The new Regent Park – will it work?

May 15th, 2009

Regent Park, on the east side of downtown Toronto, is Canada’s oldest social housing development. It is in the midst of a massive redevelopment that is intended to set new standards for the design and development of socially mixed new neighbourhoods.

For perspective on this important project, we turned to David Hulchanski, Dr. Chow Yei Ching Chair in Housing at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and research director at U of T’s Cities Centre.

What’s the history of Regent Park?
Regent Park was Canada’s first public housing community. Its origins actually have a tie-in to the University of Toronto. The connection is via Albert Rose, who was a professor from 1949 and eventually dean of the Faculty of Social Work. He grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Toronto and all his life he was active in helping promote the development of housing for low income people. He and others advocated and eventually convinced the government to have a public housing program—Canada is one of the last Western nations to have such a program. He served as the chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Company, which built and owned public housing in Toronto—it’s now called the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. In the late 1940s he and others in the city basically said, ‘if the federal government isn’t going to do it, we have to do it in Toronto.’ The need was great because after the Depression and then the War very little new housing was built and extremely poor living conditions developed in inner city neighbourhoods. The area where Regent Park was eventually built was particularly run down. There was a city plebiscite and city voters agreed to build Regent Park.

Was it considered a success?
They did the best job people were doing at that time. The design philosophy was one of buildings in a park. Thus they eliminated all the streets. They put these buildings in a park-like setting, but because it was done on a tight budget the buildings are very plain. They’re very solid but very plain. And even to this day not much landscaping was ever done.

Over time it became a very undesirable place to live as the buildings aged. People in public housing can get on a list to move if they want to. So people would be there for a while but then they would move out. Regent Park in the last 10 or 15 years became a little United Nations. The newest immigrants settled there, often large families.

Then crime became common in the neighbourhood. There is a problem with youth gangs—not necessarily from the neighbourhood. Many of the people arrested for crimes were not residents at all. The design allowed things to happen because nobody “owned” the public space. It was like a no-man’s-land. Whereas if you have a sidewalk, a front door, and a little front lawn, the space is accounted for and watched over. Or if it’s a public park, it’s patrolled as a public park. Regent Park had neither of these things.

People with options didn’t want to live there. It ended up being at the bottom of the pile of desirable places to live.

When did thinking about how to build and design public housing change?
In the early 1970s the St. Lawrence neighbourhood was built near Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market and the development embodied everything opposite of the Regent Park approach to designing a new neighbourhood. The buildings are all on a street and have front doors and sidewalks. There is a central park that’s clearly a park.

So the new Regent Park is more akin to this model. Will it succeed?
In my opinion the new Regent Park neighbourhood is going to be a very desirable place to live. The historic street pattern is being reintroduced, there’s a nice central park, there are more community facilities. Even in the first phase that is opening now there’s going to be a supermarket, something that’s been missing from the area.

And it’s going to be socially mixed like the rest of the city. We recognize now to take a big piece of land and put all of one group of people on it is only asking for trouble.

How is this kind of social mixing achieved?
It’s through the housing mix. Regent Park will have what St. Lawrence has—a mix of housing. There will be subsidized housing, but these are 2,200 units out of 5,115. The number of social housing units will stay the same and the rest are a range of housing types. There will be apartments for rent and townhouses and condos for sale. They all come in different sizes and price ranges. There will be social housing but there will be a range of other types of housing for middle and higher income people as well.

This seems like a creative plan. How was it achieved?
The city doesn’t have money to do this. When they began the redevelopment process, the federal government and province were providing no money to help. The fact that the city owned the land was crucial and it allowed them to put together a public-private partnership. They said to private sector partners: you, in effect, pay for everything. You pay for the relocation process. You build us the same number of social housing replacement units and give them to us. You do all that on the social side—that’s our objective as a city, to replace the old units with new ones—and then you get to sell condos and rent units on the rest of the site.  It took a lot of negotiating and several years, but I believe it’s a formula that works, even in difficult economic times. Regent Park has the advantage of being in an excellent central residential location.

Will the development achieve other goals unrelated to social housing?
It achieves a lot. The area is well-served by transit. It is a short walk to so many workplaces. The new buildings are going to be green, to have the latest environmental features. You are increasing the density, creating a good looking neighbourhood, and making things safer by bringing back the streetscape and the clear distinction between public and private space. And it’s done in cooperation with the residents.

But isn’t gentrification a risk? Will this force housing prices up and push out poor people?
I study gentrification and I’m leading a five-year neighbourhood research initiative funded by SSHRC on gentrification in downtown Toronto. My answer is no, this is not gentrification. This is creating a mixed community, but the number of lower income families is remaining the same. Gentrification is more of a market process where higher income people move in, forcing up rents and property values and over a decade or two you lose all the low income population. Here the low income population is already there and it’s not going anywhere because it is city-owned non-profit housing.

So you’re very optimistic about the project.
My only public policy regret in terms of a missed opportunity is that there was no provincial or federal support for putting more social housing on the site. You could have added more social housing and still have a socially mixed neighbourhood, but there was just no money. The city did everything it could with the asset it had—the ownership of the land.

To answer your question, yes, I think the project will be a success. What we’re doing is providing everyone in Regent Park with new housing at no cost to the city and we’re achieving all these other goals—high density, green buildings, and a new streetscape and public park.

Regent Park will be a case of planners finally getting it right. The success of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood taught us many lessons. You can build good quality desirable  neighbourhoods from scratch. We planners have learned a few things over the past 50 years.