Lessons in equity, inclusion and resilience from Toronto’s Kensington Market and George Street Revitalization.  This article is based on a paper presented by Alice Liang, Principal and Alexandra Boissonneault, Associate- Research and Communications, given at the Health City Design 2018 International Congress at the Royal College of Physicians in London, UK.

In 2011, Toronto Public Health issued a document entitled Healthy Toronto by Design. Its definition of the Healthy City takes root in high quality culture, education, food, housing, health care, public transit, recreation, as well as built and natural environments. Its focus, as are many of our interventions globally, is in providing a healthy urban environment where people can lead productive, fulfilling lives. Albeit well intentioned, these traditional determinants of the healthy city often endorse exclusionary socio-spatial practices.

Urban village models like Kensington Market and George Street Revitalization project, however, begin to broaden our understanding of how we think about the healthy city. They are places of free expression, personal agency, shared social wealth, and strong advocacy. And while their shared focus on resilience, equity, and inclusion may not eradicate poverty, crime or bigotry, collectively they begin to inform a more progressive appreciation of the healthy city, one predicated on carving out spaces for human connection, civic engagement and the empowerment of invisible and marginalized communities. They create places in the city where a diverse community of citizen can not only co-exist but belong.

Kensington Market evolved, largely organically, over a hundred years and features many ethnic layers that strengthen its social history and sense of place. Its built environment couples a dense, haphazard series of building typologies – market homes and affordable apartments, shops and restaurants, churches and synagogues, hostels and rooming houses, shelters and social services, with a variety of outdoor spaces – patios, parks, and playgrounds. And it rebuffs conventional discipline and beauty in favour of a chaotic vernacular of corrugated metal, press board, plywood, metal grilles and recycled windows in which people have invested meaning and memories over time. In keeping with the heterogeneous quality of its public spaces, demographic diversity remains a valued part of its collective identity. People of all walks of life converge on the Market; their sense of belonging is pervasive because non-conformity is valued in public spaces rather than mocked, censored or repressed. And there is a conscious effort on behalf of residents, business owners, faith leaders, advocacy groups and local politicians to preserve the eclectic social, cultural and commercial patina that not only supports but celebrates difference.

In its aspiration to create a place of resilience, inclusion and equity – its own model of the urban village – within the constraints of its site and program, the proposed George Street Revitalization draws on many of the attributes that define Kensington Market. It redresses the typical top-down approach to urban renewal in favour of a robust participatory planning process and place-based approach to planning, design and administration, curating change in a sensitive, holistic way. The pioneering project transforms Toronto’s largest men’s shelter – a single-use, fenced in facility, with its connotations of punitive restriction and segregation – along with six heritage-listed buildings into a multi-use, porous development that privileges social capital and the physical and social infrastructure needed to support it. It co-locates shelter beds with purpose-built units for long-term care, transitional living, affordable housing and emergency shelter as well as a new community service hub. The pedestrian-focused design with its compelling open green spaces and rich urban agriculture invite new partnership and programming initiatives, from a weekend market that promotes social enterprise to indigenous place-making interventions that honour pre-colonial histories and relationships with the land. The intent is to draw in the surrounding community, nurture engagement and feelings of ownership, and promote ongoing investment in the quality of the public realm.

Like Kensington Market, the revitalized George Street is not concerned with creating precious spaces but ones that are robust and durable, that mitigate negative tension and self-determination by changing how patrons perceive themselves as included or excluded from mainstream social spaces. Its built environment creates comfortable proximity to difference with the intention to reduce perceived risk, promote acceptance and even nurture affection between people. And feelings of ownership and belonging even amongst the most transient persons are fostered by embracing non-conforming behaviours rather than erasing them.

Despite their distinctly different socio-spatial trajectories, Kensington Market and George Street Revitalization have evolved through a constant process of ‘making’ and a collective effort to avoid homogeneity wherein the ‘other’ is easily identified. And they survive because of commitment to ongoing, mutual stewardship amongst strong, grassroots voices. Like the people they serve, they challenge our efficient, sterile approach to contemporary place-making. Instead, they inform how we value and embrace difference in our cities. Woven into the tapestry of our urban fabric, be it organically or by design, they debunk attitudinal barriers and the pathologizing of difference that is so deeply ingrained in our urban ecology. And, most importantly, they ask us to rethink or redefine what is the ‘healthy city.’

The certainty of the urban village model and its vision, however, is constantly in jeopardy. To be productive, these places require investment and engagement over many years. This puts them at odds with the short attention span of our policy makers and an economic climate that requires us to justify expenditure and substantiate results. In continuing to fight for these public spaces, however, Toronto championing social justice for all citizens and their right to the city.