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The combination of extreme weather events and a high rate of growth has left Toronto facing new challenges: affordable housing is in short supply, Lake Ontario has reached dangerously high levels, and, just last year, it was reported that nearly 100 homeless people died in the city, mainly because of exposure to extreme weather.

The man at the center of the city’s response is its chief resilience officer, Elliott Cappell, who is leading the development of Toronto’s resilience strategy through the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program. Speaking at a ULI event in February, Cappell said the two issues he is most keen to address in his role are the renewal of the 1,189 apartment towers in Toronto that were built before 1985 and safeguarding the city against a catastrophic flood.

Those towers house 650,000 Torontonians, largely in low-income areas outside of the downtown core, and make up 45 percent of the city’s rental stock. Many of them are “falling into a poor state of repair,” Cappell said. “If you were to think about your ultimate resilient community, where people have access to affordable high-quality housing, where your community supports good physical and mental health, where it’s a low-carbon community, these towers are the opposite of that,” he said.

“They bleed energy. In an emergency, everyone above the fourth floor is in a very challenging position, to put it mildly. They’re the worst buildings for waste diversion, they’re the worst buildings for water usage, and they were built for a world that doesn’t exist. They’re towers surrounded by a giant parking lot for people who don’t own cars. Just to get from their front door to a bus stop is a 12-minute journey. These communities are not resilient communities.”

Attempts to solve the problem in the past have ultimately failed, and to date not a single tower has been retrofitted, Cappell said. Former mayor David Miller made the issue a priority during his seven years in office, but after he lost the 2010 election “nobody wanted to be associated with it,” and the team currently tasked with overseeing the renewal of all these towers consists of just four people.

Cappell has taken it upon himself to inject some urgency back into the program, but he admitted that it is not going to be easy. “I’m not totally confident that we’re going to be successful,” he told the meeting. “To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, to do the first 40 towers in Toronto, our rough math is that it will take C$850 million [US$674 million]. So it’s not a small problem here.”

Raising money will be a core part of the process and will require the intervention of a “large public purse” like the Canadian Infrastructure Bank or the National Housing Strategy, but it will also require political know-how. “One of the things I hear is: ‘Oh, so you want to take a bunch of public money, lend it to people who have been slumlords, and have them take care of their buildings, and somehow that’s a good thing?’ So there are a lot of complicated politics around the money,” Cappell explained. Lastly, it will require closer working between the public and private sectors, including ULI members. Eighty percent of the towers are privately owned, so the two sectors need to think about “creative uses of land,” Cappell said.

Flood Risk

The city’s flood risk is the other major issue that Cappell will aim to address. While the city has a solid plan for dealing with flooding from the rivers that flow into Lake Ontario, near-constant development in recent years means that a lot of ground has been paved over, creating a risk of overland floods, which is already manifesting as basement flooding in both rich and poor parts of the city.

Lake-level rise also needs to be urgently addressed, Cappell said. Last year, the lake reached a level that threatened the downtown core, “shattering records” in the process and creating havoc for residents of Toronto Islands. And the problem is only made worse by a rapidly changing climate. Cappell said that last year, 5 percent of days broke climate records: they were either the hottest, coldest, or wettest ever for the city.

“When it comes to overland flooding, lake-level rise, we don’t have any governance, anyone to pay for it, any action list. [Lake-level rise] is totally new, and we don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we’re going to do something.” Currently, Cappell is working with experts from the Netherlands to identify potential solutions to the problem, and he points to New York City’s the BIG U project—which involves wrapping a park around Lower Manhattan that will act as a floodplain—as something worth emulating.

“I’d like to see something like that here. Our flooding issues aren’t going to go away, so a resilience project around the waterfront parks and the island would be an absolute moonshot.”

Between mitigating flood risk and coordinating the renewal of more than 1,000 apartment towers, Cappell has a lot on his plate. And Toronto’s rate of expansion shows no sign of slowing down, which will undoubtedly complicate the process. Cappell said the city has more development planned than Amsterdam, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Madrid, and Washington, D.C., combined.

He knows he is not going to be able to do it alone, and called for an end to the “us versus them” mentality that exists between local government and the development industry. Toronto may be a resilient city, but its challenges are vast. And that makes partnerships between the private sector and people like Cappell more important than ever.