Today, the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) released a new report, Community Engagement & Active Transportation: Two Demonstration Projects in Toronto, which describes a project conducted by TCAT in partnership with Toronto Public Health (TPH) under the Healthy Canada by Design CLASP Initiative.The project piloted new community engagement processes to identify interventions that would improve walking and cycling in two neighbourhoods in Toronto. It involved the creation of a three-stage community engagement process that was adapted from a model developed by the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre. The process involved key informant interviews, capacity building workshops, and community consultation events. The two neighbourhoods selected for the project, the Annex and Black Creek, are very different from one another.
The Annex is a diverse mixed-income downtown neighbourhood close to the University of Toronto. The major shopping strip in the Annex, Bloor Street, has been a focal point for change for many years. Bloor Street has a relatively high number of cyclists, a fairly high incidence of car-bike collisions, and is served by a subway underneath the street. The installation of a bike lane on Bloor Street was identified as the highest priority intervention by residents for this area through TCAT’s community engagement process.
The Black Creek neighbourhood is a culturally diverse suburban neighbourhood characterized by a mix of low-density and high-rise housing, low walkability, and high rates of obesity and diabetes. Earlier this month, Toronto’s Community Development Committee adopted a new Neighbourhood Equity Score that determined that Black Creek faces the most serious inequities requiring immediate action of 140 ranked neighbourhoods in Toronto.
Several innovative projects have been initiated in this neighbourhood including the development of Everdale’s Black Creek Community Farm. The Everdale Farm, launched in the spring of 2013, expects to draw a large number of people from the local neighbourhood. At present, the neighbourhood is cut off from the farm by Jane Street, a busy four-lane major arterial road, which provides no safe and convenient place for pedestrians to cross. The closest traffic signal to the planned farm entrance is 250 metres away. TCAT worked closely with Everdale, throughout 2013, to engage local residents in discussions on different options for reaching the farm safely on foot or by bicycle. The intervention identified as the highest priority was the installation of a new traffic control signal at the farm.
While these two neighbourhoods are very different in their characteristics, some unifying themes emerged from the two community engagement processes:
- Community engagement is messy work; it’s not possible to predict the outcome;
- There are no “cookie-cutter” solutions; each neighbourhood is different;
- It takes time to build relationships with internal and external stakeholders;
- Stakeholders often have differing ideas of success and competing priorities; and
- Creating change in the built environment requires a long-term commitment.
Toronto has a particularly complex institutional and political structure that can make it difficult for community groups to get involved to improve walking and cycling conditions in their neighbourhoods. The alliance between community organizations and public health authorities proved to be a powerful and effective approach to make the links between health evidence and the need for changes in the way our cities are built.
Prepared by Nancy Smith Lea, Director of the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation, Clean Air Partnership, with Kim Perrotta, Knowledge Translation & Communication lead for Healthy Canada by Design.