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There's no bigger change happening in Toronto right now than the sweeping redevelopment of Regent Park, so it's no surprise the Regent Park Revitalized tour was one of the most popular Jane's Walks this year.
Guides left from the Daniels Corp. condo showroom at Dundas and Parliament every 15 minutes on both Saturday and Sunday to tour the area, and along the way community organizers and residents described the remarkable ways the region is being transformed.
A few years ago, traveling east on Dundas from Yonge meant watching the neighbourhood devolve from a tourist-driven shopping district into one of rundown bars and strip clubs, culminating east of Parliament in the squat housing blocks of Regent Park, a neighbourhood synonymous across Canada with crime and poverty.
But travel east along Dundas today and you're met with the jarring sight of a towering, brand new condo, an iceberg of affluence in a sea of urban blight. This is Phase 1 of the Regent Park Revitalization Plan, a project that will see nearly every residential building in the 69-acre neighbourhood torn down and replaced with upscale condominiums and social housing.
The ambitious plan is one Jane Jacobs would likely have approved of.
The influential American-Canadian urban activist for whom the Jane's Walk series is named favoured the kind of development that made cities more dense and integrated, which is exactly what's happening in Regent Park. While the neighbourhood had been dominated by social housing, the Revitalization Plan is bringing up-market condos to the area while simultaneously replacing every single one of the original 2,083 social housing units. People who can afford a $360,000 two-bedroom condo unit will now live side-by-side with new immigrants and low-income residents.
"I can see Regent Park getting safer," said Uttara, a student resident in one of the new social housing units. "Hopefully I can get a job and buy one of the condos one day."
In the meantime she'll be able to benefit from improved amenities coming in the next few years, including a new 6-acre park, an $11-million aquatic centre, and an arts and culture centre.
This isn't the first time Regent Park has been radically transformed of course. The neighbourhood spent decades as a Dickensian slum before the original Regent Park housing project began in the 1960s. That redevelopment was based on the then-popular Garden City theory of urban planning: take a troubled neighbourhood, close it off, make as many green spaces in it as possible, and sprinkle isolated housing units throughout.
That project was a spectacular failure. The closed off "t-bone" housing units created a maze of hidden and dead-end streets, making Regent Park a perfect place to commit crimes and evade the authorities. Little was done to alleviate poverty, and drug trafficking and related violence became commonplace.
The new Revitalization Plan, which is a public-private partnership between the city and the Daniels condo corporation, will not only make the area more economically diverse but also open it up to the surrounding neighbourhoods with new streets and thoroughfares.
The plan is also bringing jobs. At the new grocery store on the ground floor of the Phase 1 condo, 80 per cent of the employees are local residents. About 350 Regent Park residents are employed in the construction of new housing, and for the first time in 50 years, the neighbourhood has a bank.
A decade from now the only recognizable building in Regent Park will be 14 Blevins Place, one of the apartment towers of Regent Park South. The original plan was to tear it down but because its design is typical of 1960s urban revitalizations, the city insisted it be given historical status, likely making it the ugliest heritage building in Toronto.
Speaking at one of the stops on the Jane's Walk tour, Brian Sherwood of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation said the city was determined to avoid the mistakes of the original Regent Park project. "The difference is, we've consulted our community," he said. "When people see Phase 1 going up they can say ‘I suggested that feature at a meeting, and there it is.'"
But not everyone is thrilled about the massive change to the neighbourhood. "There are some who are not happy at all and they will tell you frankly they liked it the way it was," said Neil Clarke, communications coordinator for the Regent Park Neighbourhood Initiative.
That dissatisfaction is borne out by the statistics. While every resident who was pushed out to make way for the new development signed a contract giving them legal rights to return to the area, 25 per cent of those who left decided not to come back.
While the large-scale project in the eastern part of the city is impossible to miss, back in the West End participants in the Fowl Tour Jane's Walk got a chance to see how a much smaller project hidden in Toronto's backyards is taking shape. A handful of discreet but determined urban farmers are attempting to bring chickens back to the city. Lorraine Johnson, author of how-to book City Farmer, took about two-dozen chicken-curious Torontonians to five houses in the West End that have their own unauthorized mini-farms.
For fowl fans the prospect of fresh eggs every day is worth risking a visit from the bylaw officer for, but they don't always get away with it. The first stop was a home in Little Italy where two young renters had set up a coop for their three chickens in their backyard. Unfortunately city workers who entered the property to conduct maintenance blew the whistle on the pair a few months ago, and they had to give up their birds.
While most urban chicken farmers keep their poultry private to avoid getting busted, the second stop on the tour was a house in Little Portugal whose owner brazenly has coops for hens and quail right in her front yard. She said that she keeps the place clean and no one's ever complained, despite the fact her house is within sight of busy Dundas Street West.
The other three stops on the tour had improvised chicken set-ups hidden in their backyards. The birds don't smell and make minimal noise (certainly less than the city's thousands of dogs) but they do cluck loudly when they lay eggs. Johnson said there's an easy solution to prevent neighbours from calling the authorities. "They're ok with it. I give them eggs," she said.
Chickens are cheap. You can buy baby chicks for 25 cents in rural Ontario and a laying-age hen goes for only $25. The full set up for an insulated coop and run area costs from $150 - $250, and Johnson says that investment is easily recouped by the eggs produced. Three chickens lay three eggs a day and produce about a shopping back full of waste per week.
Long-time residents of Toronto will remember when areas like Kensington Market swarmed with urban-raised chickens on market days, but frequent complaints about how poorly the birds were maintained led to a bylaw against keeping them within city limits. In major cities like Vancouver and New York, backyard hen-keeping is still legal.
With the rise of the local food movement, there's been a groundswell of demand to allow chickens in Toronto. The Toronto Environment Office is spearheading efforts to draft a bylaw that would make keeping up to six birds in your backyard legal, as long as their coops are well-maintained, no animals are slaughtered inside the city, and any birds brought into the city are over four months old. Before that age they carry salmonella, and it's too difficult to determine their sex when they're so young. While Toronto's hidden coops prove we can live side by side with hens without a problem, roosters are ridiculously loud and better left on the farm.
Despite the potential nuisance caused by the birds, Johnson says fears about waste and avian-borne diseases are overblown. "I think there are incredible misconceptions out there about chickens," she said. "People freak out about living in the city in unconventional ways with something they consider a farm animal."