Canada’s densest neighbourhood, St. James Town, to possibly get new condos

A mega-development proposal in a small section of North St. James Town has many residents, community organizations, and city planners concerned about overcrowding in what is already considered one of North America’s most densely populated neighbourhoods. The plan, which includes four skyscraper towers ranging in height from 46 to 56 storeys, some low-rise mixed-used buildings, and the retention of a heritage building, would demolish four other heritage buildings and add over 1800 condominium units if approved.

Wellesley Institute’s St. James Town Initiative has been researching the relationship between built environment and resident health and well-being in St. James Town for several years. This research has found strong evidence that St. James Town suffers from overcrowding, lack of green and public spaces, poor building and neighbourhood maintenance, and a general lack of resources for serving the large and diverse population. These neighbourhood factors are well known to impact health and well-being. In light of such findings, it is important to ask whether the North St. James Town mega-development plan might exacerbate the already strained resources in the area.

Through our research, residents have expressed concerns about new condominium developments. As one resident describes, “the community of St. James Town already is overflowing with people of all ages yet they are still building… This is not good for this area due to the limited sources and services.” While discussing the under-developed area where the mega-development plans take place, another resident suggested that the space be used to provide some much needed resources for residents such as “… a basketball court where kids can play or a facility that anyone can benefit from.  A clinic would be perfect for this area or a swimming pool…” It is clear that many residents believe this space would be best used by being transformed into resources for the neighbourhood.

Because existing apartment buildings in St. James Town are crowded and in need of major repairs, residents would greatly benefit from public services and recreational neighbourhood spaces. “The way the pool and the playground relate to our lives is the enjoyment time with friends and families.  The apartments are too small to have everyone over so we need to go outside,” explained one resident.  Green and open spaces where residents can engage in social and physical activities have been linked with physical and mental health as well as social integration.  Lacking such spaces, the built environment in St. James Town can have negative influences on residents’ health.  It is unclear how the mega-development plan will affect these issues – it might introduce more residents without first sufficiently addressing the existing community’s needs.

Though these concerns are well known to the public, residents feel their requests for improvements have been ignored. A resident expressed feelings of powerlessness, saying that “unfortunately their plea for help went unheeded and they were buried in an overwhelming wave of ‘that’s not our problem’.”  St. James Town is a low-income neighbourhood with a high proportion of immigrants and racial minorities –populations that tend to experience barriers to good health and well being.  A new report by United Way, Vertical Poverty, revealed that not only is poverty associated with poor housing conditions, but it is becoming more concentrated in high-rise buildings. This suggests that St. James Town’s neighbourhood conditions are likely to be common in other low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto.

Our health is greatly influenced by the neighbourhoods in which we live and grow. To ensure equitable impacts on neighbourhood health and well-being, it is important that any approved plan for development in St. James Town will respond appropriately to the residents’ needs.  At the surface, it is unclear whether the proposed mega-development has done this.

Some well-known features of St. James Town:

1)     High Density: The official population of St. James Town is 17,100 (residents estimate this number to be much higher at 25,000).  St. James Town’s population density is more than 18 times that of the City of Toronto and it is the most densely populated neighbourhood in Canada.

2)     Immigrant-Receiving Neighbourhood:  64% of St. James Town residents are immigrants.  The neighbourhood boasts immigrant-residents from a large number of ethno-racial communities, including Filipino, Tamil, Chinese, Pakistani, Korean, Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepali, Ethiopian, Somali, and Eastern European communities.

3)     Few Public and Green Spaces: Being a concrete neighbourhood, the neighbourhood lacks sufficient green spaces and general areas for residents to engage in leisure activities.

4)     Poor Maintenance: St. James Town is composed of 18 aging high-rise rental apartment buildings, many of which lack basic hygienic utilities such as exhaust fans, and all of which are in need of major repairs.