To positively influence the future of a place, you have to understand its past and present. We see communities, economies and social structures as parts of a complex system that needs to be considered and developed as a whole.


As community builders, we’re often asked to come up with solutions to exceptionally complex challenges. These challenges come in many forms, from securing the finances to build when resources are limited, to gaining government approvals within restrictive policies, to anticipating the social risks and opportunities that come with any new development.

By considering all of the factors that are influencing a project, and identifying the critical connections between socio-economic activity, policy and construction, we are able to actively respond to the most pressing needs of our clients, and the public we serve. We see each project within the larger process of building resilient and productive communities.






Tower Renewal, Toronto

An Extraordinary Asset


Toronto’s Tower Neighbourhoods

A Unique History

In the 1960s and 70s, Toronto’s suburban growth strategy was unlike any other city-region in North America. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) adopted a funding program that produced a surge of high-rise rental buildings within the city’s new post-war suburbs, a volume of building greater than Toronto’s most recent condo boom. Two thousand towers were constructed across the region, and more than half were built in Toronto. As a result, the Greater Toronto Area has a density nearly twice that of Chicago.

The architects and planners of the time aspired to create the dynamic city of the future. They built new parks, schools, places of worship and shopping plazas within the boundaries of these new and dense communities. They imagined an ideal setting for modern, middle-class families and carefree young professionals, and designed buildings with pools, lounges, theatres and ample underground parking.

The Present Day

Fifty years later, the picture looks different.

A recent report by United Way Toronto reveals between 1980 and 2005, the gap between the rich and the poor in Toronto has widened by 31 per cent – double the national pace. It also pointed to previous research that revealed a dramatic geographical divide: income inequality between Toronto’s neighbourhoods has shot up by 96% since 1980.  At the lowest end of the economic spectrum are Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods.

Commonly referred to as Toronto’s inner suburbs, the tower neighbourhoods have been the landing zone for the past two generations of immigrants, the majority coming to Toronto from developing nations. Despite the fact that these towers account for 50% of the city’s available rental units and are home to about one million people across the region, the tower neighbourhoods have been largely ignored by public policy and private investment for the second half of the last century.

Over the years, the towers have aged and become inefficient; the land surrounding the buildings has fallen into disrepair. Recent studies have revealed that many residents live in overcrowded conditions, with persistent pests, frequent elevator breakdowns and broken locks. Although the majority of the tower residents do not own cars, the areas are poorly serviced by transit and many local residents are forced to walk long distances to do simple tasks like buying food, visiting a doctor, or travelling to work.

An Unprecedented Opportunity

After decades of suburban development, North American cities are now struggling to reverse the negative effects of urban sprawl. Increased air pollution and water consumption, the loss of wildlife habitat and endless gridlock have created an incentive for cities to pursue dense, compact and mixed-use communities.

In 2008, the City of Toronto commissioned a study called the Mayor’s Tower Renewal. The study describes a radically different perspective on Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods. It insists that Toronto’s high concentration of tall buildings in the city’s inner suburbs is an enormous asset – a huge building stock of three and four bedroom rental units that are in very short supply across the rest of the city which, if renewed, could dramatically improve the quality of life for thousands of local residents.

The Mayor’s Tower Renewal study inspired a new generation of urban designers and policy-makers to re-imagine the future of Toronto’s inner suburbs. By first acknowledging the challenges facing the tower neighbourhoods, the study outlines a general action strategy that includes retrofitting the towers to reduce energy loss; redesigning and re-programming the surrounding public spaces; introducing new public transit, building infill and mixed-use development; and creating opportunities for social, cultural and economic activities and programmes.

The Centre for Urban Growth + Renewal

In 2009, SvN (formerly planningAlliance) and ERA Architects partnered to form the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (CUG+R), a non-profit organization with a mission to engage in research initiatives fundamental to achieving liveable and sustainable urban, suburban and rural environments. The Tower Renewal Project is one of CUG+R’s primary research priorities.

For the past eight years, CUG+R has been leading a coalition of public and private partners to unlock the potential of Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods. Building on the work established in the Mayor’s Tower Renewal study, our team is applying our expertise in complex development challenges to take the vision for Tower Renewal and make it a reality.


Inspiring Action

Along with its partners, CUG+R continues to develop research to unlock the potential of the tower neighbourhoods. 

At each stage we test the viability of our strategies through site-specific studies and full evaluations of the particular economic, political and social conditions.

Our aim is prove the feasibility of Tower Renewal and to inspire all levels of government to make it a priority. With the co-operation of a few key stakeholders, we have an enormous opportunity to dramatically improve the living conditions for some of Toronto’s most vulnerable communities.


YWCA Elm Centre, Toronto

Improving the Lives of Women and Children

Toronto’s House of Industry

Houses of Industry

Near the middle of the 19th century, the United Kingdom created a system of Victorian workhouses for the poor, and instituted laws that limited aid to anyone who refused to join. Charles Dickens famously described the harsh treatment endured by the poor in the “Houses of Industry” in his book, Oliver Twist.

In 1836, one of the British administrators of the system, Sir Frances Bond Head, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Canada. Fearing that the inhumane conditions of the workhouses would spread to Canada, a group of reformers founded the Toronto House of Industry on the corner of Elm St. and Elizabeth St..

Built in 1848, The Toronto House of Industry was the city’s first homeless shelter, the first in a system of shelters that became the foundation for Canada’s government-funded social assistance programs.

In 1947, the building was converted into a home for the elderly, and remained so until Toronto’s Rotary Club took ownership in mid-1970s.

YWCA: Helping Women in Poverty

Across Canada, women are struggling with the debilitating effects of poverty. The statistics are astounding: 36% of Aboriginal women, 35% visible minority women, and 26% of women with disabilities, currently live below the poverty line. Twenty-one per cent of single parent mothers are raising their children in poverty. Reports have shown that children who are poor often suffer from chronic health problems and struggle in school, both factors that can perpetuate the cycle of economic hardship.

The lack of affordable childcare in Canada means that many women spend more time caring for their children and less time on education and career development. As part of juggling their daily responsibilities, these women are often forced to take on minimum wage and precarious jobs, ultimately sacrificing their long-term economic security. On average, a Canadian woman will earn about 65% of a Canadian man makes over her lifetime, making it harder to save for retirement. As a result, 14% of single senior women in Canada live in poverty.

To avoid these extraordinary obstacles, some women choose to stay in abusive relationships that put their lives, and the lives of their children, at risk.

The YWCA Toronto focuses on advocacy, employment and housing programs to help these vulnerable women and girls. By the middle of the last decade, the YWCA was running 196 shelter units and 234 permanent housing units, while helping thousands of women through group programs at centres across the city. But with over 30,000 women and their families still in need of affordable and supportive housing, the organization was determined to do more.


In 2006, the city bought the historic building and land surrounding the property from The Rotary Club, after a proposal for a condo development on the site had failed. The zoning had already been changed for high-density use, which prompted the city to accept proposals for a new, permanent affordable housing development.

YWCA Toronto teamed up with Wigwamen, an Aboriginal housing provider, and the Jean Tweed Centre, a women’s addiction counselling agency, to put forward an ambitious proposal for a large, permanent affordable housing complex and mixed-use community hub for women.

Affordable housing at this scale had not been built in Toronto since the federal government made cuts to social spending in 1980s and 1990s. The YWCA embarked on an elaborate social financing campaign to raise the funds for the project. They secured $37 million from the three levels governments, $26 million in loans from Infrastructure Ontario, $10 millions dollars in charitable donations, and $6 million dollars in social impact bonds – all as the global financial market was crashing.

A Safe Place

SvN, partnered with Hilditch Architect, was entrusted to design and deliver this unique, significant and exceptionally complex development.

The YWCA Elm Centre had to comprehensively address the needs of a very diverse community: low-income woman with mental health and addiction issues, women fleeing violence, women of aboriginal ancestry, and single mothers and their children. Our team had to deliver a range of affordable housing types to meet the programming requirements of three complimentary, but distinct, not-for-profits, and to create a series of safe, high quality and vibrant public spaces to help the community grow and thrive in years to come.


A Triple Bottom Line

The Elm Centre supports the rich and complex system of programs delivered by the YWCA and its partners. From housing, to medical services, to career training, the centre brings together a vast range of services to improve the lives of the many women that it serves.

In turn, the design of the complex embodies the YWCA’s inclusive and community-driven approach. It is sustainable and livable development that carves out a space for a large group of women and their children, to help them thrive within a dense urban environment.