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City Building Research in Focus

Webinar Series 2021: Overview

City Building Ryerson was happy to work with journalism graduate student Stephanie Leonardelli in capturing summaries of our City Building Research in Focus webinars in 2021. 

By Stephanie Leonardelli, Ryerson School of Journalism graduate student

In early 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, City Building Ryerson launched the City Building Research in Focus webinar series. These events served as an opportunity to learn more about the fascinating projects and research of Ryerson faculty members, and provided evidence that the process of city building requires us to harness ideas and share learnings across many sectors.

Think of this integrated approach to city building as a train ride across the country. The series calls individuals aboard the Ryerson Rail to explore the different ways we can view city building--from the lens of arts and culture, earth science, technology, business and social science. There are many stops along the way. From learning that the sound of city traffic can impact your health, to understanding the history of gendered urban planning, to the 3D scanning technology that is available to help communities contribute to heritage preservation, this trip’s itinerary helps riders navigate a broad range of topics that impact urban regions and populations.

Some overarching themes emerge throughout the journey. A primary focus for Ryerson researchers is exploring the inequality barriers that prevent cities and urban communities from thriving to their fullest potential. Be it gender inequities, racial discrimination, socioeconomic status, geographic biases, or employment disparities, this webinar series does not shy away from addressing inequality. As you will witness, Ryerson researchers are working towards addressing these issues in various ways, helping to break barriers, gather data on root causes, and supplying strategies to attain social and economic benefits.

The opportunity to learn more about the multi-disciplinary practice of city building awaits aboard City Building Ryerson’s Research in Focus webinar series. All aboard!

Webinar: Housing Affordability and Immigrant Groups in Canada

Presented by Dr. Vik Singh

The Impact of Housing Unaffordability on Immigrant Groups in Canada

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Ryerson’s Dr. Vik Singh examines the impact of housing prices on different immigrant groups wishing to secure family residence ownership in Canada.

In an era of increasing globalization and migration, worsening housing affordability continues to pose challenges for many. For City Building Ryerson’s first webinar in its 2021 “City Building Research in Focus” series, Dr. Vik Singh, Assistant Professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, examines declining housing affordability and its varying impacts on immigrants to Canada.

 (PDF file) The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (external link)  states that despite new immigrants today being more highly educated and skilled than previous cohorts, they have not fared as well as their predecessors in terms of employment and earnings, and are more likely to live in poverty, and to depend on social services.

Given that immigration is an important driver of Canadian population and economic growth, and that many immigrant groups share the common goal of buying a home in their new country, Singh asks whether the recent rapid increase in housing prices in urban centres across the country has affected all immigrant groups the same, or if there are clusters that are particularly vulnerable to housing challenges.

“There is a lack of systematic understanding regarding how the problem varies amongst immigrants. It is not enough to lump immigrants together and say it is a problem,” says Singh. “The problem varies depending on where the immigrants come from and when they came.”

Looking at the past 10 years of Canadian Census data, Singh’s model considered homeowners and renters (as a majority of immigrants that move to Canada rent first) and compared them based on origin country and date of arrival. Overall, Singh’s research concluded that while many immigrants experience housing affordability issues, visible minorities are more likely to experience greater affordability challenges, and that Asian and African communities demonstrate lower rates of home ownership over time compared to European immigrants. Further, his research indicated that people in their early years of renting are the most vulnerable to severe unaffordability issues.

Singh points out that the economic benefits associated to the booming housing market are limited to those who already have housing assets, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded income inequality, as it has led to rising unemployment and loss of reliable income. Many of the jobs that employ new immigrants are lower-paying positions in the sectors worst hit by COVID-19, such as tourism, hospitality and retail. For immigrants today, housing unaffordability is linked to an absence of credential recognition, hurdles in securing living wages, and a deficiency of government programs targeting immigrant groups to overcome these barriers.

Singh offered some solutions, starting with retraining programs to prepare workers for future tech-oriented jobs. More generally, city planners and policy makers need to come together and improve policies and strategies that address the most vulnerable, he says.

By studying how housing affordability differs across immigrant groups in Canada, we gain insight on how to improve welfare gains and develop future policy measures that ease the housing affordability crisis for immigrants and disproportionately affected segments of the population.

Diagram showing homeownership rates in Canada by place of birth

Graphic from Dr. Vik Singh's Feb. 11, 2021 presentation, demonstrating data comparing homeownership rates among immigrant groups in Canada.

This webinar took place on February 11, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Dr. Vik Singh of the Ted Rogers School of Management.

Webinar: It Takes a Community--Advancing Neighbourhood Businesses

Presented by Dr. Zhixi Zhuang

It Takes a Community to Advance Neighbourhood Businesses

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Highlighting the many ways local businesses contribute to vibrant, sustainable and inclusive neighbourhoods

Local businesses are hugely important in building vibrant, sustainable and inclusive neighbourhoods across Toronto. They also face enormous pressures and challenges. Dr. Zhixi Zhuang, Associate Professor at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, presented her findings on neighbourhoods and local businesses as part of City Building Ryerson’s “City Building Research in Focus” webinar series on February 23, 2021.

In this webinar, Dr. Zhuang introduces three unique research projects, starting with a recent survey she led of Toronto’s neighbourhood businesses, which looked at businesses occupying different built forms—apartment towers, mainstream commerce and market districts—and incorporated interviews with 11 key informants, including real estate developers, retail experts, city councillors and others. The ensuing report, “The Evolving Neighbourhood Commercial Landscape in Toronto,” addresses the lessons learned from neighbourhood organizations in the past and discusses future challenges inner-city Toronto businesses may encounter.

Zhuang discusses business data collected from 2007-2017 that reveals that during this time, Toronto retail businesses declined in absolute numbers, and also as a share of total businesses, largely replaced by restaurants. Zhuang’s research also revealed that businesses offering services remained relatively static over the decade, but only accounted for 20-30% of total businesses. Additionally, vacancy rates increased in five of the nine Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) studied, as Toronto neighbourhood businesses continued to face unprecedented challenges and changes.

From the rise of malls and power centres, to changes in mobility, online shopping trends, and regulatory/ tax burdens, neighbourhoods have had to develop innovative community-building strategies to bolster economic development. Regent Park, for example, recently adopted a commercial program to bring essential services to the community, and plans are underway to introduce a social enterprise model that encourages local employment and small community-based businesses by providing support via business mentorship programs, affordable rent, community kitchens, and more.

Another great business incubation tool is temporary or “pop-up” retail, which can address service gaps within neighbourhoods. This was seen at Market 707 (external link) , where shipping containers were repurposed as spaces for small-scale shops, restaurants and service providers.

In these examples, we see the importance of responding to community needs, listening to the perspectives of business owners, and welcoming mixed-use spaces to promote local production, commercialization, creativity and access to various services, says Zhuang.

In Zhuang’s second research project, she focuses on immigrant communities and neighbourhoods in suburban Toronto. Funded by SSHRC, the research explores Chinese and South Asian suburban neighbourhoods across the GTA, with an emphasis on areas where small businesses concentrate on supporting local communities and their economies. Although sometimes unappealing to the eye, the inner suburbs have played a critical role in sustaining an active social, economic and community life; many immigrant businesses adapted post-war strip malls that have been serving their local communities for over 20 years.

Unlike many traditional suburbs, most immigrant neighbourhoods outside the city core have relatively high degrees of institutional completeness. This means immigrant communities have successfully developed various ethnic institutions that satisfy the needs of co-ethnic community members. The way immigrant communities function and organize spatially is unconventional when compared with other suburban neighbourhoods, having significantly transformed suburban spaces by adding, “new meanings, new identities, and new community functions and infrastructure,” says Dr. Zhuang. This is exhibited in Brampton, a city where over 400 South Asian, African and Caribbean-owned businesses, various places of worship, schools catering to specific needs, and other non-essential services account for half the city’s businesses, unlike service businesses in Toronto, which only account for 20-30 per cent of total businesses.

Critical social infrastructures have been developed in suburban ethnic locations, like strip plazas and indoor shopping malls, to promote social interaction and community building. But Dr. Zhuang underlines that these suburban municipalities cannot stop there; they need to prepare for continuous demographic shifts caused by global migration, must continue to revitalize suburban ethnic retail places that contribute to building institutionally complete communities, and should be reinvesting in established social infrastructure.

The final project presented by Dr. Zhuang was her research on business recovery in downtown Brampton, which consisted of two parts. First, students were asked to create a plan to reactivate the city’s downtown and implement its region 2040 vision (external link) . Second, the same student cohort was challenged to find business recovery solutions for downtown Brampton in the face of COVID-19. Both student plans prioritized connectivity, local economic activity, community engagement and wayfinding, and looked to envision a complete community that meets local daily needs with institutional completeness. The solutions proposed included providing space for social enterprises, and curating flexible spaces that could be shared to foster unique retail opportunities, like pop-ups, events and collaborations. The students’ recovery plan also put emphasis on ensuring equitable access and affordability: “Neighborhood commercial areas should be a place for everyone, with a diversity of choices,” says Dr. Zhuang.

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed opened discussions about how communities can leverage local resources to support local needs. Yes, the pandemic is a global phenomenon, but the solutions to impacts felt locally are largely based on collective efforts of local communities. In essence, effective community engagement is a key driver of business success, given Toronto’s diverse populations; the long-term sustainability of our neighbourhoods and their businesses rely on how multiple perspectives are equitably represented in major decisions. Meaningful engagement with local community members will help create buy-in and cultivate local leadership for the benefit of regional businesses and the communities in which they exist.

This webinar took place on February 23, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Dr. Zhixi Zhuang of the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Webinar: Mapping Local News Poverty

Presented by Prof. April Lindgren

Why Local Journalism Matters

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Understanding the value of local journalism and the risks of local news poverty

Access to verifiable, timely, independently produced news is essential to building healthy, vibrant communities. Professor April Lindgren, the Velma Rogers Research Chair at the Ryerson School of Journalism, presented her research on the loss of local news outlets and reporting as part of City Building Ryerson’s “City Building Research in Focus” webinar series on March 5, 2021.

Lindgren began her presentation by discussing why local journalism matters. She explained that local journalism is a vehicle for building communities by providing residents with shared information and facts that enable public engagement. Local journalism is also a way to hold public officials accountable, encourage members of a community to get more involved in local political affairs, and helps develop a sense of connectedness that enables people to work together to solve problems. The loss of local journalism, she says, creates an opportunity for misinformation to “slither in and pollute the information environment.” She shared a quote from  (PDF file) the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (external link)  that describes the value of information to be “as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health.”

But it goes beyond having a local media operation; the local journalism must be produced in the public interest, provide the relevant information needed for a community to thrive, and flag issues early on to avoid surprises.

Lindgren’s research focuses on what she calls local news poverty, which is the degree to which local news media meets eight critical information needs deemed essential by scholars to navigate everyday life. These needs include information about emergencies and risks, education, transportation, economic opportunities, the environment, civic matters, political affairs and health issues. She said that local news poverty is greatest in places where residents have limited or no access to timely, verified, independently produced news about one or more of the critical information needs. She has focused her work on attempting to track the emergence of local news poverty and continues to seek out solutions to the problem.

The lack of available local information in some communities in Canada is becoming a serious issue. To illustrate this, Lindgren presented an earlier research project that revealed lower rates of local news coverage of the 2015 federal election in certain cities compared to others, producing lack of access to informative news important to democracy. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review (external link) , “When people have reliable access to local news and information, they vote more—according to a 2009 study, simply reading a newspaper can mobilize 13 percent of non-voters to vote. People with access to local news are also more likely to run for office and politicians work harder for their communities when local reporters are holding them accountable… Lastly, local news quite literally brings communities together, improving social bonds and reducing political polarization.”

Lindgren hopes to understand the reason for the varying availability of local news and services across distinct communities but recognized that she first needed to assemble data on local news providers at the community level. She is the lead on the Local News Research Project (external link) , which tracks launches, mergers and closures of media organizations in Canada. Since 2008, when the project started, she has learned that news organizations at the local level are closing much more rapidly than they are launching. Both large and small municipalities are affected; it is a challenge across the board. And though during the pandemic people have been increasingly reliant on local news, operations have continued to close--the project’s COVID-19 impact tracking map reveals an increasingly bleak journalism landscape, with at least 3,000 jobs lost or suspended, and closures among 62 or more media organizations, related to the pandemic so far.

What’s the solution to the loss of news outlets across Canada, according to Lindgren? In the past, advertising provided the bulk of revenue to fund local news. Now, she says, it’s time for new funding models, pointing to charitable status and direct government industry support. Additionally, there are alternative community revenue generation models, journalism school initiatives, and the potential for newsroom collaborations amongst small news operations that can keep local news operations afloat. At the core, these solutions to revive local news media rely on producing compelling news of public interest. By providing local journalism that people want and need, we can build vibrant communities and keep residents informed and engaged on matters that affect their everyday lives.

This webinar took place on March 5, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Prof. April Lindgren of the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Webinar: Women and Cities--Planning for Equity

Presented by Diana Petramala and Hannah Chan-Smyth

Creating Cities that are Equitable for Women

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Gender mainstreaming is key to creating cities that remove barriers faced by women 

In honour of International Women’s Day 2021, City Building Ryerson invited two speakers to explore the topic of gender equity in cities as part of the “City Building Research in Focus” webinar series. Diana Petramala, Senior Economist at the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Toronto Metropolitan University, and Hannah Chan-Smyth, a second-year student completing her Master of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, highlighted the relationship between gender and urban planning while offering some key recommendations for adopting gender mainstreaming in urban planning, and removing barriers faced by women in cities.

The webinar began by exploring the how urban planning can specifically advantage or disadvantage women. Historically, the architectural design and urban planning principles of our cities was centered on the relationship between home and work, during a time when women were confined to more traditional roles of unpaid labour in the household. The initial discussion of women in cities was inspired by the feminist movement in the 1960s that challenged men’s position of power and authority over the urban form. As women began entering the workforce, they found themselves physically, emotionally and economically strained trying to manage paid and household work in the existing design of our cities, and statistics show this strain is still felt by women living in Toronto today.

Women, children and the elderly have much broader spatial relationships, meaning that, “women, or those who take on the brunt of household work, have more complex travel patterns and more varied needs in public space that were not accommodated in [the current build of our cities,]” says Chan-Smyth. Statistics illustrate that women in the Toronto census metropolitan area (CMA) are less likely to participate in the labour market than their male counterparts, and also less than the average Canadian woman. Additionally, women in the Toronto CMA are twice as likely than men to work part-time, and their choices regarding  their engagement with the labour market are a function of where they live. This indicates that there is something inherent in our city determining the degree to which women can and do participate in the labour market.

To demonstrate what data can reveal about how Toronto’s urban design affects women and their economic wellbeing, Petramala first delved into the daily hours spent doing various activities and categorized the data by sex and age. Of the roughly equal hours in which men and women are “doing things” during every 24 hours, men generally spend more time doing paid work, whereas women spend more time doing unpaid work; this trend is most prominent from age 35-44, the prime age for women developing their careers. In terms of commuting, women are more likely to commute within their census division, using public transit; just 30% of women in the Toronto CMA work more than 50 kilometres from their homes, instead being more likely to take on the lower paid service jobs that are abundant in the suburbs and close to their other household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, child and elder care. Thus taking a “gender mainstreaming” approach to future city planning could help to equalize labor market access between men and women.

The Council of Europe defines  gender mainstreaming as “the reorganization, improvement, development and evaluation of policy processes, so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and all stages.” (In this concept, gender can be understood as “gender plus,” which goes beyond biological and socio-cultural genders to include intersections such as race, ethnicity, religion, age, mental and physical disability and more.)

As Chan-Smyth explains, the City of Vienna has been gender mainstreaming for 20 years, employing three noteworthy strategic principles. The first involves reframing the understanding of work to include unpaid jobs and household tasks. The second principle explores the importance of planning spaces for different life phases and needs. The third recognizes the value of designing a polycentric urban model where housing, jobs, services and institutions are distributed evenly across the city, leading to reduced commute times and a more flexible, barrier-free city. (By contrast, the built form of Toronto follows a monocentric urban model, with high density business districts at the centre and suburbs radiating outward, presenting a more spatially disconnected model.)

Applied to two decades of urban projects, these principles have reshaped Vienna’s urban model by adapting transit, density, built form, housing and budgeting practices to better accommodate women and removing barriers to their participation in the job market, such as reducing the time spent on unpaid labour or by providing good paying jobs within a reasonable commute. Proof positive is the data, which demonstrate and increase of nearly 11% in labour market engagement among women following Vienna’s adoption of gender mainstreaming in 1998.

Our gendered cities disproportionately impact women, and thanks to Vienna’s efforts, we are now aware of the positive economic impact gender mainstreaming can have on women’s labor force participation. Interestingly, the closing wage differential in in high-paying management jobs in the Toronto CMA has not encouraged greater participation by women; rather, the time constraints associated with those higher-paying jobs was the leading contributor to whether or not women engaged in the labour market, says Chan-Smyth. As the federal government strives to get more Canadians to work to help boost the economy, they need to find ways to encourage women to work, but not at the expense of fertility rates, for the sake of long-term economic benefits. This goes beyond monetary incentives—it’s about alleviating unpaid work and improving commute times for women.

Although there are costs associated with gender mainstreaming, including infrastructure investments, admin costs and the opportunity costs of other ventures, the benefits are superior. Gender mainstreaming fosters greater labour force participation among women and helps to build  healthier, more flexible communities that equally accommodate the needs and activities of all. These benefits will surely enable future economic and social growth for cities, including Toronto.

This webinar took place on March 8, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Diana Petramala of the Ryerson Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, and MPl candidate Hannah Chan-Smyth.

Webinar: Pandemic Stress and Stigma Reduction

Presented by Dr. Josephine Wong

A Rapid-Response Health Intervention to Reduce Pandemic Stress and Stigma

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Nursing expert Dr. Josephine Wong strives to enhance community resilience and health by addressing pandemic stresses and stigmas

To build a resilient and healthy community, Toronto Metropolitan University’s Research Chair in Urban Health Dr. Josephine Wong, describes the importance of learning from our past and responding to our present for the sake of informing our future. Dr. Wong, an esteemed professor at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, is the lead behind a recent project to reduce the stress felt by health care workers, families and communities in general, as well as combat the racism against Chinese and Asian Canadians, that has been on the upswing during the COVID-19 pandemic. She spoke to her recent project, named PROTECH (an acronym for Pandemic Rapid Response Optimization to Enhance Community Resilience and Health), in a recent webinar in our City Building Research in Focus series.

Dr. Wong started her presentation by reminding us that this is not the first time Canada has dealt with a pandemic. In 2003, during the SARS virus health crisis, we established the Public Health Agency of Canada, which produced a detailed report that highlights the learnings from the that pandemic and brings attention the pandemic’s impact beyond its destructive health consequences.

“The social and political aspect of SARS was actually quite tremendous,” says Dr. Wong, as she describes the inequities and racism that intensified as a result of people’s fears. “Racism has always existed,” says Dr. Wong, who points out that pandemics further intensify the discrimination. “And it seems to give some people permission to feel that they can act violently towards different groups.”

With reference to COVID-19, there has been an unequal distribution of infection rates, with greater impact of the illness felt among racialized and low-income communities. Dr. Wong expresses that, even 17 years after SARS, the lessons that should have been learned have not materialized.

Dr. Wong was heavily involved with the SARS pandemic as a staff person at Toronto Public Health. When she was not labouring at the SARS Control Centre, she was working with communities, including listening and responding to accounts of anti-Asian racism. At the time, she says, a lack of robust information from health units across the country, and rising misinformation, resulted in fear and anxiety among people nationwide. Unfortunately, a surge in anti-Asian racist crimes was an outcome of this scenario. Dr. Wong and her colleagues joined the coalition to introduce a hotline that communicated pandemic information in three Chinese languages. Since then, health agencies have started providing information that is accessible in a variety of languages spoken at home in Canada.

When the federal government began having preliminary conversations in early 2020 about a pandemic that we still knew very little about, Dr. Wong was prepared to ensure there was reliable access to information this time around. Within eight days, with the support of COVID-19 rapid-response research funding, she and her colleagues were able to produce a successful proposal to initiate another pandemic hotline for Asian communities to retrieve information, and receive support and training in supporting others.

She disputes the common conception that city building is only about bricks and mortar: “City building is really about highlighting the interdependence and the interconnection between people and environment.” She attributes her team’s successful proposal to the trusting relationships they had established with many marginalized communities. Interacting with their own colleagues, stakeholders and people holding less privileged positions in society allowed them to respond quickly and bring attention to the lack of protection some communities suffer.

Dr. Wong proves just how valuable these hotlines and community forums are by describing the aftermath of a COVID-19 outbreak in a predominantly Filipino church in Toronto. Many migrant workers from the Philippines who were members of the church and were working as caregivers were fired by their employers the same day as the outbreak was discovered. This put their residence in Canada in jeopardy, since it depended on their visa and employment; chaos erupted following the layoffs. Dr. Wong’s team worked with labour associations, politicians, social justice leaders, community health promoters and psychiatrists among others to address the lack of protection and job security for Asian residents, and address the stigma surrounding mental illness in the community.  

“COVID-19 has had lots of ‘shadow pandemics,’ …[notably those of] racism and mental health challenges,” says Dr. Wong, as she acknowledges that the pandemic has magnified structural violence that has existed for “hundreds of years.” She stresses the importance of balanced top-down and bottom-up approaches for effective pandemic response and uses the below diagram to illustrate the continuous connection among people.

Diagram illustrating the interplay between social justice and equity principles in effective covid-19 pandemic response
Effective Pandemic Response Approach

Grassroots engagement, says Dr. Wong, “is very important because we can have public health rules and guidelines, but without the participation and buy-in from the grassroots, we are not able to deal with the pandemic.” She goes through the interconnectedness of the different topics outlined in the infinity ring, highlighting her team’s Pandemic Acceptance and Commitment to Empowerment Response (PACER) Training program as an effective resource to support people during these challenging times.

Beyond a COVID-19 information hub, PACER’s goal (external link)  is to increase participants’ psychological flexibility, resilience, and capacity to promote prevention efforts. Training sessions discuss how to promote mental health, how to implement self-care, the process to accessing information and linkages for those experiencing racism or xenophobia, and helping to connect people with community groups and resources to address these difficult experiences. Take for example the customized program Dr. Wong and her team prepared for the health-care providers, social workers and workers in a nursing home that had experienced an extensive outbreak, much loss, and a high level of grief and burnout on the part of staff. On their breaks, her team led an online stress-reduction program with them, providing them a space to tell their story and engage in mindfulness.

The survey statistics prove PROTECH’s effectiveness in helping people realize they are not alone, and in creating a space where people feel supported and have started healing.

This webinar took place on March 25, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Dr. Josephine Wong, Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, Toronto Metropolitan University.

Webinar: Health Impacts of Road Traffic Noise

Presented by Dr. Tor Oiamo

Urban Road Traffic Noise Has a Negative Impact on Health: New Studies

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Dr. Tor Oiamo finds that persistent levels of noise from urban road traffic has a negative effect on health.

Cities face all types of health threats. Among these are the surprising yet serious health implications associated with noise pollution, an under-investigated area of study. Dr. Tor Oiamo, Assistant Professor in the department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University, has measured noise levels across Toronto, focusing on road traffic noise, and conducted research confirming its links to certain chronic health problems. He provided an overview of his studies in this area in a webinar on April 8 hosted by City Building Ryerson, “Health Impacts of Urban Road Traffic Noise.”

To start his discussion, Dr. Oiamo describes noise as unwanted sound, which is a vibration measured in units called decibels. Health effects have started being reported at sound pressures above 50 decibels. (For context, 50 decibels are equivalent to the sound of moderate rain.)

Dr. Oiamo utilized a visual to describe the direct and indirect effects of sound exposure. A direct effect, for example, could be physical damage to the hearing organ which could prompt sleep disorder. Indirect effects of sound exposure could include anger or annoyance, which may perhaps contribute to the disruption of performance, sleep and communication, as well as trigger cognitive and emotional reactions. Both the indirect and direct effects of sound exposure can lead to different biological and physiological responses that, over a period of time, can cascade and manifest as cardiovascular disease outcomes such as hypertension, coronary heart disease and heart failure.

Based on a growing understanding and concern of the health impacts associated with exposure to environmental noise, research has started expanding. Researchers now have access to enhanced noise exposure assessments, patient/population cohorts and clinical data, as well as higher quality and reduced cost of biological assays and panels. This has not only allowed the identification of health endpoints and the biological pathways that brought them to that juncture, but has enabled the differentiation of the stress of distinct noise exposures.

The World Health Organization (WHO) produced a comprehensive review of noise research (external link)  in its publication, Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region. These guidelines define noise as an important public health issue and provide recommendations for protecting human health from exposure to environmental noise. These guidelines are in place to prevent some of the known health outcomes of noise pollution, which include hearing loss, adverse birth outcomes, cardiovascular and metabolic disease, sleep disturbance, reduced quality of life and mental health challenges, to name a few. The WHO determined, of these health outcomes, which there was strong evidence for, and which still required more research. The study concluded that there was very strong evidence on the effects of traffic noise on incidents of heart disease.

Motivated by this research, Dr. Oiamo and his team have collected similar data in Toronto, specifically looking at road traffic noise. With the help of over 200 monitors strategically located around the city and information regarding the number of vehicles in a particular area at a given time, as well as details regarding what the built environment looks like, Oiamo and his team can predict with high precision how a particular sound wave is defined and how it propagates throughout the environment. Although sound is a predictable, physical property, “[measuring road traffic noise is] a very data-hungry process,” says Dr. Oiamo. For this reason, it can be a tricky project for big spaces.

To complicate things further, not all noise is the same. Different sources of unwanted sound can have different health effects, which explains why it is important to know where sound is coming from. When sound is initially recorded, the health effects are unknown. Accordingly, Dr. Oiamo describes the detailed noise exposure map he created to estimate with more certainty traffic noise and total noise; he discovered that approximately 60 per cent of all noise variability in Toronto can be explained by traffic, depending on the time of day. Essentially, traffic is the most dominant and important source of noise in an urban environment.

The noise assessment research Dr. Oiamo and his team conducted also revealed that there were higher levels of noise pollution in what he referred to as “sensitive areas.” These hotspots include schools, long-term care homes and hospitals. “We found that 27 per cent of residents were exposed to 24-hour levels above 65 decibels and if you recall, health effects start occurring around 50 decibels.” Even more concerning was the fact that 93 per cent of residents experienced levels greater than the WHO’s nighttime noise guideline. 

Unfortunately, sound does not break through the barriers of inequality; Oiamo’s research revealed significant differences in noise exposure by socioeconomic status. Dissemination areas in Toronto in the low-income quintile proved to be 11 times more likely to have at least 50 per cent of residents exposed to excessive noise levels. He expresses the importance of mitigating and reducing the exposure in these highly unprotected locations first.

With the data they collected, Dr. Oiamo and his team were able to take a more epidemiological approach to identify the specific health effects related to traffic noise, which included diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attacks/ heart failure. In fact, for every decibel increase of 10, there is an eight per cent increase in chance of heart attack or heart failure.

To obtain a greater understanding of the impacts of environmental noise on urban communities, improved exposure assessments and access to health data is necessary. For starters, mitigation measures need to be implemented to combat the negative effects of noise that are known; traffic control measures are one reduction effort that will likely have positive consequences, according to Dr. Oiamo. Moving forward, built forms and standards, streetscape designs and how we physically organize our city need to have noise mitigation efforts in mind. Finally, there is room for improvement on the regulation front; there are no federal rules or guidelines for mobile sources of noise, and minimal regulation for stationary sources. An action plan with measurement and performance metrics is necessary to decrease overall noise exposure and protect the vulnerable and sensitive sites of concern.

This webinar took place on April 5, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Dr. Tor Oiamo, Geography and Environmental Studies, Toronto Metropolitan University.

Webinar: Imagining the future of TO's Chinatown districts

Presented by Linda Zhang

Preserving and evolving Chinatown’s urban heritage through an architectural lens

Webinar summary by Stephanie Leonardelli

Linda Zhang of the Ryerson School of Interior Design harnesses new technologies and approaches to engage community in discussions of heritage preservation.

On April 29, 2021, City Building Ryerson invited Linda Zhang, Assistant Professor at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design, to discuss a recent project in which she has taken a new approach to imagining the future of Toronto’s Chinatown East and West cultural districts and involved community members in dialogue about the preservation and evolution of Chinese architectural heritage in these historic neighbourhoods.

She notes that while today, these cultural districts are recognized by the City of Toronto as unique neighbourhoods with important histories, their history involves struggle and cultural resilience of multiple groups, starting with indigenous peoples. Chinatowns have continued to be one of the few globally accepted public displays of ethno-cultural heritage of the larger pan-Asian community in North America, says Zhang. But how did these expressions of Chinese architectural heritage emerge? She also asks, “Who is allowed to occupy public space? Who gets to decide this? By whom, for whom?” The history is not straightforward.

Here in Toronto, the Zhong Hua Men archway/paifang (external link)  in Chinatown East was erected in 2009. It was accomplished thanks to collaborative efforts of the Chinese community and the City of Toronto, and yet, the City of Toronto’s 2017 Public Art and Monuments Donation Policy excludes donations of works that portray non-Canadians, or events that took place outside Canada. Zhang suggests that what is allowed to occupy public space can be at odds with what is valued by a certain community way of life. She explains these conflicting policies as ones that offer “complexity and yet richness in terms of how we foster inclusive and diversity heritage practices in Canada’s multicultural context.”  

Sharing a picture of the Chinese Village and Theatre Pavilion created for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (external link) , she notes its significant history as an early expression of Chinese architectural design. The Chinese Exclusion Act (external link) , a US federal law from 1882 to 1902, had been extended just one year prior, and as a result, the Chinese government withdrew its support from the Chicago exposition. So a group of Chinese Americans decided to fund the project, in reaction to the master design plan for the expo, nicknamed “The White City,” which promoted an idealized model of uniformity. Exhibitions that did not fit in were relegated to a separate street called the Midway, which is where the Pavilion was featured. With an intent to correct American prejudice against the Chinese in order to gain broader acceptance within mainstream society, the architecture of the pavilion used loose imitations of ancient Chinese architecture to make Chinese forms more easily digestible. Thus began the modern, recognizable version of Chinese cultural representation in the built form of North American cities.

Today, Linda’s work attempts to reimagine the future of what both Chinatown districts in Toronto could be and aims to build a more expansive and inclusive definition of Chinese heritage in built form. Her technique utilizes 3D scanning, which is common in documenting architecture, neighbourhoods and cities, but is not a technology accessible to all, and is largely something that can only be done at an institutional level. Zhang points out that this results in institutions deciding what is deemed worthy of 3D scanning, documenting, and protecting. Instead, her work puts this preservation technology into the hands of everyday people.

In a powerful new multi-part project, described in part in this Ryerson Today article, she engaged community members in dialogue about architectural heritage and preservation using high-tech 3D scans of entire Chinatown main streets to discover what matters most to participants. Using the insights learned from the workshops, she created a board game including 3D-printed buildings, allowing players to build a board with their vision of a future Chinatown, which is again rendered as a 3D scan. Following this, Zhang and her co-facilitators have created a speculative fiction writing workshop to reimagine Chinatown in 2050. The workshop probed people to answer questions centering the changes they imagined for Chinatown 29 years from now. The seminar gave rise to numerous fictional stories written by the attendees that were later complemented with a virtual reality companion.

If you are interested in seeing more of Linda Zhang’s work, be sure to attend this year’s Myseum Intersections Festival (external link) . This digital symposium will not only explore past, present, and possible futures of how we define and develop Chinatowns, but will also explore the possibilities of 3D scanning to give agency and tell important stories.

This webinar took place on April 29, 2021. This recording includes research presentation, moderated Q&A and extended conversation with Linda Zhang, Assistant Professor, Ryerson School of Interior Design.