Reducing the Risk

Text + Images Michael Koutsoulias

Aggression is something of which we are all capable, and yet humankind has never really mastered the ability to control it. The relevant case in question is the ongoing outbreak of adolescent gang violence occurring throughout the city of Toronto. “Gun violence,” “teen shootings” and “gang brutality” are all phrases that have become commonplace in the headlines of the local and national media, indicating a very serious predicament for both Toronto and cities across Canada. In the recent federal election, gang violence took the spotlight, particularly in what are considered the at-risk communities of Toronto. Jane and Finch, Regent Park and Malvern are familiar names that have been identified as a few of the key zones of Toronto’s gang-driven crimes. In response to the issues of at-risk communities, all three major political parties responded by attempting to introduce solutions that focused on the plight of alienated suburban neighbourhoods in metropolitan areas. While this attention from politicians is welcome, from a planning and architecture perspective there was neither emphasis placed on the actual understanding of residents’ concerns nor the treatment of their built environment. The dialogue failed to address Toronto’s need for an inclusionary method of planning which responds to and engages with the unique character and needs of the people living within them. This leads us to question what the design community’s role is with respect to taking action against gang violence, and what are the potential solutions that the design community may offer.

While government has repeatedly made calls for action, it is debatable whether or not their proposed methods are enough to fully address the volatile situation of at-risk populations living in sensitive neighbourhoods. The proposed solutions thrown around during January’s federal election campaign included increased funding for job creation for the teens living in the at-risk communities and an increase in funding for after-school programs. Both ideas have reasonable long-term goals and point in a positive direction. However, the most prominent proposals involved the introduction of harsher gun laws, greater police presence, longer prison sentences and more severe penalties for offenders. Assuming that these strategies will be implemented, we can only speculate on how effective they will be. What is certain is that they do not address the long-term rehabilitation of the individuals serving longer prison terms, and they fail to address the possibility that future and potential offenders can be easily led astray by the rites of passage inspired by glorified gang culture, as witnessed recently in Toronto. This ultimately leads to the important questions of what are the forces involved in fostering dangerous neighbourhoods, and is it possible to understand the individual’s relationship to the environment in which he or she grows up?

Understanding a social group and its environment extends beyond simplistic strategies of distracting adolescents in lower-class communities with undesirable job opportunities, or the use of scare tactics. These policies simply serve to further alienate at-risk individuals from the rest of the community. By delving into a variety of disciplines which include anthropology, ethology, psychology, socioeconomics, architecture and planning, these disciplines set the stage for a greater interdisciplinary approach to study the questions relating to how our government can devise more effective policies and instruments that adequately socialize adolescents in at-risk communities through a process that is directly related to the planning and design of their neighbourhoods. If something is to be done about the dangerous trends currently unfolding in Toronto, an investigation into understanding the phenomenon of youth violence within these communities is critical. In order to do this, it is necessary to evaluate the impact that the environment has on the social development and identity building of the at-risk individuals, and to question the relationship they have with the place they call home.

What is the geographic and social context of Malvern?

As an individual who grew up in the Malvern community, I can attest to observing and even experiencing incidents involving adolescent aggression and violent behaviour. I see Malvern as a useful case in demonstrating a methodology which presents the myths and driving forces of at-risk communities and the rites-of-passage rituals of its teenagers. With respect to inclusionary planning, this study seeks to understand how the design profession needs to deal with the issue of youth violence.

Socially, Malvern exists as a multicultural entity with a range of suburban lower- to middle-class working families, in addition to families in need of social assistance living in subsidized housing. Geographically, Malvern is an alienated community–this is evident in the quality and condition of its public institutions in addition to the lack of accessibility it has to the rest of the city. The public spaces of Malvern are scarce and the surface treatment of these spaces gives the impression of a suburban wasteland, a situation that is contrary to its original design where the planning was grounded in a vision of the suburban ideal: picturesque green spaces, pockets of safe and quiet subdivisions where families could raise their children away from the city.

The great vision of Malvern never materialized. By the late 1970s, 20 years after it came into existence, social conditions changed with a new wave of immigrants entering Canada, many of which settled in the community. Unfortunately, the planning of Malvern and its institutions did not adapt to the needs of the incoming populations and there was no action taken to provide the necessary institutions and public spaces to address the evolving urban conditions.

The original plan of Malvern was for a self-sustaining community anchored by a community centre encircled by residential fabric. The community centre was originally defined by vehicular infrastructure surrounded by buildings and open spaces. The programming of these buildings included a recreational and library facility, two secondary schools, medical buildings, seniors’ homes, places of worship and the Malvern Mall–a shopping centre which was the largest of all the buildings. The programming of these building typologies intended to service the needs of a typical community. However, over time, it became evident that there was a deficiency in programming which provided places for teenaged rites of passage and places to release adolescent aggression in a safe and educational manner.

The characteristic of increased aggression at this age range is inherent in all teenagers; however, in the case of at-risk teens it can become extremely problematic and dangerous unless proper guidance and opportunities are provided. When appropriate rites of passage, experiences and spaces are not provided there is a natural tendency for teenagers to create their own rituals and in the case of at-risk teens, incompatible rituals are substituted and adopted from foreign places. An example in the case of Toronto is the adoption of gang culture found in the US inner cities. This “ghetto culture” provides myths and role models that the at-risk teens can relate to in addition to providing rituals typical to gang mentality. That which was spawned in the urban parts of the US has transformed into a new form of dangerous gang culture grounded in a suburban context. As a result, new relationships are formed between the teenagers and the surrounding disused urban artifacts. The most prominent of these artifacts in Malvern is the Malvern Mall. It is here that many shootings and incidents of violence have taken place over the past decade, as well as in other areas like the community centre, and even within the high schools.

For a designer and planner, understanding the relationships between urban artifacts and the social group in questio
n becomes critical in redefining the institutions and typologies used in the rites-of-passage rituals of the at-risk teenagers. This is a case where understanding the locus of the adolescent community provides opportunities for design. The map at the top of this page indicates the areas of interest for teenagers in Malvern and the spaces in which they prefer to carry out their daily routines and rituals. These areas are indicated by the red lines and generally represent spaces where the teenagers are unwanted and where loitering is illegal. In contrast to this, the blue lines point to spaces for recreation that would be beneficial. However, due to their uninviting nature and lack of maintenance, they are seldom used. On the context map at the top of page 52 there is another element that becomes important in planning and design: the unique geographical character of the community landscape. In these circumstances, the threshold spaces surrounding the artifacts have a design potential that extends beyond the typology of the community or recreational centre. The spaces themselves may become much more interesting places for rites-of-passage rituals than the conventional building typology. The treatment of hard surfaces and green spaces, and their relationship to the buildings inhabiting the landscape create further opportunities for an informed process of design.

This analysis of the Malvern community and its institutional and environmental deficiencies provides a small sample of how valuable it is to understand at-risk teenagers and their relationship to the centre of their neighbourhood environments. With a new method of analyzing the centre of at-risk communities within their unique contexts, there is an opportunity for community planners and designers to come up with strategies based on an informed understanding of character, identity and relationship to place. In essence, the process of inclusionary planning in the case of at-risk communities gives the design profession a role and opportunity to help Toronto and other cities with their struggle against teen violence and aggression.

Michael Koutsoulias grew up in Malvern and is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. He currently lives and works in Toronto.