RSI Launched Innovative Project to Bring Sustainability to One of The City’s Most Vulnerable High-Rise Neighbourhoods

By Yasmin Glanville and Christopher Hume

As global warming creeps ever closer to the point of no return, we remain shockingly uncertain about how to stop it. It is not that we don’t know what needs to be done; the question is how to do it.

How do we – individually and collectively — transform our lives, our neighbourhoods, our cities, let alone our planet? Where to begin? The task is so overwhelming; it can be hard to move past the hand wringing and that all too familiar state of quiet desperation. Better to leave it to government to fix, or better still, other people.

But, of course, the environment affects everyone, all 7.8 billion of us. There is no escape. It is, to put it bluntly, a matter of life or death.

So, when Toronto’s Rethink Sustainability Initiatives Inc. (RSI) launched its St. James Town Community Climate Action project in 2021, the plan was to wrestle climate change down to earth – no pun intended – and provide practical answers to the overwhelming question: how do we deal with the growing environmental crisis?

St. James Town, a hyper-dense, high-rise, low-income enclave built in downtown Toronto in the 1960s was selected for the project as a prime example of a neighbourhood in obvious need. Its 19 towers are out-of-date, poorly maintained and anything but sustainable.

But as the RSI project team and volunteers quickly discovered, residents face more immediate issues than global warming. Coming up with the rent and putting food on the table occupies so much of their physical, mental and emotional energy, they have little left over to worry about the environment.

“St. James Town has some of the highest poverty rates in the country,” local councillor-turned-Toronto-MPP, Kristyn Wong-Tam, told an RSI panel. “And those who are most vulnerable get hurt more. But St. James Town is also one of the most resilient communities I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”

RSI chair Darla Campbell concurs: “We were looking at solving complex problems by putting residents together with people who have information and experience. They were amazing people; it was an amazing project.”

From the start, instead of talking at people, RSI used an inclusive, asset-based approach to inform, engage and educate community members on climate action solutions that can be scaled and adapted for use in St. James Town and other urban high-rise communities in Canada. In keeping with this inclusive approach, RSI partnered with Trinity Life/New Common in St. James Town and collaborated with residents, volunteers, workers and public building owners.

“Working with a low-income community like St. James Town you learn people aren’t interested in environmental issues,” says Selvajayan, local resident, soil scientist and an RSI “Climate Ambassador.” “They are more worried about paying the bills and moving somewhere better.”

Selvajayan, one of nineteen such ambassadors trained by RSI during the program, focuses on food security. “The lack of good food is what I’m concerned about,” he explains “Even when you have enough to eat, the nutritional value is low. Fruit and vegetables have only one eighth of the nutrition they had 100 years ago.”

“I’ve worked in the environmental field since the late ‘60s,” says Project Climate Education and Mentoring coordinator, Madelyn Webb, “and have been involved with St. James Town since 2018 when I was part of a group working for emergency preparedness. When RSI put out the call for climate ambassadors, we got a good response. We heard from a lot of very interesting people. Many, including foreign trained professionals, were highly educated. All wanted to make a contribution and learn more.”

Another graduate of the ambassador program, Julia Baranovsky, describes the experience in entirely positive terms. “I feel it gave me a sense of empowerment,” she says. “Now I know how to develop a project and make it happen. We learned how to take solutions and inspiration from other places in Canada and abroad. We learned how to turn ideas into pilot projects, about how to communicate with government for support. We were also trained in different tools and methods that can be used to facilitate climate action projects. In sum, we were able to find proposals that could be implemented.”

Baranovsky, born and raised in Ukraine, has lived in St. James Town since 2015. Though she appreciates its relatively low rents, she admits it’s easy to feel “isolated” in such a dense and diverse community. But she insists, “The process of change has started.”

A trained commercial artist, Baranovsky was also hired by RSI to design the 246-page volume, the St. James Town Journey: A Playbook for Climate Change Action in Urban High-Rise Communities. True to its “think and do” sustainability and resilient building mandate, RSI’s document examines new ways of meeting the social, economic and environmental challenges we face while ensuring that we as individuals and communities thrive today and into the future.

As Alexander Hay, who teaches at the University of Toronto Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, notes in his foreword, “I particularly like how RSI brought all the community stakeholders together to design the roadmap for this journey of discovery. They gave voice to all stakeholders, enabling each and discovering hidden talents. Together and as a community they built a diverse and inclusive partnership that helped redefine relationships and foster genuine dialogue and curiosity.”

Of course, every community – high-rise or otherwise – faces its unique climate challenges. In recognition of this, the playbook focuses on “how” rather than “why” or “what.” It addresses the process of community building. Though many assume fighting global warming is a battle that can only be fought at the national and international levels, in fact much of the struggle occurs locally.

“I used to think that [building] retrofits fixes were always top down,” admits RSI director and sustainability expert Nigel Etherington. “The big lesson for me at St. James Town was that they can also be initiated from the bottom up. Government involvement is essential but alone is not sufficient. The Playbook is a journey of discovery of solutions desperately needed at both an individual and organizational level.”

The Playbook itself is the most tangible outcome of the process with a summary of insights for mobilizing climate action and enhancing the sustainability and resiliency of community members today and tomorrow. It will enable us to make change. It is about forming relationships as well as giving hope and a new sense of purpose to a disadvantaged community.

As has always been the case, the longest journey begins with a single step.

For more information or to obtain a copy of the St. James Town Playbook, click on the following links:

Yasmin Glanville is the Founder of RSI, CCA project lead, and a Future and Innovation Strategist and Implementation Advisor.

Christopher Hume is an award-winning Canadian journalist and former Toronto Star urban issues columnist.