Urban studies students explore residents' involvement in redevelopment of Regent Park

June 2, 2015 by Sean Bettam - A&S News

How much influence do residents have when it comes to a community’s redevelopment? That’s what two University of Toronto urban studies students set out to discover in the case of Toronto’s Regent Park.

The neighbourhood of Regent Park in downtown Toronto is home to Canada’s oldest and largest social housing project. Built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the design was intended to improve the quality of housing and address crime and other social problems in the area. However, years of high crime rates and poor social conditions led to decades of physical and social decline, prompting Toronto Community Housing to launch a massive revitalization beginning in 2005 and continuing today.

The current renewal aims to transform the neighbourhood through a mix of rent-geared-to-income social housing units, affordable rental units, and privately owned condominiums. The physical redevelopment is occurring in tandem with efforts to integrate new and old residents into a more cohesive community.

In order to understand the role of the community residents in the redevelopment, Sonia Sobrino Ralston and Katerina Mizrokhi combed through City of Toronto and Toronto Community Housing Corporation planning documents. They then conducted a series of interviews with some of the people involved.

“City officials and planners seemed to want to hear the voices of residents,” said Ralston. “But many residents stated that they felt alienated from the process.”

In any neighbourhood development, it is difficult to know how best to consult and engage residents effectively. To get a sense of what consultation had occurred and how, Ralston and Mizrokhi analyzed materials related to planning and social development in the neighbourhood. While they noticed a change in theme over time as political and financial concerns gave way to a greater emphasis on environmental and social sustainability, they also found a lack of transparency in official documents that made it difficult to determine what had actually occurred during the early stages of Regent Park’s renewal.

“It was difficult to tell from the documents how many meetings and consultations were held,” said Mizrokhi. “And it was unclear if the meetings that did take place focused on the development process or community engagement and leadership.”

Their interviews with city planners, developers, community leaders and residents drove home for both students how complex community engagement in development can be.

“I began to see that although the redevelopment was met with challenges and dissenters, decisions were not made with malicious intent,” said Mizrokhi. “While interactions with residents showed a lot to be desired from the redevelopment, our interviews exposed the difficulties in navigating the bureaucratic nature of the organizations involved. I better understand the complications and challenges that occurred during the revitalization”

Ralston notes the seeds of renewal were first sown by residents.

“Regent Park is unique because the revitalization was spurred by grassroots organizing on the part of residents in the early 1990s,” she said. “There appears to have been a strong attempt on the part of the City and Toronto Community Housing to solicit and respect residents’ wishes.”

Ralston and Mizrokhi worked with urban studies professor Shauna Brail as part of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Research Opportunities Program. Their study, which they presented at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in Chicago in the spring, will inform a more in-depth investigation by Brail into the impact of community engagement on the neighbourhood’s renewal.

“The work done by Sonia and Katerina significantly enhanced our understanding of how the redevelopment took shape,” said Brail. “The interviews in particular provided a far more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the revitalization than we had up to that point.”

For their part, the students learned the importance of diligence and detail in the course of research, but especially maintaining an unbiased approach.

“Had I only analyzed official documents and not attended community meetings and interviewed officials involved in the process, I would not have become as well-versed in the situation,” said Mizrokhi. “It’s made me a more analytical, critical and rational researcher.”