Designing It for Themselves

18 Apr
Playground Designed by the Kids Themselves -- including their own idea for a roof-like garden, the Sky-o-Swale.

Playground Designed by the Kids Themselves — including their own idea for a roof-like garden, the Sky-o-Swale.

In the late 1980s, the Mumbai-based Indian Alliance, a grassroots social movement of the urban poor, began talking with the members of Mahila Milan, or Women Together, about housing solutions. Several hundred families were going to be evicted from the sidewalk huts in which had been living, in some cases, for decades. Eventually, the women came up with their own design for the kind of apartments that would suit their and their families’ needs. They were taller than municipal apartment units, with a loft for sleeping, wider corridors and toilets at each end instead of inside the apartment itself. And those features all responded to the realities in which the poor of urban India lived, with frequent power outs and lack of running water, among other things.

In 2008, in the Toronto suburb of Kingston-Galloway, some young designers at a firm called ArchiTEXT became involved with the local community in a design initiative that would also incorporate a poverty reduction strategy. The project included working with about 50 people, mostly youth and even children, in coming up with a design that would transform an old police station to a community centre. Over a year and half, anyone interested in participating in the project could learn about everything from design processes (using a free Google version of Autocad) to green building mechanics to building codes through weekly three-hour sessions.

The result, inaugurated in 2010, is called The Storefront, and with its Eco-Food Hub kitchen, community garden, solar panels and multi-tasking resource centres, it’s pretty amazing. Various foundations and government bodies kicked in the money for it, but it is clearly a project that was directed by a community in need — many of the area residents are new Canadians from nations as diverse as Somalia, Jamaica and India — rather than any authority or developer.

Last week, I had a coffee with Zahra Ebrahim, the founder of ArchiTEXT, a social purpose business that is all about creativity, innovation, community and not fitting in with anything else. “Making social change happen is our new thing,” she said. “We’re calling it funding the misfits, everything from the policy level to the community design level to the financing. It’s really emergent because this is Canada and we don’t think of ourselves as needing to look at poverty in the same way.”

At the same time, traditional non-profits and charities are hampered in the way they work with poor communities. “The things that are frustrating for me is that social problems are generative, they’re root problems, yet not-for-profits get money and if they don’t deliver that outcome they don’t get funding, or if they deliver that outcome more efficiently than they planned, they lose the money.” Instead, she said, we need to be concentrating on finding alternative metrics.

Talking about the 80-unit apartment buildings designed by slum dwellers in Mumbai and also financed by a hodgepodge of different non-profits and other agencies, she picked up on something both groups had in common. Like the women of Nagpada, Kingston-Galloway was organized, had built what Ms. Ebrahim calls “social infrastructure. It’s based on a community that was like this ,” she said, joining fingers — “ten years before we came in.” So when they arrived with tools and learning, this community was ready. “I don’t do anything,” she says.

Now the Community Design Initiative group is looking for ways to help people running small businesses from their apartment towers use space in the community centre instead. They want to attach another wing and a second floor, and is the subject of a national case study.

Sure, Kingston-Galloway is not a developing world slum. But like many urban enclaves in North America, it is a place often described as “troubled,” where people live with little money and narrow horizons; the solutions to their everyday problems are usually delivered from on high, are pretty stingy, and don’t really change anything. Because of their collective experience and ability to take charge, this corner of Scarborough at least represents something different for the thousands of people who live there. “It’s making everyone not go ‘oh my god, I can’t wait to get out of Kingston-Galloway,’” she says. “It’s ‘I love Kingston-Galloway.’”

Readers can check out what’s going on at The Storefront at its website, and the cool stuff ArchiTEXT is doing here — and of course , the story of the Mumbai slum dwellers, and other social movements, is told in my book ‘Broke But Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and Their Radical Solutions to Poverty.’

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