The Community. Design. Initiative. is a project located in one of Canada's most at-risk and diverse neighborhoods, facilitating a conversation about architecture's responsibility to engage across not only physical, but economic, social, cultural, and environmental environments. In short, it's kids building buildings—under the watchful mentorship of a few brave social work and design professionals. In Canada, it is pushing the envelope around truly participatory architectural processes.
The project itself is unique collaboration project between a social service delivery hub (East Scarborough Storefront), an architectural think tank (archiTEXT), and an architecture firm (SUSTAINABLE.TO). Based in the priority neighborhood (a neighborhood defined as at-risk) of Kingston Galloway Orton Park in East Scarborough, the building project has engaged youth to design an 8,000 sq. ft. addition to the social service delivery hub, the East Scarborough Storefront. Over the last three years, local youth have been engaged with architects, landscape architects, planners, designers, etc.—over 45 professionals involved in the conception, design, fundraising, approval process, and construction of the building. The complexity of this building process' eco-system continues to engage all ranges of stakeholders, with the youth-led participatory process demonstrating broad reaching positive impacts on the community (and at-risk neighborhoods at large).
Both social workers and designers want to help to improve people's lives, yet they use entirely different words, tools and processes. The Community. Design. Initiative. has allowed (or made it necessary for) the two groups to learn to work together, to share their words, tools and processes.
Since 2009, the mentors/professionals have been working with the youth and community of East Scarborough to reimagine their Community Service Delivery Hub, a one-stop shop where 40 partner agencies deliver services to support the people of the community under one roof. Together, they have developed a Master Plan for the building and the site for a sustainable and accessible adaptive reuse of a dispiriting 1960's police substation into a vibrant place of extreme imagination and practicality, which better reflects the spirit of the community. The 8-phase Master Plan allows for the realization of the vision in stages, as funding becomes available. To date, the collaborative detailed design and construction of phases one through four (the renovation of the existing building) has been completed, and phase 7 (shade and naturalization strategies on the site) has begun, with strategic additions to the building and further landscape improvements to follow.
Key sustainable architectural features include: adaptive reuse of a robust existing building and site; re-connection of the building and site to the surrounding community and green spaces; resource and energy-efficiency; non-toxic, natural materials; creative rainwater harvesting and shade structures; optimization of renewable energy sources; local food production; shade and naturalization strategies; andâ€¨ accessibility for all. The community engagement in the process reflects the core belief that buildings can only be truly sustainable when they are created by the community, rather than for the community.
In the last several years, the conversations around this type of work seem to be increasingly pervasive. Architects around the world are challenging themselves to not only reinvent architecture in its physical form, but also the process through which it is created. In Canada, architects have begun to engage into this research, mostly by way of providing pro-bono work for non-profit groups. The Community. Design. Initiative. takes this research a significant step further by exploring not only the relationship-building, but also the legal frameworks associated with this kind of work, as well as the time commitment required to make these projects truly participatory. Engaging with this style of practice more widely across the country, and around the world, would give architects a new and much-needed sense of relevance in communities where our role and input has steadily and considerably diminished over the last three or four decades. The belief is also that this style of practice can reload architecture with real significance—buildings can be bearers of a fabulous and much needed artistic potency when they are created by the community.
This project is renewing architecture discourse and practice in Canada, and is rebuilding key connections with audiences and communities that had long lost touch with architects and architecture.
The CDI project touches on seven key thematic areas:
- Dynamic youth capacity building
- Place-based poverty reduction
- Local Economic Development /Resilient Local Economies
- Tower Neighborhood Renewal
- Bridging design professionals with community-building in the inner suburbs
- City-building outside of the downtown core >Sustainable Design Typologies
The Community. Design. Initiative. demonstrates what can happen when there is a convergence of people together from a broad range of disciplines and socio-economic backgrounds engaging in the practice of architecture as a new type of solution to a problem. The building almost becomes the happy byproduct of an entirely otherwise-relevant outcome.
About Zahra Ebrahim
Zahra Ebrahim is the Founder and Principal of the design think tank and creative agency, archiTEXT. Starting archiTEXT at 22 years old she hoped to create a place to bring together diverse groups to tackle the intersections of architecture and design with social change, to explore the impact of design and creativity on systems change, and to engage the public in a discourse of design and design thinking as a mechanism for creative problem solving. At 24, Zahra was invited to teach at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU). She is also the co-lead on the Community. Design. Initiative., a legacy project engaging some of Canada's most marginalized youth in architecture and design in Toronto's priority neighborhoods.
Zahra spent two years serving as Innovator in Residence at Canada's National Design Museum, the Design Exchange. In recent years she has become increasingly committed to exploring the space where design, creativity, and play engage with systems change, sparking initiatives that create conversation and activate innovation. Zahra is the co-founder of the Design Walk-In —a storefront design health clinic launched in 2012 and opening in cities across the globe, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, a Strategic Partner of the Canadian team for the Venice Biennale 2012, and is actively involved in Jane's Walks—specifically exploring bakery architecture.