was the city that could help him pursue better opportunities in film, but ended up working in a car manufacturing firm and working long hours. The building he lived in was privately owned,  and occupied by many Indians and Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. At the time, Yonge and Eglinton was a common area for new immigrants,  because of the low-rent apartments.

I could relate Pandi’s film to the National Film Board’s HIGHRISE, a multiyear, multiplatform initiative that explores vertical living in the global suburbs. The stories that I witnessed and participated in creating for HIGHRISE’s web-documentaries Thousandth Tower and Out My Window are private and colourful experiences inside residents’ apartments that depict the phenomenon of urban growth, not only from global but personal points of view. In Thousandth Tower, the residents we worked with in two highrises on Kipling Avenue, Toronto combined photographs, text and audio to describe their experiences of living in the buildings.

Although they all had different ideas of home, each revealed a strong connection to their cultural roots. In these particular highrises 97% of the people were born outside of Canada (Digital Citizenship Survey, HIGHRISE). Themes that arose from their photos were dichotomies of belonging and loneliness, comfort and insecurity, success and struggle.

Similarly, Pandi’s film gives me a glimpse of a transitory phase in his life, a time of a new kind of independence and personal growth. The objects he chose to highlight in his film may seem trivial, but to me, had some importance to him.  The framed photograph of his parents appears again in another film that we recently discovered of his, and in a sense becomes a personal motif—a reminder of home.

I also think about all the moves from small towns to urban centres that Pandi had made in his life, and how they had affected him. I came across a publication from Colombia University “The urban environment and mental disorders: Epigenetic states nearly a century of research has shown higher risk of mental disorder among persons living in urban versus rural areas, and that there are links between particular features of the urban environment, such as concentrated disadvantage, residential segregation and social norms, which contribute to the risk of mental illness.”

My aunts spoke to me about how difficult it was for Pandi to adjust to their new way of life in Chennai, the overpopulated capital of Tamil Nadu. They were previously living in Poondi, a small rural town where there father was working as a senior hydrologist. In Chennai, their father was under a lot of stress in a new position and struggled to provide for his family financially. Pandi who was doing poorly in high school dropped out and began working odd jobs.

This sparked me to question the increasing urbanity of the world’s population and its implications on mental health. In the Kipling highrises, we met many families that were in transition all their lives. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be constantly moving, starting over, again and again. Every time I watch Pandi’s film, I witness the meditative and liberating power of holding a camera. For Pandi, using the camera to experiment and explore seemed like a pleasant way to exercise his creative abilities and break from the daily pressures of the city.

— Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam,
director of IMPRINTS (working title)
and Community Media Co-ordinator, HIGHRISE



It’s the HIGHRISE summer of transformation –  in virtual as well as in physical space. This month, as the HIGHRISE team toils away on computers building our new HTML5 documentary set in a virtual landscape, on the physical HIGHRISE site, there’s also some “real” building going on: new outdoor play-spaces for families and children.

Our HTML5 documentary, One Millionth Tower (formerly known as the 2000th Tower), re-imagines a dilapidated HIGHRISE neighbourhood in a Toronto suburb. But the story and space could be almost anywhere, as global modernist highrise buildings, the most commonly built form of the last century, are aging and falling into disrepair, all over the planet. it’s a hyper-local story with global relevance. (maybe its hyper-glocal?)

In our story, HIGHRISE residents join forces with architects to envision a more human-friendly environment around their vertical homes. Then the magic of animation and cutting edge open-source technology, brings their drawings to life in a virtual 3D space on the web.

Meanwhile, on the ground, at the site of the real HIGHRISE, on which our 3d virtual space is modeled, lots is in the works physically too. It’s all fueled by the momentum of our two current projects there (One Millionth Tower and the recent Digital Citizenship Survey) but mostly by the force of incredibly committed residents, E.R.A. architects, the United Way, the City of Toronto (both Tower Renewal and Children’s Services) as well as the property manager.

Last weekend, all parties got together to construct 6 picnic tables for the site. it’s a small, low-cost but important first step towards transforming the outdoor space around the buildings.

Rexdale ANC High Rise Event - 065

Architects from ERA join forces with residents to build picnic tables.

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Recently moved in resident Salam Younan, 47, was coming home from a night shift at a local furniture factory, when he saw all the picnic table commotion. He pitched in and stayed most of the day to contribute his carpentry skills. Trained as plumber back home in Iraq, Salam has been living in the building only 2 months, but said “I will do anything to help all the people who live here.” A growing community of Iraqi Christians is moving into the buildings, many are U.N. sponsored refugees.

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Faith, long-time resident and One Millionth Tower collaborator, face-paints during picnic table event.

The mood was jubilant for another reason. The residents have just been granted a brand new playground from the American non-profit, KaBoom. The new playground will be built in a day (August 18th) by hundreds of volunteers from across the city, as well as a team of residents.

KaBoom’s mission, according to their website, is to address “The Play Deficit. Our children are playing less than any previous generation, and this lack of play is causing them profound physical, intellectual, social, and emotional harm. The Play Deficit is an important problem, and it is imperative that we solve it to ensure our children have long, healthy, and happy lives.”

“It’s a gift that’s fallen from the sky,”said Eleanor, a long time resident and social animator at the United Way’s ANC community engagement office, located in the building.

But the residents have been working hard towards this moment. In the last months, they’ve  been mobilizing around the need for a playground. The old playground equipment, nearly 40 years old, was rusting and dangerous.


One of two old playground sites at the highrise.

Two months ago, in an historic meeting between residents and the property manager, everyone agreed to take down the old equipment, and to move towards realizing some of the ideas presented in One Millionth Tower, starting with play-space.

Around that time, we were also conducting the HIGHRISE Digital Citizenship Survey, which revealed astounding statistics about the demographics of the 2 buildings. We discovered that over 50% of the people at the two highrises are under the age of 20. And that 25% are under 10 years of age.

The numbers were telling us what all the residents already knew: hundreds and hundreds of kids with nowhere to play.

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Kids shelter from the heatwave, under a makeshift clubhouse, above the highrise parking lot.

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If all goes well, virtual and physical interventions, all powered by imagination, will change the space in the coming months and years, and perhaps inspire other cities to do the same with their highrises, the most commonly built architectural form in the last century.

One Millionth Tower, an HTML5 documentary set in a virtual landscape, will be launched in the Fall.


image credits:
illustration from One Millionth Tower, by Lillian Chan, Howie Shia and Kelly

picnic table build photo, courtesy United Way

Salam builds a table, by Kat Cizek

Faith facepaints, by Kat Cizek
Old Playground, by Jamie Hogge
Makeshift Clubhouse, by Kat Cizek



As the last of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green highrises comes down this month, we catch up with David Schalliol, the photographer and interviewer who brought us the moving story from Chicago for HIGHRISE/Out My Window.

“The Chicago portion of HIGHRISE/Out My Window tells the story of Donna and Brittany, a mother and daughter who are wrestling with an uncertain future in Cabrini Green, the city’s last highrise family public housing development. When interviewed at the end of 2009, their only certainty was their building was to be demolished sometime soon. They were going to have to find another place to live after a lifetime in the community. They were issued emergency eviction notices in May 2010 and moved to a housing development on the South Side less than a month later. Their old building, the second-to-last remaining high-rise, was already undergoing demolition preparation work.

Watching Cabrini Green Demolition in Progress

Now the demolition of the last Cabrini-Green high-rise is currently under way. More media attention than usual has been trained on the neighborhood, and for the first time in decades, the stories are less about crime and more about community. There is some recognition that what is happening in this near North Side neighborhood is significant, at least for community members.

When former residents turned out to say farewell to the last building on the eve of the demolition, video cameras were rolling, and TheBrigade Stamps performance was cut in with footage of people saying goodbye to their former neighborhood. The last high-rise would soon be gone.

One surprising story has been about Project Cabrini Green, an art installation that arose out of a collaboration with Chicago artists, arts organizations and Cabrini-Green youth. The project installed 134 blinking lights in the building that represent poems written by area children. Every night, the lights blink in conversation as the building is slowly erased by the demolition team.

Despite the increased media attention, at least one significant element of the demolition has been underappreciated. Many of the Chicago Housing Authority’s developments have been located in high-visibility locations. They’ve loomed over highways, hugged sports arenas, and in the case of Cabrini Green, been a short walk from the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast, the city’s most fashionable shopping and residential districts.

Cabrini Green and the Magnificent Mile

With each daily commute, trip to the store or opportunity to cheer on the city’s athletic heros, the highrises of the Chicago Housing Authority were a physical reminder of the stark inequalities in one of the United States’ most segregated cities.

As Close as They Get

CHA residents are much less visible now. For the few who will live in new mixed-income developments, which place CHA residents side-by-side with those paying market-rates or receiving more limited subsidies, integrated poverty will become a new fact of life. But for now, many Cabrini-Green residents are moving into communities that are located farther from the city’s centers of power and into communities with residents who share many of the residents’ demographic characteristics.

Moving Out of Cabrini Green

When the last Cabrini highrise is demolished, there is a real possibility that they will be out of sight and out of mind, forgotten by those who will likely never live in subsidized housing. Community groups and politicians will continue to wrestle with issues of public housing, but many Chicagoans won’t be reminded by the high-rises any longer.

Far from the Magnificent Mile, Donna’s family is now settled in their new home. Like so many of the remaining CHA buildings, it is a lowrise.”

Cleaning Wentworth Gardens



A still from the Rodney King Tapes, from the documentary *Seeing is Believing*.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of the first modern acts of citizen journalism — and it all started out a highrise window.

In March 1991, George Holliday heard police sirens and commotion out his 2nd floor bedroom window. He picked up his new consumer video camera and from his balcony, filmed the confrontation unfolding ninety feet below on a LA highway. He recorded almost 10 minutes of tape: four white LAPD police officers brutally beating Rodney King, a black man, but it was one minute of the footage that would be broadcast on TV around the world, and would spark the “Handicam Revolution.”

The images, “the Rodney King Tapes,”  became shocking evidence of police brutality in the public gaze of television, and they were used in the first court trial by the prosecution  – as well as the defense. The images were slowed down, frame by frame, and used by the police lawyers to explain how the police officers had “followed police protocol.”

When the four officers were acquitted in 1992, South Central Los Angeles erupted in what came to be known as the “LA Riots” resulting in 54 deaths, over 2382 injuries, 7000 fires, over 12 000 arrests, and over 1 billion dollars of property damage.

It was only in a second trial and a Federal Grand Jury that found the officers guilty in 1993.

The footage, its use, impact and legacy – and the political impetus to use video technology to document human rights abuses – was the subject of a film I made almost 10 years ago with co-director Peter Wintonick, called Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News.

But it was only this month that I made the connection between *the HIGHRISE window* and the genesis of citizen journalism as we know it today. It is not inconsequential that new consumer-grade communications technology, which was, in the early nineties, becoming ubiquitous and affordable, would be used in one of the originating acts of citizen journalism on a balcony of the most commonly built form of the 21st century: the highrise building. And the HIGHRISE, of course, is now the frame of my multi-year, many media exploration of the human experience in vertical suburbs around the world.

Today, we continue to witness the inextricable relationship between communications technology with people’s movements  around the globe; in these last months in North Africa and the Arab world.

I am reminded of the words of Dr. Alex Magno, a sociologist we interviewed in Manila for Seeing is Believing back in 1991: “In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology. Iran, the Iranian Revolution, was closely linked to the audio cassette. The first EDSA uprising in the Philippines was very closely linked to the photocopying machine and so we called it the ‘Xerox Revolution’. Tiananmen, the uprising that failed, was called the ‘Fax Revolution’, because the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighbourhood because of the fax machine. The [2001] January uprising here in the Philippines represents a convergence between electronic mail and text messaging. And that gave that uprising its specific characteristics.”

Today we can add to Magno’s list the powerful roles that Twitter, live video streaming on the net, Facebook and even dating sites have played in various stages of democratizing gestures in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond.

I’m also realizing we need to understand how, just like the technology, the HIGHRISE built form (which I consider a metaphor for urban density) plays into these events. Doug Saunders, the author of Arrival City, has recently made a similar compelling argument about the role of urban slum density in the Egyptian uprisings.

Inside these grey architectural structures that contain and shape our human, urban experience, lies the power of ingenuity, social innovation and communal force to harness and usurp our available technologies (and points-of-view) to transform them into historic, profoundly contemporary political acts.

More tributes and thoughts on Rodney King 20 year later here, here and at

POVERTY IS VERTICAL – and the elevators are terrible


Toronto’s poverty is increasingly vertical according to a landmark United Way study, published last week.

(In the context of the report’s release, I am interviewed about HIGHRISE  in this week’s issue of Eye Weekly.)

The United Way report says “Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty presents new data on the growing concentration of poverty in the City of Toronto and the role that high-rise housing is playing in this trend. The report tracks the continued growth in the spatial concentration of poverty in Toronto neighbourhoods, and in high-rise buildings within neighbourhoods. It then examines the quality of life that high-rise buildings are providing to tenants today. Its primary focus is on privately owned building stock in Toronto’s inner suburbs.” The report is downloadable here.

The first  part of the study looks at the last 25 years of census data to track the concentration of poverty in the inner suburbs, and in particular, highrise buildings. The study shows that while incomes have declined, rents have increased since 1981. ”

“As a result of this “squeeze” on incomes and rents, close to half of the tenants surveyed say they worry about paying the rent each month. Another third say their families do without necessities, including food. Highrises also became more densely populated during this time with the percentage of units housing more than one person per room doubling.”

According to a front page story in The Toronto Star, “The report, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada… calls on the public, private and charitable sectors to properly maintain highrise housing and provide community space and programs for tenants. With demand for rental housing in Toronto predicted to grow by another 20 per cent by 2031, action is urgently needed, the report warns.”

The second part of the study gives a snapshot of current housing conditions in the 1,000+ highrises in Toronto. United Way surveyed 2,803 highrise tenants in the city’s inner suburbs, and conducted a series of focus groups.

The results do not surprise anyone who has spent any time recently in a Toronto suburban highrise. One key finding of special note to us at HIGHRISE relates to elevators.

“[T]heir elevators are so unreliable that a United Way report … calls for a task force specifically targeting their repair. Thousands of interviews with residents indicate these buildings have grown notorious for vermin and vandalism,” notes The Globe and Mail.

Elevators were the focus of one of Jamal’s stories in our own HIGHRISE documentary last year, called THE THOUSANDTH TOWER. This is what Jamal had to say about his highrise experience with elevators:

Picture 2

JAMAL: “Growing up in Rexdale has been a challenge. I saw a lot at the age of 7, my first year living here. From what I can remember, the building has always been decrepit. The elevator would skip floors, jumping and jolting, moving up and down. I used to wonder if we would survive if the elevator dropped from the 13th floor to B2. I was so terrified when my family went in there. I had disturbing thoughts that they wouldn’t come out. To this day, I’m scared of the elevator.”

The United Way Report makes 26 recommendations, including:

* The City of Toronto continue to take a dedicated program approach to revitalizing the social and physical conditions of aging high-rise apartment buildings across the city, and sustaining this important housing resource for the city’s lower income and newcomer populations.

* The provincial government make its Community Opportunities Fund accessible to private-sector tenant groups for the purpose of engaging tenants and building their capacity to be active participants in the revitalization of their tower communities.

* The federal government to establish a National Housing Strategy which sets out standards for adequate, accessible and affordable housing.


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You may recall the significant influence that Professor David Hulchanski had on our HIGHRISE thinking. His groundbreaking 2007 research was called The Three Cities within Toronto.

Using census data from 1970-2000, Hulchanski concluded that, despite its claim to being one of the most diverse cities in the world, Toronto was no longer a city of one, but had become a city of 3 neighbourhoods, divided by  income, race and other factors. He showed that City 1 is 84% white, average household income $173,000/year. City 2 is 65% white, average household income $72,000/year. City 3 is 34% white, average household income $59,000/year.

Hulchanski proved that the city’s poverty had drifted to the peripheries of the city.

Now, just last week, he has released a new important update that concludes “If current trends continue, the City of Toronto will eventually be sharply divided into a city of wealthy neighbourhoods and poor neighbourhoods with very few middle- income neighbourhoods.”

Effectively, by 2025 , City 2 will shrink down to make up only 10% of the city, City 3 will take over 60%, leaving 30% to City 1, according to the new report.

A city of three distinct types of neighbourhoods, will become a city of two. The rich and the poor.

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A front page story about the report in Canada’s leading newpaper, The Globe and Mail, says “Toronto, a predominantly middle-class metropolis just three decades ago, is increasingly dominated by two opposite populations – one with an average income of $88,400, and another of $26,900. These two groups live in different neighbourhoods, work in different sectors, send their children to different schools and have divergent and unequal access to city services and public transit.”

But Hulchanski also argues that these changes are not inevitable.

The solution? Tower Renewal.

According to the report, “The segregation of the city by income is not inevitable or irreversible. These trends could be slowed or reversed by public policies that would make housing more affordable to low-income households, by efforts to expand access to transit and services in neighbourhoods where the need is greatest, and by renewing the aging high-rise neighbourhoods scattered throughout City #3.”

Via email, Hulchanski told me “It is in the 40% of the city where neighbourhoods have been steadily declining in average individual income and socio-economic status that half of all rental housing is in the now 40 and 50 year old towers. The research by our team adds a huge amount of evidence supporting the conclusion that a major tower renewal initiative is the most important way to not only improve the lives of so many lower income renters but to improve the quality of their neighbourhoods. The Three Cities Within Toronto report draws attention to the steady decline in 40% of the city’s neighbourhoods. There are many large and small actions that will reverse the negative trends leading to an increasingly divided city but tower renewal is the most important.

I also asked him about how his research fits into global predictions of a shrinking middle class. He said “Though many people still call themselves “middle class,” all evidence about growing inequality, the ever widening income and wealth gap between rich and poor, a process that began in the 1980s, points out that the “middle” has virtually disappeared. The middle income group can be defined, as it is in our report. We show how this group was indeed a majority in the 1970s (66% of the City’s neighbourhoods) but is now a minority (29%) and only a small and declining plurality in the outer suburbs (from 86% to 61%). This is a trend that is most pronounced in Anglo-American countries, where the income gap is much larger than in most of the Western European countries. There is a great deal of populist resentment because the majority believes they are “middle class” yet they cannot live a middle class life style. They cannot afford the expected or assumed middle class package of goods and services because they are, on average, much lower income in real terms than ten and twenty years ago. In addition, many of the goods and services provided by or subsidized by the state have been cut back or eliminated.”

It’s a stark picture for Canada’s largest city and it’s remarkable research, the kind that should be done in urban areas around the world, to address our (mis)understandings of the places we live.


Miloon Kothari is an architect who builds more than buildings, he builds human rights cases.

He spent eight years on fact-finding missions to 13 countries as the UN’s  first Special Rapporteur on Housing.

Today, HIGHRISE met him at a downtown Toronto coffeehouse, after his whirlwind lecture series at University of Toronto earlier this week.

He had just gotten off the phone with his office in New Delhi, where he is currently helping to build a case for a group of homeless people. Late last month, the group was was evicted from a tent settlement at a traffic roundabout. The temporary shelter had actually been built by one arm of the municipal government, but then torn down by another. After an article appeared  on the front page of The Times of India, a New Delhi High Court judge took interest, and is now asking a lot of questions.  If things go well, Miloon hopes, the case may become a case for all 140,000 homeless of the city.

He is also currently researching and tracking social control in the global city.

“In the last 4 to 5 years I’ve seen a proliferation of anti-vagrancy policies all over the world.” He cites Rome as an example, where it’s become illegal to eat in public. In London, he says, the “wetting-down” policy has municipal workers spraying park benches with water in the evenings to make them too wet to sleep on for the night.

And while homelessness is a global problem, Miloon is concerned that there is no global network dedicated to ending homelessness. He says its not enough to build shelters and get people into housing, we need to understand how people become homeless in the first place.

It’s all part of a global trend of increased segregation in our cities wordwide. “It’s segregation not just on the basis of race, its based on income.”

Perhaps the most stunning fact that Miloon has found, is that todaymore people in the world are displaced by development than by armed or ethnic conflict. Evictions, land-grabbing, displacement are radically reshaping the global urban landscape.

Miloon warns that as our planet quickly urbanizes, the segregation itself will lead to more conflict.

Miloon’s work at the UN, at home in Delhi, and in consultation with communities all over the planet is ground-breaking. He connects the local dots to a global big picture that our world so sorely lacks, and so desperately needs.

We’re pretty excited to continue discussions with Miloon and to find ways to collaborate with him on HIGHRISE.