Toronto Star column – published November 15, 2014
A High-Rise Community
“Independence”… [is] middle-class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.” ~G.B. Shaw, Pygmalion, 1912
I looked up the word ‘community’ on Wikipedia and learned that it comes from the Latin word ‘communis’ which means, “things held in common”. The longer explanation of ‘community’ is “a social unit of any size that shares common values”.
Hold that thought while I explain something.
When I use the word ‘landlord’ you think of what, exactly? Chances are you do not think of landlords in a positive light. Like bats, grackles and bacteria (all of which I have defended in this column recently) landlords can be quite the opposite of what you think when you hear their name: here is a story about one. Greenwin is a property management company and landlord in the GTA that is working hard to change negative perceptions relating to their profession.
Jessica Green is part of a large family and corporation that is dedicated to fostering a sense of community where you would least suspect it: the Jane/Finch corridor. She explains that at Greenwin, “[the] goal is to facilitate participation and inclusion by offering cultural, educational and recreational programs that are aimed at providing life skills, fostering a sense of belonging, and encouraging community safety.”
While the company has implemented a great number of programs in efforts to reach their lofty goal, I am (of course) most interested in community gardens and tree planting.
I asked Jessica why food is an important part of their neighbourhood development program. “Our community gardens at 25 San Romanoway at Jane and Finch creates a sense of community ownership and brings people together – even with a language barrier. Our allotment gardens on Erskine (Yonge and Eglinton) work well for a mixed audience of seniors with green thumbs and young professionals who want space reminiscent of a backyard.”
I find it interesting that Jessica makes reference to young and old in the same sentence. Her experience confirms once again that the activity of gardening brings together people of all ages and cultures. Everyone, it seems, likes to grow food and all of us, without question, enjoy a good meal.
The benefits of community garden programs pay dividends, but what kind? Jessica says, “In addition to providing food for the community, we have found that community gardens foster a sense of belonging within our rental communities. They bring people together and form friendships on a level that renters often miss out on in the typical apartment-living scenario.”
I live in the country where I know all of my neighbours by name on either side of our home. Both grow food for resale while I grow it for my own pleasure (and to write about the experience). Curiously, the reverse is often true where people live literally on top of one another in an apartment building. The community garden concept helps to overcome the social barriers that drywall tends to create. “(Gardening) is a unique experience – especially in high-rise living where many people go without seeing or even knowing their neighbours,” says Green. The community garden, then, is much like the farms that flank my home and the acre of veggies that I have in my ‘backyard’ – they bring us together under the guise of a common experience.
Green explains that the community garden is a communal space where people, working side-by-side, achieve a common goal – the production of food. “For those who have downsized from a home, and especially for newcomers to Canada, this kind of interpersonal connectivity makes the property feel like home.”
Pride = Security
A key concern for the landlord of property in high risk neighbourhoods is to reduce the risk to residents to the greatest extent possible. Planting trees and offering the opportunity for residents to grow food provides two measurably significant methods of reducing crime and vandalism. At The Oaks, a project in the Wilson and Jane district, Greenwin has created a partnership with Black Creek Conservation Project of Toronto in an effort to plant trees. “Our residents and staff were the planters. Since the trees were planted by those living on the property and in the surrounding community, it provided a sense of ownership. As a result we didn’t experience any vandalism after the planting was complete,” she explains.
Greenwin planted 600 large trees in the area and is currently working with the not-for-profit Trees For Life urban tree coalition in an effort to enhance the tree canopy even more. Last summer residents in the Jane/Finch corridor were asked by the TRCA what could be done to make their neighbourhood feel safer and 33% responded that they wanted more trees. Research tells us that tree planting provides an enormous opportunity to clean the air, cool the streets, and encourage more outdoor activity year round.
Condominium developers have seized the opportunity to engage residents in garden activities, reaping, one would assume, similar benefits. The Daniels Group recently launched a 25-storey condo project in Erin Mills which includes plans for community gardens. In a recent Toronto Star article, Dominic Tomba, the president of City Life Realty, said, “We’re getting a lot of move-down buyers here, people who don’t want to lose their garden. So, they are excited about being able to get all of the amenities of a condo and still be able to do their gardening.”
I am sure that the Daniels Corporation will harvest rewards similar to that of Greenwin. It is not just a simple matter of ‘plant it and they will come’ but rather, if you engage residents in an area in the activity of gardening, tree planting, and maintaining, you will bring those same people together. Through the experience of planting and nurturing, these same people become knit together into a community.
And there is that word again: community. A sharing of common goals.
Perhaps it is needless to say but I am going to say it anyway, as this may be the greatest contribution that I can make to this process: we need developers, property owners, and managers to step up to the plate. Real estate needs to be set aside for community gardens purposefully if we are going to engage more high-rise dwellers on the ground and in the garden. Supplies and education also need to be made available. In short, we need your leadership.