Architecture for Humanity Toronto Launches Lecture Series: "Incremental Strategies for Vertical Neighborhoods"

According to the most recent national census in Canada, almost half of Toronto residents are immigrants, one-third of whom arrived in the past ten years. To allow the city to adapt to this surging flow of immigrants, Architecture for Humanity Toronto (AFHTO) has called upon students and professionals from various backgrounds to rethink Toronto's urban fabric - and, in particular, its high-rise developments - by establishing a series of lectures and workshops entitled "Incremental Strategies for Vertical Neighborhoods."

At the inaugural event a few weeks ago, Filipe Balestra of Urban Nouveau* was invited to speak about his work and contribute to a design charrette inspired by the City of Toronto's Tower Renewal program. For more on Balestra and the event, keep reading after the break.

Filipe Balestra addressing event attendees. Image © Larry Larnal

The visionary practice Balestra co-founded with Sara Göransson operates on the understanding that life should happen outside of the office. They have embraced an open design-build process where clients and their communities are active participants, allowing mutual trust and respect to flourish and the project to benefit.

There's perhaps no better example of Urban Nouveau's Incremental Housing Strategy than the work they've accomplished in India, where they developed a strategy with the people of a vulnerable community to replace temporary dwellings with permanent ones, negating their fear of being displaced, while respecting the existing organic fabric of the neighborhood. Since leaving India, the project has thrived on its own - just as they intended. Today, over 1000 permanent structures are being built. This approach resonates greatly with Architecture for Humanity's philosophy of how Toronto should be redeveloped – in collaboration with the existing inhabitants – making Balestra a great leader to have at the event.

One of the 1000 homes from the Incremental Housing Strategy in India currently under construction.. Image Courtesy of Urban Nouveau

Event attendees were then asked to consider the City of Toronto's Tower Renewal program, which aims to improve the current conditions of depreciating and isolated concrete towers built in the 1950s and 1980s. Thanks to their efforts, Toronto now has a new zone called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC), which "permits small-scale commercial and community uses on apartment building sites, providing opportunities for new ventures which will contribute to the vibrancy and diversity of apartment neighborhoods."

The afternoon design charrette focused on four such towers in Thorncliffe Park, one of the many neighborhoods Tower Renewal and the RAC zone hope to help. The area is presently known as an “arrival city” – a place where new immigrants live, but leave as soon as they reach a certain level of affluence. The community within the four aforementioned towers has been taking measures to improve their quality of life and become more self-sufficient, which will hopefully encourage future middle-class residents to stay.

Participants were divided into groups and asked to focus on one of the six target demographics within the Thorncliffe Park community – children, young adults, adults, seniors, families, and women. Over the course of the afternoon, these groups identified programs based on the expressed needs of the demographic they represented and were challenged to come up with feasible and affordable yet small design interventions that nevertheless had a big impact. These structures had to be stand-alone – yet integrated – structures on the apartment grounds in accordance with the RAC zone.

Balestra discussing ideas with participants during the design charrette. Image © Larry Larnal
Attendees map out possible locations for their proposals. Image © Larry Larnal

Proposals not only answered the question of consolidating multiple programs and acquiring building materials, but also creating activity hubs and making communities safer and more inclusive. Ideas ranged from a collective tool library that doubled as an ESL (English as a Second Language) and driver-training facility to a multi-layered play space built from donated and re-purposed tires. In keeping with the idea of incremental development, many of the groups proposed a modular building strategy - allowing growth to respond to the means and needs of the community.

AFHTO hopes to use the ideas generated during the design charrette to facilitate the efforts already underway by the residents of Thorncliffe Park and the Tower Renewal program. The event was organized and ran by Maeva Baudoin, urban designer and planner, in collaboration with the rest of the AFHTO team. To keep up to date with this endeavor and participate in future “Incremental Strategies for Vertical Neighborhoods” events, stay tuned to the Architecture for Humanity Toronto website.

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Cite: Jennifer Whelan. "Architecture for Humanity Toronto Launches Lecture Series: "Incremental Strategies for Vertical Neighborhoods"" 18 May 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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