In the 1940s, the Canadian government created a new Toronto neighbourhood made up of social housing meant to encourage a strong sense of community. Named Regent Park, it was modeled after the UK’s “garden city” approach to planning, with inward-facing housing and lots of green space. Over time, design elements like limited through-streets and a lack of access to supermarkets and transit created a feeling of isolation. By the late 1980’s, the maze-like development had gained a reputation as a dangerous place to live.
A strong voice
When Sureya Ibrahim moved from Ethiopia to Canada in 1998, she and her family settled in Regent Park. Despite the local problems and unsafe reputation, the neighbourhood still had a strong sense of community and was home to many new Canadians with young families. Sureya joined a group of residents advocating for change and added her voice to a growing call for solutions to the systematic problems in the neighbourhood. In 2002, Toronto Community Housing (TCH) answered their call and began working with the residents to create a vision for a new type of downtown neighbourhood.
By 2005, TCH had partnered with developer Daniels Corporation to transform the aging infrastructure into a new mixed-income, mixed-use neighbourhood. Along with the residents, they wanted to revitalize Regent Park and inspire socio-economic change. The new design would replace all 2,083 existing social housing units with new LEED-certified buildings and add up to 5000 more market-rate units. The partners adhered to a social development plan created with the residents’ input combining residential buildings, commercial spaces, community facilities, educational institutions, activity parks, and green space. Most importantly, the initiative finally reconnected Regent Park to Toronto’s grid of streets.
A thriving community
Today, with the transformation well underway, large parts of Regent Park are unrecognizable—three of five construction phases are almost complete. The transition means big changes and opportunities for residents new and old. Sureya Ibrahim, now a Supervisor of Community Connections at the Toronto Community Centre for Learning & Development, acknowledges it can be difficult nurturing cohesion during a time of rapid change. She wants the community to thrive long after the developers are gone. Ibrahim told the Toronto Star, “We are still going to be here. We are still going to be doing what we love to do and building the community, identifying who the leaders of the future are and passing on the torch.”
Often a commitment to sustainability is more theoretical than practical, but the new design for Regent Park demonstrates environmental stewardship, social cohesion, and inclusive prosperity, the three pillars of sustainability, in the most concrete ways.
No matter where I travel in Ontario and around the world, I find myself telling the story of Regent Park. The story of this neighbourhood brings together so many of best parts of what makes Ontario special: The vital voice of the newcomer, the openness to change of fast-growing cities, and the willingness to commit to a long-term vision for the next generation.
When I met Sureya in 2018, I was immediately struck by her sense of opportunity and her realism. Touring the development, I was touched to see the many partnerships whose contributions have made the revitalization possible – from the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation, who built a basketball court fit for the Toronto Raptors, to the Toronto Police, and the many small businesses and community groups. The vibrancy of the neighbourhood shines in places like the Daniels Spectrum, a creative hub with galleries, event space, and a rehearsal hall. Many want to be in Regent Park, it offers incredible amenities, arts, culture, and food. As Sureya well knows, its success will be its greatest challenge.
I have no doubt that the residents will continue to use their voices for inclusion. We are all better when we work together.Sustainability