Toronto lore says that William Gibson once described the city as one whose aesthetic came from the era of wide lapels and corduroy pants—hopelessly dated and cringingly functional.
This emphasis on functionality, however, is leading into excitingly green directions with the Tower Renewal plan, which hopes to convert the over-1,000 low-efficiency concrete apartment towers in the city to high-efficiency "cladded" buildings sheathed in a new exoskeleton capable of supporting, among other things, photovoltaic energy modifications. The "cladding" provides insulation, weather barriers, and new places for network cabling. The website depicts the clads as white metal, transforming these sites into giant albedos in the middle of unused parkland.
That unused land is also the target of the plan. During the 1960's, many concrete slab apartments within Toronto were designed along the "tower in a park" model, effectively isolating clusters of buildings within acres of land set far back from major roads and hidden behind chain-link fences. The new plan would open these spaces up and encourage urban agriculture, local small business, and car-free community access and engagement in what are often Toronto's most at-risk neighbourhoods:
Apartment Neighbourhoods could be transformed into truly self-sufficient urban villages. Reconsidered as hubs, and incorporated with community services, gathering and recreation space, new retail and housing; these neighbourhoods could evolve into vibrant nodes servicing the resident community and city at large.
Source: Tower Renewal Opportunities Book provided by E.R.A. Architecture
The Tower Renewal main page is full of the keywords that make WorldChangers' hearts skip a beat:
Both the opportunities book and the Mayor's report explain that agriculture and local food production is a goal of the plan, with the under-utilized greenspace surrounding the towers being converted to community gardens.
By giving these cement slabs a kind of prosthesis, they achieve greater energy efficiency because less heat leaches out through the buildings, and cool air can be maintained more easily indoors. In a city like Toronto, which has both long winters and humid summers, this is a must.
All four of the plan's pilot sites are part of the Transit City plan, which proposes to unify Toronto's far-flung suburbs with subways and light rail in 25 years. The pilot sites are situated along these new routes, which have long been under-accessed by public transit.
Cladding also provides opportunities for landlords and tenants to harvest solar and wind energy, as well as install smart meters and gray-water systems. The materials also list geothermal as an optional retrofit. All of this ties into...
Which would allow buildings or nodes to eventually pull themselves off the grid by manufacturing their own energy from renewable sources and sharing it amongst "apartment neighbourhoods."
Because some of these apartment clusters are so remote, their inhabitants rely on cars, fringe food providers, and walk-in clinics. The renewal plan hopes to end all that by creating new jobs close to home, some of which will be green.
Available retrofits also include shifting apartment units inside the building, expanding them to include the families who already live there in cramped conditions.
Whether all of these changes will be implemented is another matter. What works at some pilot sites won't always work at others. Moreover, these changes require community involvement and education—not everyone knows how to start a kitchen garden, or has the proper certification to run a (green) daycare. And perhaps most importantly, care must be taken to make certain that the costs of these improvements aren't simply downloaded onto renters. The report speaks to this:
The installation of energy efficiency retrofits will allow property owners to enjoy decreased energy costs thus allowing rents to remain affordable even as the building stock is upgraded.
However, as the TenantCity blog points out, this system relies on landlords to make the smart, ethical decision, especially regarding smart metring:
Most energy used in rental housing is consumed in heating, cooking, refrigeration, and (for a lucky few) air conditioning. Just knowing that my old fridge, stove, and baseboard heaters use a ton of electricity doesn't empower me to replace them. Moving from landlord- to tenant-billed hydro eliminates incentives for landlords to upgrade outdated, power-hungry appliances and heating systems or replace draughty windows with newer, better-insulated ones.
Although the renewal plan makes no mention of energy-efficient appliances as a green retrofit, and offers no guarantee that renters won't suffer, the plan seems to have unfolded quite cleverly, and serves other cities as a model of small, recognizable goals in the face of an immense climate challenge.