Terry Fowler

The Devitalization of Regent Park

Regent Park in Toronto was one of Canada’s oldest public housing developments. Built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the small three and six storey brick apartment buildings had lots of green open space between them and no locks on their front doors. There were no through streets so the development was cut off from the rest of the city. Between Dundas and Gerrard Streets, in the northern half of the development, there were no stores.

Warehousing the poor in such developments was never a good idea. As this dawned on housing policymakers, and as the buildings deteriorated – not inevitable, of course – more sensible proposals for reviving Regent Park were considered.

In the 1980s, when ex-mayor John Sewell was appointed chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, as it was then named, he presented plans to integrate some of Toronto’s other public housing developments into the city, renovate existing buildings, construct infill housing, and add some stores and other uses.

Sewell’s plans were stonewalled by the bureaucracy, but the template was there. A decade ago, under Mayor David Miller, a “revitalization” plan for Regent Park was adopted by the city – Sewell was part of the process but resigned in disgust. The final version reduced rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units and included a generous amount of market-priced housing, glass-clad high rises, and other large scale features, including a food supermarket.

Not only genuine urban vitality is excluded from such a plan, so is sensible provision for vulnerable low-income residents of Regent Park. Many precious but fragile social networks remain, supporting existing residents in their struggle to make a life. How can such a cataclysmic plan preserve such networks? It can’t.

And Regent Park is full of networks and organizations. Some of these organizations are relatively feeble, but some are full of activity and give energy and vital support to the residents. There are groups catering to the needs of different nationalities, youth athletic and arts groups, and a thriving music school.

The casual destruction of low income neighbourhoods in North American cities in the name of “better housing” has been going on for decades, but that doesn’t excuse it. Back in the 1950s, when Boston’s West End was being eviscerated, newspapers and journal articles reported interviewing hundreds of families who were grieving for their lost homes. Sue Ann Levy spoke with some of the families displaced from Regent Park since the process started six years ago, and the same sad story emerged from her columns in the Toronto Sun in March 2012. There were promises from the housing authority, now known as the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), that these families would be able to return once the construction was complete. However, once they moved out, some of these families reported they could not reach TCHC staff at all.

“Of the 709 tenant householders who moved out of Regent Park to new units, only 187 have moved back so far – 47 of them were relocated to 40 Oak Street, which was built by the Christian Resource Centre – not TCHC or Daniels (the developer),” wrote Levy on March 26. According to Levy, another 157 families have moved to other new units, also not built by Daniels, over a mile away from their old neighbourhood.

Over 100 of these families have simply disappeared, utterly defeated by the whole process. A check of the TCHC website in early April showed similar figures – only about 200 out of 820 displaced families have moved back. Another 200 have chosen to stay in the new off-site housing units. Most of the rest, in the words of TCHC, are either “waiting for completion of phase two construction or preferred to stay in their relocation unit.”

A recent article in the Toronto Star recorded interviews with families who either were happy with their new units away from Regent Park or had moved back and were enjoying their new housing. However, none of Levy’s statistics was challenged.

Jane Jacobs wrote fifty years ago about what she called the process of unslumming, and it is still relevant. A few months after people move into even a rundown neighourhood, they usually start to develop ties with others. Although many can’t wait to leave for a better district, others begin to use their social ties to make things better where they are. They look after each other’s children, they get together to ask for repairs, they create informal clubs. As time goes on, these networks start to make it more attractive to stay than to leave, says Jacobs.

In conventional housing developments, though, only housing is allowed, so meaningful economic activity, which is essential to any healthy neighbourhood, can’t become part of these ties to the area. Genuine revitalization of Regent Park requires giving residents opportunities to start small businesses on site – hair dressing, variety stores, second hand stores, shoe repairs, even bakeries and cafés. Jacobs shows how this happens over and over, if it’s not disallowed and disrupted by pesky authorities. There are some high rises in this city where it’s going on, even though strictly speaking it’s against the law.

But laws are clumsy tools, especially when it comes to stimulating urban vitality, which is a complex web of economic and social initiatives linked to unique city districts. Disadvantaged people occasionally do better if they move to an area where they can “mix in” with the middle class, but the real truth, said Jacobs, is that city districts can grow the middle class, if they are allowed to. This can only happen if poor people aren’t moved around like pawns in an urban chess game, played by big developers and city governments.

In fact, an experiment in the United States that gave poor families a chance to move to better off neighbourhoods discovered, not surprisingly, that those families’ local social ties weakened and their rate of political participation dropped.

There is still time for revitalization of Regent Park to be done right. Phase three of six is just starting. The design can be changed to increase density but with smaller buildings, even keep more of the original ones, for diversity. We can do without those glass high rises, which are cheap to build but which don’t last and are expensive to heat and maintain. Besides, as I’ve argued before, they destroy community. The changes can come incrementally, so that no one need move out of the neighbourhood, and zoning should allow for small businesses, not chain stores. They could be housed on the first floors of some of the old buildings, with a minimum of disruption.

And of course we need to increase, not decrease, housing for low income tenants, including giving them the option to buy.

Surely the city can learn from its mistakes. Let’s zone for land use in ways that encourage our natural ability to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps.