Sunday, May 22, 2011

Solving vertical poverty

What happens when you build low income residential units upwards and not outwards? Those familiar with CPTED will recall Oscar Newman's Defensible Space work in the 1970s and 1960s describing how this is usually a bad idea.

In places that do just that sort of thing like New York, Chicago and Toronto, you end up with vertical poverty.

The United Way in Toronto has just released a fascinating study called Vertical Poverty documenting disparity in 3-D urban space. Toronto has for decades tried to make the sprawling and cost inefficient suburbs more efficient with high rise residential. Vertical Poverty tells one chapter in that sad tale.

It also describes the San Romanoway apartments solution that led to some of the earliest breakthroughs in SafeGrowth. Check it out HERE.

7 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. Greg,
    I'm wondering if there are any studies that address the effects of communities that tend towards building new developments outward and neglecting what's already there in the middle. My community is growing out from edges, both in residential and business terms. The older, central part of the city tends to get ignored, and we know what happens as a result. I suspect that a better course of action would be to improve upon what's already there before sprawling out, but I'm just a simple civil servant.

  2. Great question. Both Richard Florida (Creative Cities) and Joel Gareau (Edge Cities) have written about that very thing. Neither were criminologists and so we have little in the way of research to point the way. My own experience suggests that the inner suburbs can become the new, vibrant villages of the 21st Century. My fear is that they are becoming the new crime ridden ghettos.

    By the way, simple civil servants who think critically and cultivate a passion for progress in our communities can change the world. Consider Albert Einstein !

  3. AnonymousMay 27, 2011

    However, as is the case in most large urban areas that attract highly profitable companies the area usually goes through a evolution involving the revitalization of areas that have fallen into decay as the hub of the urban area adjusts to the new reality of economics.

    What we are seeing in Toronto and in other large urban centres is the revitalization of the decaying areas due to the demand for land and the demand for modern housing to accommodate the new workforce. This is occurring in two ways in Toronto – The tearing down of old decaying buildings that are replaced by affordable and upscale luxury condos and the renovating and up scaling of old abandoned factories into lofts.

    This revitalization of the City core has been significantly supported by the City by the modification of the interior City formal building plan. This has ensured that over time the interior City of Toronto will not be made up of just businesses with transient workers but individuals who live there and will demand a vibrant urban area in which they reside. Condos are outselling houses in Toronto at this time by a significant margin.

    On the other hand we see other areas of Toronto that does not have the vertical growth but nonetheless is decaying – Scarborough. Once a place for the economically advantaged to reside on large urban lots but close to the main core. Now this area has become very unattractive as the economically disadvantaged have moved into this area into single and/or attached homes built for lower income families.

    As in the past the main driver that seems to separate those that have and those that do not is knowledge (education and awareness) and economic means. The latter in many cases can be argued to drive the ability to be exposed to or obtain knowledge through traditional institutional means.

    Just my two cents.

    Greg Mills

  4. So, Greg, it is your contention that revitalization of decaying areas is twofold: upscale condos and lofts.

    I think you are right. Same trend is underway elsewhere.

    You also describe the recent morphing of suburban sprawl into squalor. That too is happening elsewhere and is consistent with recent trends.

    I think what is unique in the Toronto case, and perhaps in a few other cities, is suburban density that was legislated in the 1960s and 70s and encouraged via low-income towers.

    That was the case in the York Official Plan in 1969 which led to the infamous Jane/Finch corridor.

    I think you're also bang on the money (pardon the pun) describing upscale condo revitalization, much of which is in towers. But as the Vertical Poverty report shows, Toronto also suffers poverty towers in suburbs from Scarborough to North York.

    So, there are two verticals: one poor and one rich.

    In the case of San Romanoway in Jane/Finch the have-not's were exposed to the skills you mention through persistent efforts of change agents, and coherent SafeGrowth planning (and just plain hard work). A decade later, the results are remarkable.

    How, I wonder, can we expand that approach in the future?

    Thanks again for your insight.

  5. AnonymousMay 30, 2011

    My comments were more focused on the revitalization of the core of a large urban sprawl (GTA) which happens to have Toronto proper as its main centre of commerce and entertainment at this time. 

As to those areas you have mentioned (Jane/Finch – Scarborough etc.) I fully agree.

    We have the same types of complexes out here that either evolved that way over time or were put in place initially to support lower incomes. 

    As with the Jane/Finch corridor they are not about to change in our life time. Even the change in Toronto has taken decades and is long from being finished. 

    The only program that I have seen that works well that is a joint partnership between Police, owner/property management and the tenants is Crime Free Multi-Housing. If the program is run properly and supported it works well. 

    We have had a great success here with it with two buildings and Ottawa has had great success with it. You take one building at a time and the real change is in how the occupants and property owner views the building and attached lands. Once in place the property management/owner and tenants pretty much run the program. 

    The initiation of the program involves CPTED, investment by property owner, commitment by tenants and background checks by police. The two buildings we started with were real problem buildings with 60-70 percent maximum occupancy and the buildings were in bad shape with a lot of urban blight on site. 

After two years the site is running 98-100 percent occupancy, buildings look great and the tenants on a survey indicated that they felt 86 percent safe in their building and only 66% in the surrounding community.

    The owner wants us to expand the program to other properties he owns. The owner put $500,000.00 into the property to start the program in upgrades and cleaning up the property.

This is an example of a true partnership between police and the community. In the end change will only truly occur if the community (in this case the tenants and owner) are willing and interested in making that change in their environment and quality of life.

    Crime Free Multi-Housing is truly a good program but only if run properly.

    Greg Mills

  6. I am very familiar with the Crime Free Multi Housing program.

    Crime Free Multi-housing is a good program but as you say, without constant babysitting by residents and property owners, it often falls apart. That is usually due to lack of capacity-building within the program for the residents, who are either too busy to bother keeping it up or in need of upskilling that never comes. 

    SafeGrowth excels in both of those areas and has sustainability. 

Case in point - check out my San Romanoway apartment blogs regarding the Jane-Finch transformation in Toronto. 

    True, San Romanoway is a drop in the bucket with 4,000 residents in 3 towers (out of 50,000 in 50 towers in Jane-Finch). But after 10 years it's here to stay. And best of all, unlike other programs it has made a major transformation which residents lead themselves on their own.

    It is similar to Crime-Free Multi Housing in a few superficial ways, and very different in a bunch of other more important ways.

    I recommend you read up on the SafeGrowth program at San Romanoway. I think you'll like it. There is a CBC documentary here


I also published a study of it in a UK planning journal here:


As usual Greg, your comments are on the mark. Thanks for the insight.

  7. The comments about sustainability of the the projects are so true. I have worked for many years with various housing complexes with Calgary Housing and have found the folk in their buildings are just surviving to pay rent and exist. Finding the energy to contribute to citizen safety is difficult to say the least. One larger complex in a tower was started and funding for a CD facilitator lasted less than one year. It was not long enough to work on an exit strategy and true capacity building.


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