In this Canadian city, a housing solutions lab wants to make finding affordable and culturally relevant housing easier.
In Canada’s largest city, locals have gotten used to the number of cranes dotting the skies. For about two decades Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America, has been constructing housing at a rapid pace. According to a new report by construction consultancy Rider Levett Bucknall, Toronto has the most operating tower cranes in North America.
Even with all that construction, Toronto still is one of the least affordable housing markets in the world and is the city most at risk of a housing bubble burst, per the 2022 UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index. The expensive price to rent or buy a home has endless societal consequences, including; crime, homelessness and increased mental health issues. By addressing the cost of housing cities can impact livability on a holistic level.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is the nation’s housing agency. As a crown corporation, the organization answers directly to Parliament. It is tasked with helping all Canadians meet their housing needs and is the main agency responsible for handling the national housing crisis. Toronto is not the only Canadian city facing skyrocketing prices — Surrey, Vancouver and Mississauga have similar challenges. Not only are these cities home to a large percentage of the country’s population, but they also are some of the most diverse cities in the world.
To find solutions that are economically effective and culturally relevant, the corporation created a solutions-focused lab that works with organizations to create frameworks to solve community-specific housing concerns. The National Housing Strategy Solutions Labs provides them with funding and expertise to create community-focused solutions to the national housing crisis. Through open competition, organizations can receive up to $250,000 for their projects. Some of the successful projects within the Solutions Lab include the Gender Transformative Housing Supporting Women Leaving Violent Relationships: Co-creating Safe-at-Home Hamilton. The “Safe at Home” programs enable women to stay in their homes while recovering from violence. The perpetrators of violence are relocated. The Lab challenges the conventional support for women and children escaping violence by co-developing solutions for implementing the Safe at Home housing model in Canada.
In a recent press conference, the CMHC announced its new partnership with the Rwandan Canadian Healing Center, a city organization that works to improve mental health among those recovering from trauma, especially war-related trauma. Led by Director Kizito Musabimana, the organization works with several other African-Canadian nonprofits to create the first Afro-centered housing initiative in North America. The African Canadian Affordable Housing Solution Lab is focused on creating a village in the city. “We want to create the values and ethics of the villages many of us grew up with, in our new home,” Musabimana says.
A Rwandan immigrant, Musabimana started the RCHC because of the traumas he faced during the 1994 genocide. Forced to leave his home because of violence he made his way to Canada via Kenya and fell in love with much of the Great White North, but holds the values he learned in Rwanda close to him. “In Canada, if you knock on your neighbor’s door to say hi, you are seen as weird. In the village that is very normal. People know their neighbors, and I want to bring that value to the city,” Musabimana says.
The village paradigm the group wants to create is more about the vibes than physical space. “We want the closeness of having a community around you, where all the services you need are around you, where your children can play basketball in their own community,” Musabimana adds.
The lab will run as a one-year project that will focus on creating a plan, and then the RCHC hopes to build it. For now, the group is focused on finding experts, community members and others who want to add their voice to what the plan will look like. While the focus is on bringing in African values such as connection and openness, we should not ignore how physical space creates values. The design and architecture of our communities create our values. We are products of our environment, and if we want an environment more closely related to African values, we should look to the authentic African environment for solutions.
When I talk about authentic African environments I am referring to techniques and geometries that are native to African civilizations, rather than imports directly through colonialism. Today most African and world cities are defined through a Euclidean geometric environment. Euclidean geometry is a mathematical system derived by the Greek mathematician Euclid. The logical framing focuses on angles and distances to deduce multiple theories used in multiple fields, including designing environments. One of the major contributions includes Euclidean zoning, the dominant form of city design that separates land by use: residential, commercial, retail etc. It’s this type of zoning that gives us city zoning rules, and endless suburbias. A western fascination, Euclidean zoning spread along neocolonial lines in the periods after World War I, and especially World War II.
So what was there before colonization? Medieval Africa (around the 10th to 15th century) had a diverse set of civilizations that had as little in common as the Greeks and Mohawks, but among certain groups, a specific design technique took root that we understand today as fractals. Fractal geometry is another mathematical system that uses self-similar shapes and constant scaling to define its rules. One of the first known cases of fractals in design comes from the Edo Empire in modern-day Nigeria. Using the mathematical approach the kingdom’s city-state designed massive walls, manicured streets and city services to a specific precision for increased livability. The Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto noted of the city, also known as Benin in 1691:
“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown, and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”
Compared to Euclidean design, fractals move people and create more sustainable living spaces. Due to its concept of self-similarity at different scales, fractals can ensure accessibility to green space, walking space and other amenities for all residents. The sustainable functions of fractals even allow said spaces to grow along with the city. Urban planning today is a pay-to-play system, where those who can afford it can live in places with more accessible services. Think the apartments that neighbor Central Park, or condos near Toronto’s High Park. Fractals in the African context are not just urban planning or mathematical principles, but social and cultural markers.
In his book “African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design,” researcher Ron Eglash highlights the multiple uses of fractals among disparate African societies with little to no contact with each other. One way is cornrows, the hairstyle. Societies like the Yoruba used fractals to style their hair through adaptive scaling, meaning a repetition of patterns but to different scales. In this case, the scales change with the contours of the head.
When speaking to several communities Eglash found many had an intrinsic understanding of fractal mathematics and had their own numerical systems to count because of it. The City of Benin used its fractal planning to order its society of nobles at the center, associations and guilds among the arteries, and everyone else surrounding. The system not only located the King as a spiritual leader in the center but gave all citizens access to streets and markets.
The RCHC began as a mental health center, and if we center access to health in the community, we can use fractal design to bring access to everyone fairly. Whether basketball courts, religious services, banks or grocery stores, The AfriCanadian model wants to let all members have access to services right near home. The municipal government of Toronto is squarely designed around Euclidean zoning. In fact, much of the housing problem is an issue with too many residential single-family housing areas. If we are serious about building an Afro-centered model of housing and community we need governments to step aside with their zoning regulations. That may turn out to be the biggest issue. As the African Canadian Affordable Housing project takes shape, people are asking good questions about how spaces affect people, and what ideas can come from different cultures. If we get it right the AfriCanadian model can help solve the global housing crisis, by putting Black cultures in the driver’s seat.
Likam is a writer and researcher based in Montreal. A political economy academic, he writes for multiple publications while working as an educator in the nonprofit sector.