Excerpts from WEP's
NOVEMBER 2018 ISSUE
What if we shook up the city as we know it – its housing plan, its waterfront, its public spaces, even its budget – and rebuilt it as the healthiest, most loving, most innovative enclave in the world? We asked dozens of writers, thinkers, artists and agitators to tell us their greatest wish for the West End. This is how three of them picture
and what we can do to make it real
As the weather gets wildly worse, ensure your survival by learning to love your neighbour
IT’S HARD, IN CHILL NOVEMBER, TO RECALL THE HEAT OF LAST summer – but try. Recall the army of hot blow dryers blasting over every inch of your body as you slug-dragged your sweaty corpse along the concrete. And then, bound to that memory is heat’s conjoined twin, the rain. Remember the storms? One hundred millimetres of rainfall in less than two hours caused the flash floods that knocked out power for 16,000 Hydro customers last August. Water filled the deep pit of the “dog bowl” in Trinity Bellwoods Park and left cars floating underneath Lake Shore Boulevard and the King streetcar submerged beneath the Dufferin overpass.
Toronto is getting hotter: The mean maximum daily temperature will increase from 33 degrees – the average between 2000 and 2009 – to 44 degrees, between 2040 and 2049, according to a 2012 report from the city. By 2040, we’ll have 40 days per year with a humidex over 40 degrees. The number of heat waves (more than three consecutive days of temperatures greater than 32 degrees) will jump to five per year instead of one every two years. If global warming continues unchecked, storm and flood occurrences will increase in both intensity and duration.
Toronto is particularly susceptible to extreme weather disasters simply because it’s booming: the more concrete the city, the hotter the city. The urban heat-island effect is caused by tightly packed buildings and paved surfaces boxing in the heat. And when the rain comes, the lack of green spaces and growing number of impermeable surfaces mean there’s nowhere for water to go but into our ancient, overloaded pipes.
Solutions are myriad, and smart people in grassroots environmental groups like the Toronto Environmental Alliance are working on it, fighting for imperative infrastructure improvements and retrofitting old buildings. The city’s climate action strategy Transform TO commits to reducing Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. But the plan has only been partially funded, and now hangs in limbo as the municipal and provincial governments change shape.
So if these macro solutions seem turtle slow, then Torontonians might turn to micro ones like those suggested by the Global Cool Cities Alliance: painting the roofs of institutional buildings with a reflective light paint to keep them cool; planting shade trees and canopies. In Paris, an app helps walkers locate the nearest “cooling island,” a fountain or shady area in which to bring down the body temperature, each island seven minutes from the next.
But in the field of disaster research, the consensus is that survival in the age of extreme weather crises depends as much on social infrastructure as on physical infrastructure. The buzzword in these corridors is “resilience”: the ability of a community to respond to a crisis and recover well in the aftermath (Toronto now has a Chief Resiliency Officer). And the most resilient neighbourhoods are those where people are socially connected. Isolation, loneliness and poverty make people vulnerable to the worst ravages of crises. Knowing each other is a kind of protective armour in disaster times.
We recognize this truism from the art and pop culture that make arms-linked, collective problem-solving the triumphant third act of catastrophe narratives. In survivalist porn like Independence Day, the solo hero saves the day only after joining forces with the other leftovers. The same holds true in zombie tales, and novels like Station 11 and The Handmaid’s Tale. Being the rebel loner might work on Saturday night on Queen Street, but it won’t serve you well on The Road. As always in Toronto, it’s who you know.
2013 was another bad year for weather. Heat and flooding choked the Toronto summer, and in the winter, a pre-Christmas ice storm grounded planes and left 400,000 people in the cold without power. In the wake of those events, a community meeting at City Hall brought together a group of concerned citizens asking how to better prepare their neighbourhoods for the next round of extreme weather. The resulting non-profit group, CREW (Community Resilience to Extreme Weather), wants to increase awareness around climate change and disaster preparedness. Recently, CREW has been working with an interfaith network called Faith and the Common Good to ensure that local churches and faith centres will be “extreme weather hubs” during the next crisis, known places where people can reliably seek shelter and information.
“We knew that if we could engage people around very simple actions like preparing themselves and their families for emergency events with kits and plans, it would be a way of also talking about climate change,” said Sheila Murray, a co-founder of CREW. “There’s so much anxiety around climate change, people are desperate for some agency.”
One of the first things the handful of CREW volunteers did was to try to understand who was most vulnerable in extreme weather crises by building elaborate “resilience maps” of what were then Wards 13 and 14: Parkdale through the western edge of High Park. The brightly coloured maps (posted on CREW’s website) use indicators like transportation access, green space and neighbourhood characteristics like poverty and crime to measure a community’s resilience. Of the seven neighbourhoods examined, researchers found Runnymede-Bloor West to be the most resilient, and Parkdale South the least. Even though only one per cent of Runnymede-Bloor is green space, making it susceptible to extreme weather, it’s a high-income neighbourhood with easy access to food, health and community facilities – high social capital. South Parkdale is actually geographically advantaged: it isn’t on a flood plain and has a low percentage of urban heat islands. But with a low-income population and many newcomers who may not speak English, as well as a high percentage of people living alone, citizens are extremely vulnerable in a crisis. After 53 people died in Montreal’s heat wave last summer, a significant live-or-die factor was whether or not they had an air conditioner, an expense that not everyone can incur.
The resilience maps are tools to help neighbourhoods get ready for the weather, but at first glance, they seem bleak: If you’re poor, are you doomed? In fact, affluence isn’t the sole measure of resilience. In July 1995, a cruel heat wave gripped Chicago, killing 739 people. Deaths did fall largely along the same inequitable fault lines that carve up that segregated city: rich-poor; black-white. But researchers also discovered something surprising about who did and didn’t survive. Two side-by-side neighbourhoods, both low-income and largely African-American, had very different outcomes. Englewood suffered 33 deaths per hundred thousand residents, but in next-door Auburn Gresham, the death rate was only three per hundred thousand, reported sociologist Eric Klinenberg. During this five-day-long calamity, where temperatures reached 41 degrees, Auburn Gresham was a safer place to be than some of Chicago’s swankiest North Side enclaves. The reasons, writes Klinenberg in The New Yorker, are primarily social. For three decades, Englewood had been gutted economically. Many residents had fled, and stores and homes stood empty. Social connections had shattered. But in Auburn Gresham, over the same time period, the population had remained constant, and the neighbourhood was vibrant if not wealthy. Writes Klinenberg: “Residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbours. They participated in block clubs and church groups.” A liveable neighbourhood facilitates social interaction – and vice versa. When the heat came, people in Auburn Gresham checked in with each other, and survived.
Rita Bijons is a cofounder of CREW who also heads Green 13, a citizen action group fighting climate change in the former Ward 13, around Bloor West Village. She will often set up a table at community events like farmers’ markets with booklets on emergency preparedness, advising people on what they need (72 hours of food and water, and a plan).
During a neighbourhood blackout a couple of years ago, the temperature precipitously dropped overnight. At 4 a.m., Bijons woke with thoughts of an elderly neighbour who was living alone down the street. Bijons suspected her neighbour would be downstairs in her La-Z-Boy, unable to get upstairs for more blankets due to her arthritis. Bijons went over, to her neighbour’s delight, and got her blankets and a hot drink. “Don’t we want to live in a community that cares, a place where we know one another and respect each other’s privacy but lend a hand when it’s needed?” said Bijons.
Human behaviour in times of crisis isn’t usually venal self-preservation; the looting and rioting that make headlines are actually anomalous. Instead, in crisis after crisis, humans prove resourceful, altruistic and co-dependent. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit documents an optimistic through-line of history, showing how out of the mayhem and suffering from events like the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Second World War bombings and 9/11, incidents of communal behaviour far outweigh brutality. Following the Halifax harbour explosion of 1917, stories emerged of shocked citizens crossing social boundaries and improvising new roles to help one another: English Protestant mothers taking in poor Irish Catholic children; a young upper-class businessman helping a veterinarian make house calls to the sick and injured. In times of crisis our “fellow feeling” doesn’t necessarily vanish; it can profoundly deepen, even among strangers.
CREW has joined with Faith and the Common Good to work on a pilot project called Lighthouse in a handful of neighbourhoods, including in Hamilton and St. Jamestown. The goal is to develop strategies for local citizens to improve their neighbourhood’s emergency preparedness. In St. Jamestown, this means efforts to organize floor captains in the tall apartment buildings, enlisting local faith buildings as hubs and organizing volunteers who will be ready when the next disaster comes.
The word “faith” feels appropriate. What is our ethical duty to one another? As many of us in cities live far from our families, our obligations shift from blood to the people who also ended up in our neighbourhood, on our block and in our buildings. By choice or by accident, we are enmeshed. This entanglement will be our rescue, now and in the future that’s already arrived.
— Katrina Onstad is the author of The Weekend Effect
Get high – on bicycles!
In Rotterdam, cyclists use special escalators to access tunnels, built during the Second World War, to cross the New Meuse River. Copenhagen, meanwhile, turned its old bridle paths into a bike-trail network hundreds of kilometres long.
In Jerusalem, they’ve just converted the 2.1-km Gihon tunnel, originally built for a sewage pipe, into a dedicated cycling path that connects with a 42-km biking trail.
Given the recent flooding in Toronto, maybe we don’t want to go underground – but we could go up. BMW, in collaboration with Shanghai’s Tongji University, is designing elevated, climate-controlled cycling tubes that can snake across a city like a low-adrenaline amusement park ride. Reached by ramps, the solar-powered tubes could connect with public transit and dedicated, secure parking facilities. Imagine pedalling along in the dead of February, dry and warm, safe from everything but the judgment of bike-lane-etiquette heavies.
What’s easier: making massive changes to driving behaviours and existing roadways or building a neat set of tubes? Exactly.
— Janet Morassutti, managing editor of WEP
Give High Park the Nordic spa of our dreams
In Iceland, hot pools are a staple of life, where people go to unwind at the end of the day or relax alone or with friends. In Banff, a pool in the mountainside once heated by a hot spring has been fuelled by municipal water for years.
Imagine walking through High Park and seeing steam rising in the distance. A hot pool, warmed through district energy and delivered through pipes from St. Joseph’s Hospital. People of all ages enjoying the waters, snowflakes falling around them, gazing out onto the scenery, their bodies submerged.
The West End benefits from an extensive stretch of waterfront and 400 acres of High Park. But how do we draw people into nature in the winter months? How can we activate these urban park spaces and encourage people to think differently about the cold, as something to be embraced, enjoyed, to immerse ourselves in? Just as the cherry trees draw masses into the park in the spring, a hot pool could invigorate the park and open our eyes to its wonders by letting us take a dip, even when the temperature drops well below zero.
— Siri Agrell, Toronto managing director of ElevenOne, a technology start-up accelerator
You can read all of the ideas in this Future of Toronto series in our November 2018 issue.
If you don’t have a copy, you can order one here.
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