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from one HIGHRISE to another

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We at HIGHRISE just screened our documentary One Millionth Tower outdoors, at a festival celebrating another highrise neighbourhood. In One Millionth Tower, highrise residents re-imagine their neighbourhood by working with architects to illustrate what’s possible in the bleak space around their buildings.

Four residents from this HIGHRISE project crossed from west-side Etobicoke, over Toronto, to the east-side suburb of Scarborough and presented at the 3rd annual Bridging Festival. It’s called that, because in its first two years, the festival was held under a local bridge that divides the community.

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“The original concept of the festival three years ago was to reconnect the community, as people felt uncomfortable crossing the bridge,” explains Tim Whalley, Executive Director of Scarborough Arts, “The idea of the festival was to turn the bridge, which was considered a barrier, back into a bridge.”

This year, the festival moved to the nearby The Scarborough Storefront, possibly one of the most remarkable community organizations I have ever known.

You might remember the Scarborough Storefront, which I visited at the very beginning of our HIGHRISE project, and featured in our Prologue. The Storefront is a collection of agencies organized in a “hub” model:  they share space, staffing and administration to bring in as many opportunities as possible under one roof to a severely service-deprived neighbourhood. It’s located in a former police station.

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It’s only 1 kilometre away from a last month’s tragic shooting, which killed 2 people and injured 20.

“The Storefront has now become a hub for discussion how to heal from those events,” said Whalley.

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Our One Millionth Tower screening was held in the parking lot of The Storefront, with a highrise towering over us.

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The One Millionth Tower residents Ob, Faith (with her daughter Tashana), Jamal and Priti had a picnic lunch in the Storefront’s community garden before the screening.

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Jamal rehearsed in the garden before going on stage with his sax. His stagename, btw, is J-Smooth.

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Priti admired the pumpkins growing on the fence.

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J-Smooth inspired the crowd with his musical improvisations.

After the screening, we talked with some of the local residents, many of whom live in the highrise directly behind the Storefront.

Zena, from the 11th floor, said she could imagine many of the ideas in the film  in her own neighbourhood.

“I recognize Etobicoke in the film right away,” said Slim, from the 10th floor, “because we used to live there. These two areas are similar, because Etobicoke has many people from India, and here its Sri Lankan. But over there, its full of nature. I used to see deer, rabbits, snakes, fish and birds. Here I see only raccoons.”

Both Zena and Slim come to the Storefront regularly to use the internet. Until this weekend, they had to walk all the way around an entire block, because of a fence between their highrise and the community centre, even though the two buildings back directly onto one another.

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But from now on, the buildings and people are more connected: this year’s Bridging Festival featured a ceremonial “fence tear down” – the fence between the buildings has been removed.

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Not surprisingly, Graeme Stewart, the Tower Renewal architect involved in HIGHRISE and One Millionth Tower, is involved in this project!

At the end of the evening, Marcia,  who lives in another highrise down the street, approached the One Millionth Tower residents and told Faith that she was considering  moving out of the neighbourhood because of the recent violence.

“We need to come together and share and learn from one another,” said Faith.

“Power comes in numbers,” Marcia agreed, and concluded by saying she wouldn’t leave the neighbourhood for one main reason: the Scarborough Storefront.

ONE MILLION COMMUTERS

Our HIGHRISE documentary, One Millionth Tower, has re-incarnated into a public art project that reaches 1.3 million subway commuters daily in Toronto, Canada.

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6 short videos adapted from the documentary and 4 specially-designed subway posters with images from the project  are currently on display throughout the Toronto underground subway system until the end of February. The 30-second videos play continuously every 10 minutes on the digital signage system, while 110 copies of the posters are on display at 59 stations throughout the city.

The project is curated by Sharon Switzer for Pattison Onestop and Art for Commuters (A4C).

The idea for the project was to hone the central concept of One Millionth Tower to its most basic, core, visual theme: to contrast the “real” Toronto highrise conditions with that of the “imagined” landscapes of the residents and architects.

Here’s some pix from my visit to the print shop with Joanna from Helios Design Lab, to check out the 6-foot tall print proofs.

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Nice article in Canada’s Globe and Mail here. Watch this space for the silent videos coming soon.

ONE MILLIONth TOWER: LIVE

One Millionth Tower has gone live — and not just on the web. Here’s some pix from recent live appearances:

LIVE AT THE GLADSTONE HOTEL
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Last week, we celebrated our new web-documentary One Millionth Tower (1MT) live at the historic Gladstone Hotel Ballroom in downtown Toronto. The highlight of the show was a saxophone performance by Jamal, one of the 1MT residents (check out the above bootleg youtube recording by Prof. Roger Keil!) Over 150 Torontonians were in attendance.

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The event was hosted by our incredible Senior Producer, Gerry Flahive, who brought 12 people to the stage, each in their own way, highlighting the collaborative nature of the project.

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Ob represented the residents on our panel, and he spoke out about the need for resident involvement in changing the landscape of our highrise environments across Toronto.

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Graeme Stewart of ERA architects took on tough questions about the mechanics and philosophy of Tower Renewal. How can it really happen? What are the real costs? Who needs to be involved?

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Elise Hug of the City of Toronto’s Tower Renewal program, spoke about need for cross-disciplinary collaboration, and how to bring many stakeholders together. She was followed by Jamie Robinson, of United Way, who gave context with the remarkable Vertical Poverty study, and the United Way’s hopes for making the Kipling buildings a demonstration site for what’s possible. Matt Thompson, Chief Storyteller at Mozilla Foundation, rounded out the panel with a great talk about the role open technology can play in city-building. Before the screening, Roger Keil talked about the highrise in the context of “the world” by introdicuing the fabulous Global Suburbanisms project he is spearheading at York University (and with whom we are partnered), while Michael McLelland of ERA Architects gave a great nutshell introduction to the legacy of apartment towers in the city of Toronto. Russell Mitchell of ANC/United Way talked about Rexdale, the neighbourhood in which we are working. Mike Robbins of Helios Design Lab also took to the stage to explain why we used open source to build 1MT.

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Somewhere in the packed house was Marcus Gee, columnist for The Globe and Mail, who then filed this great story about our project and vertical Toronto.

LIVE AT THE REAL HIGHRISE
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A week before the Gladstone, Ob, Faith, Donna and Jamal showed 1MT live to their neighbours in a moving presentation — in the very meeting room in which the project was created.

LIVE ON THE RADIO
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Jamal and Donna also hit the CBC Metro Morning airwaves live in Matt Galloway’s 3-part series dedicated to One Millionth Tower. Metro Morning is the number one morning show in Toronto.

LIVE IN AMSTERDAM
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Meanwhile, One Millionth Tower was showcased *live* in Amsterdam for the largest documentary festival in the world, IDFA, as part of the fantastic DocLab lounge. (HIGHRISE won the inaugural DocLab award there for Out My Window last year. This year the honour went to the artful web-documentary In Situ, a lyrical french project from ARTE, which is not unrelated to urban themes in HIGHRISE).

LIVE AT MOZFEST
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This is me, Kat Cizek, chuffed to be launching 1MT live at the awesome Mozilla Festival in London U.K. in front of a crowd of 4-500 brilliantly talented hackers and journalists who had gathered for the Media, Freedom and the Web Festival.

LIVE ON WEB TV
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And finally, streaming on live web-tv during an interview about 1MT at Mozfest, I had an unexpected visit from the Foxy Mozilla Fox Mascot, the true rockstar of the Mozilla Festival. Never know what can happen when you’re *live.*

Video courtesy Roger Keil, photos from the Gladstone by Marcus Matyas for the NFB, Kipling Launch and CBC Radio by Kat Cizek for the NFB, and Mozilla Festival by Sarah Arruda, for the NFB.

UPCOMING WORLD PREMIERE

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It’s a week away: our international launch of One Millionth Tower (1MT), a documentary about the HIGHRISE re-imagined.

The live events are happening in London U.K. in partnership with the phenomenal MOZILLA FESTIVAL, as this year they bring their attention to the theme of “Media, Freedom and the Web”.  And on-line too, next week, we have a truly exciting international launch that we’ll be sharing with you soon.

One Millionth Tower (watch trailer here) teams a group of highrise residents in Toronto with architects and animators to re-imagine their surroundings and transform their dilapidated highrise neighbourhood into a vibrant, resident-led community. Using cutting-edge open-source technology, this interactive documentary enables a 3D storytelling environment within a web browser, incorporating the magic of cinema, architecture and animation. A hyper-local story with a global resonance in its vision for a more human-friendly urban planet – and world wide web.

So here are the events:

Mozilla Festival Nov 4-6, 2011 – We will unveil the documentary during the KEYNOTE on Saturday Nov 5, and we’ll participate in numerous Mozillific events including Fireside chats, master classes on The Connected Documentary, as the open-source cinema guru, Brett Gaylor launches Mozilla Popcorn 1.0.

On MONDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2011, we’ll be doing a special Central London screening at the Frontline Club, presented by Mozilla and our dear friends at POWER TO THE PIXEL. I’ll be joined on stage by Brett, as well as Liz Rosenthal of PttP. If you are interested in attending, send an email to highrise@nfb.ca, seating is very limited.

Over in Amsterdam, in mid-november, One Millionth Tower is also in competition in the digital arm of the world’s largest Documentary Festival,  IDFA DocLab, where we took home the Inaugural Award for Digital Storytelling Award last year for our interactive documentary Out My Window.

Toronto launch plans for One Millionth Tower are in the works for early-December. Watch this space for more details!

FIRST GLIMPSE OF NEW HIGHRISE PROJECT

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What we’ve all been waiting for. To share with you the first glimpse (a trailer) of our new documentary project, One Millionth Tower.

ONE MILLIONth TOWER (we call it 1MT for short)
Over a billion of us live in highrises, and most are falling into disrepair. In One Millionth Tower, a group of highrise residents, together with architects, re-envisions their vertical homes, then animators & computer programmers magically bring their sketches to life in this documentary for the contemporary web-browser.

The result of this unique collaboration is a lush, visual story unfolding in a 3D virtual environment. Visitors explore how participatory urban design can transform spaces, places and minds.

One Millionth Tower will be the world’s first HTML5/webGL documentary,  powered by POPCORN, created by our good friends at Mozilla. Mozilla has been deeply supportive of our project, offering us extensive technological and philosophical support, as they lead the global open-source charge in the bridging of cinema with the web, under the helm of Brett Gaylor  (RIP Manifesto). (An interesting nerd HIGHRISE fact: Bobby Richter, the programmer behind the wizardry of HIGHRISE/Out My Window, now works on the Popcorn project at Mozilla! It is a small HIGHRISE world after all).

One Millionth Tower is engineered by the wickedly talented Mike Robbins, of HELIOS DESIGN LAB, whom we are honoured to call the HIGHRISE house band. Mike single-handedly crafted an entire virtual 3D world with his own two hands. Talk about DIY. Speaks to his genius — and the power of these new open-source libraries. The open-source world you will visit in 1MT might have taken a small army of programmers to create in proprietary software.

The actual story and images of 1MT came about through a highly collaborative process. Highrise residents. Architects. Documentarians. Animators. Drawing, imagining together. Many many hands came together to create the delightful, inspirational world of 1MT. We consider the story *hyper-global.* Deeply connected to a very specific HIGHRISE place in suburban toronto, but with global resonance in its vision for a more human-friendly urban planet — and world-wde web. It’s the HIGHRISE re-imagined. The web re-imagined.

Be the first to know when we release this highly-anticipated open-source documentary, by subscribing to this blog in the top right hand column on this page.

Also, read more background on this unique collaboration here and here.

GO TO THE TRAILER NOW >>

VIRTUAL AND PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATIONS

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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



HIGHRISE on BIG SCREENS

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It’s been a busy week at HIGHRISE, with two exciting public projections.

In Montreal, to a packed audience at the gorgeous L’Astral theatre, I had the honour of  “performing” HIGHRISE/Out My Window accompanied by 3 musicians, playing a live, improvised score. Sam Shalabi on oud, electronic guitar and electronics, Alexandre St-Onge on electric bass, upright bass and electrionics, and Will Eizlini on tabala and electronics. A magical evening, all part of the DNA Symposium at Concordia University, which was a heady mix of academics and practitioners, all discussing the intersection of Database, Narrative and Archives in the context of computer-generated story-telling. Thanks to the DNA team, and esp professors Monika Kin Gagnon and Matt Soar for creating this space for us.

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Meanwhile, in Toronto…

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…My colleagues represented HIGHRISE at the awesome annual Toronto the Good Party (put on by our partners and friends ERA Architects, Spacing Magazine and others). Technical Director Branden Bratuhin, Associate Producer Sarah Arruda, and Project Coordinator Paramita Nath talked all things HIGHRISE with good torontonians. They also gave a sneak peak (projected on the hallowed halls of Hart House) of our new project, One Millionth Tower, which we are describing for now, as a spacial film/web experience, built in HTML5 by Helios, popcorn provided by Mozilla Foundation.

We will be releasing a video documentary of the Montreal performance, and we’ll be telling you more about One Millionth Tower soon, so watch this space in coming weeks.

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photo credits:

Montreal performance by David Dufresne, duflab.com
Out My Window out DNA’s window, courtesy of DNA Symposium
Toronto the Good Party, by Paramita Nath

EARTH HOUR, TOWER RENEWAL

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In honour of Earth Hour, our photo of the week (on our front page) is out a highrise window in Seattle during “lights off!”.

Earth Hour is celebrated in urban centres around the world – it’s a symbolic 60 minutes when residents and businesses turn out their lights out inside all sorts of architectural forms: from single family homes to the skyscraping highrises of downtown New York City.

But its possible to honour the Earth every hour. The photo above is an example of it. Its a recladded Berlin highrise. There’s a myriad of concrete ways to conserve energy in our concrete towers, inside and out. The Tower Renewal movement is a fine example of environmental solutions: its an agenda to encourage the retrofitting of our aging highrises to conserve heat and energy. Simple ideas. To clad the buildings with insulation to keep the heat in. To replace the windows. To create rooftop gardens. To create regional geothermal stations that take a cluster of highrises right off the main grid. To spread the notion of Urban Agriculture. Tower Renewal has precendents in highrise neighbourhoods around the world.

And here at HIGHRISE, these are all ideas we explore daily as we put the finishing touches on our latest project, 2000th Tower. A whimsical animated film that brings to life ideas for renewal in a Toronto Highrise neighbourhood. Watch for the launch later this Spring, and in the meantime, Happy Earth Hour.

POVERTY IS VERTICAL – and the elevators are terrible

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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:

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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.

NEWS: TORONTO MIDDLE-CLASS NEIGHBOURHOODS SHRINKING

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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.