Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the second highlighted OKC’s citywide park redevelopment plan. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

1-year ago, after learning about development processes and policy mechanisms behind American public housing at an accelerated rate, I had a hair-brained whim to go explore the Canadian equivalent.

daniels-spectrumI particularly wanted to see Regent Park – Toronto’s “most notorious” public housing estate (for all the wrong reasons, if you could imagine such a thing in Canada) – which underwent an ambitious revitalization project in 2005. Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum community centre (an art gallery I believe?) recently won the UK’s prestigious Civic Trust Award, along with a bevy of other awards. This is not your grandfather’s public housing, or even Drake’s – see MTV article likening a co-appearance with the Toronto-native rapper to “a passport out of Regent Park.” The NY Times has hailed Regent Park, once a “neighborhood in despair,” as an international “model for inclusion.”

In case it seems odd (or insensitive) to “vacation” in another nation’s public housing…

  • I am very interested in the culture of public housing, which is quite rich.
  • I am very interested in the design opportunities surrounding public housing, which are limitless.
  • I am very interested in the social and equity implications of redesigning public housing, which are a double-edged sword.

Regent Park was an amazing thing to check out for all those reasons and more. It turns out that, thanks to the mixed-income composition of the replacement housing, you can find AirBnB units within Regent Park itself. It might even be the best AirBnB location in Toronto, for someone on a budget who wants a sleek rental near downtown TO.

IMG_0406

I stayed in the extremely cool Paintbox building, which is a 26-story, 282-unit mixed-income housing tower designed to evoke its namesake. In the elevators you truly rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, and from the balcony, look down on the entirety of Toronto’s vast cityscape. You also look down on Regent Park’s namesake park itself, also redesigned as an excellent space. The view was highly instructive:

The park itself integrates all the amenities you would expect on-site for 1,800 public housing units, including an aquatic center (toward the right), greenspace programmed with active- and passive-recreation spaces, the Daniels Spectrum, and a church that was preserved. The most interesting thing in these photos are the older units, what remains of Regent Park (the next phase to be replaced), across the park.

The redevelopment is replacing roughly the same number of units – 2,083 units existed in 2005, and 1,800 will be rebuilt along with another 266 off-site (“nearby”) – while 5,400 market-rate units will be introduced on-site. Those market-rate units sell for around $400,000-$500,000 for a 2br, and around $200,000 for a studio. I have been told that they are completely indistinguishable from the public housing units, although I am not sure whether the unit I stayed in was public or market; I can attest that there are no separate entrances or “poor doors.”

All in all, Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment will take 15-20 years to accomplish the following:

Y:2009 Projects916 Regent Park MP Phases 3-6Drawings00 Sit

  • Replaced RGI Rental Units: 2,083 (over 1800 in Regent Park and 266 in new buildings nearby)
  • New Affordable Rental Units: Over 210 in Regent Park and 100 in new buildings nearby by the end of Phase 2. Additional affordable rental units in future phases will be subject to funding availability.
  • Market Units: 5,400
  • Project Start Date: 2005
  • Anticipated Project Length: 15-20 years
  • Total Size: 69 acres
  • Amenities: New amenities include the Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, the new Regent Park, and the Regent Park Athletic Grounds
  • Retail Space: Freshco by Sobeys, Rogers, Tim Hortons, RBC and Main Drug Mart have moved into newly created retail space
  • Employment: 1,100

All of which looks good on paper, but looks even better in person – as it such amidst Toronto’s beautiful cityscape, replete with open modern design, green rooftops, and “red rockets” (Toronto streetcars).

Perhaps it is not only possible for public housing to raise people up, but to more importantly immerse people in an immersive community that naturally provides better social supports than a community action program ever could.

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