EcDev Journal

Building Inclusive, Sustainable Communities: Lessons Learned from the Regent Park Revitalization

Posted on Monday January 20, 2020

 

By: Mitchell Cohen, President of Daniels Corporation

Email: mitchellcohen2@me.com

 

This article is based on a keynote address to the United Nations Urban Economy Forum at York University on October 28th, 2019

 

Introduction

 

There is no doubt that building inclusive, sustainable cities is one of the fundamental challenges of our times. 

 

Over the past 35 years our company, The Daniels Corporation, has built over 30,000 homes of all shapes and sizes, for people of all ages and incomes within both suburban and urban neighbourhoods.

 

Over those years we’ve witnessed an unfortunate collaboration between government and the private sector within the suburban milieu that has resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land to very low-density development.

 

At the root of that collaboration was the thesis that a detached family home is THE symbol of success, the fulfillment of both the American and Canadian dream.

 

Unfortunately, the disconnect between home and work, and the social impact of ever-increasing commute times, have turned the dream into a nightmare for commuters.   In addition, the environmental impact is hurting all of us.

 

Although reinvention of the suburban model is necessary, today’s conversation is about getting it right in our cities, ensuring that the collaboration between government and private sector results in healthier outcomes than we’ve witnessed in suburbia.

 

 

Regent Park, Revitalization and Inclusionary Zoning

 

Over those same years, our cities have welcomed robust immigration, both from suburban neighbourhoods and from around the world. 

 

Although there have been benefits, including downtowns that are vibrant both day and night, we were NOT prepared, either from a hard infrastructure or policy perspective.

 

Yes, we knew that our urban population was going to grow significantly, but we didn’t invest in transit and we have NOT imposed inclusionary zoning to ensure affordable housing is available in perpetuity both in the urban core and inner suburbs.

 

Although many opportunities have been missed, there are many lessons learned that can inform our approach moving forward.

 

For example, there are many lessons from our experience at the Regent Park Revitalization.

 

Perhaps the first is that the revitalization of Regent Park didn’t start at City Hall or in a boardroom at Toronto Community Housing.  It started ‘on the ground’ in Regent Park, with local community voices defining the principles of revitalization.  Foremost among those principles was a ‘right of return’, an acknowledgment that tenants would move out to make way for demolition, but with a right to come ‘home’ to a new mixed use and mixed-income community.

 

An important second lesson is that the City, hand in hand with local residents, created a Social Development Plan that would guide the development of a sustainable social infrastructure.  Historically, zoning by-laws have been the primary roadmap.  In this case, however, the Social Development Plan is THE defining document, distinguishing this ‘revitalization’ from neighbourhood renewal projects around the world.   

 

The Social Development Plan, in fact, defines the difference between gentrification and revitalization.  With gentrification, marginalized people and families are pushed further to the margins.  In a revitalization, local residents are embraced as true partners at every stage of the process, with empowerment, capacity building and inclusive local economic development at the heart of every conversation.

 

Partnership is the Secret Sauce

 

Fourteen years ago, we stood side by side with local residents as their homes were being demolished.  The fear and anxiety were palpable, as residents were losing both their homes and their personal histories.   With tears in her eyes, one grandmother and long-time Regent resident told me she felt that she and her family were being ‘erased’.

 

We knew in that moment that success would only be possible if we listened deeply to local voices.

 

We also knew, at that moment, that we would need to forge strong partnerships with both private sector and institutional partners, as well as with all of the non-profit agencies working in the neighbourhood.

 

In the non-profit sector, Dixon Hall, Pathways to Education, Yonge Street Mission, the Regent Park Community Health Centre, the Christian Resource Centre and a host of other agencies have been important voices at the table.

 

From the private sector…RBC, Sobeys, and Tim Hortons came on board on day one, the first bank, grocery store and coffee shop in the neighbourhood in over 50 years, each one embracing ‘local hiring’ policies with gusto. 

 

Also, from the private sector…Rogers Communications has made significant investments in the community and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment engaged their foundation and corporate networks to raise $2,000,000 to build the Regent Park Athletic Grounds, and an additional $1,000,000 to support local, grassroots access to this new facility.

 

Partnerships with the institutional sector have also been hugely powerful.  George Brown College created F/X, their ‘Fashion Exchange’ in Regent Park, and Ryerson’s Future Skills Centre has also moved into the neighbourhood. 

 

We’ve also partnered with the University of Toronto to create the Higher Learning Initiative, connecting foreign-trained professionals with the academic credits required to work in their field here in Canada. 

 

The lesson is simple:  partnership is the key, the secret sauce that will maximize impact.

 

And speaking of impact…I’ll never forget the hugely symbolic moment that Gord Nixon, CEO of RBC came to the branch opening in Regent Park, shaking hands and chatting with the entire team, most of whom had walked to work from around the corner.  The impact of Gord Nixon, an embodiment of corporate Canada ‘on the ground’ in Regent Park, is still felt to this day.

 

Nor will I forget the moment a young man told me, with an enormous sense of pride, that he had worked his way up from sweeping the floor to becoming produce manager at the new grocery store.

 

Working hand in hand with the City of Toronto, Toronto Community Housing and many private and public sector partners, over 1600 jobs have been created as a direct result of the revitalization.

 

As important as the number of jobs, however, is that doors have been opened to long term career path opportunities.

 

Local Economic Development Through Social Procurement

 

Another lesson is the enormous impact of ‘social procurement’, of spending money with a laser-sharp focus on local economic development.

 

Sometimes we just need to open our eyes and ears to appreciate what can be achieved with a simple shift in thinking. 

 

I’ll never forget, for example, a conversation with a woman I met walking down the street in Regent Park.  She told me that her husband had recently passed away and how challenging it was going to be to bring money into her household.  Within a few moments I learned that this woman spent a lot of time with her friends in a sewing and quilting circle, and…there it was…a powerful ‘eureka’ moment. 

 

Within a few days, we had commissioned our first quilt.   Today, there are beautiful hand-made quilts, brilliant works of art, hanging in condominiums and office buildings throughout Regent Park, and Sakina’s Sewing Circle is now building their business well beyond the local neighbourhood.

 

A very simple ‘social procurement’ decision for all companies, large and small, is to source the work of local artists and artisans.  The benefits are enormous to the artists and their families, and career sustainability becomes a real possibility.  

 

Catering is another high impact on social procurement opportunity, whether for lunch meetings, corporate events, year-end parties or celebrating the closing of a successful IPO. 

 

Our experience with local caterers has led us to create a home for the Regent Park Catering Collective, a group of 300 women with Food Handling Certification,  many of whom will be building their businesses from their new collective catering kitchen.  

 

Although we’ve come a long way, there is still a long way to go, and many questions remain unanswered.  For example, can Regent Park continue to evolve as a place where everyone feels welcome and safe, where local entrepreneurship flourishes, where owners and tenants feel comfortable enough with each other to share their stories and passions and where the incredible diversity of the community is celebrated every day? 

 

We believe that all of that is possible and that Regent Park will continue to evolve as the gold standard by which a stigmatized inner-city neighbourhood can be re-imagined and transformed.

 

We’ve learned a great deal, but there is also much to learn from revitalizations in other parts of the city, as well as in other parts of the world.  Today it is important to encapsulate those lessons in a formalized ‘knowledge exchange’ centre, a place that exists both online and in a physical location, a platform from which best practices in building sustainable cities can be projected around the world.  

 

 

Conclusion

 

In closing, let me outline both an opportunity and a challenge. 

 

Over the past twenty years, millions of square feet have been built in Toronto and there are tens of millions of additional new square feet in the pipeline today.  New urban communities will be built, and billions of dollars will be invested.  

 

That investment represents a tremendous opportunity, an opportunity that must be leveraged for community benefit, building community capital with affordable housing and inclusive local economic development at the top of the agenda. 

 

Today, with focus and intentionality, we can rise to this challenge.  In fact, I am confident that with many hands working together we can pull all the threads together such that our cities realize their full potential, and…like those quilts in Regent Park, become brilliant tapestries of strength and resilience.