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Our Cities Are Inequitable. These Leaders Are Working to Make Them Better

We heard from a few of them about their essential work. Here’s what they had to say. 

People having a dicsusison in a circle

Published on February 16, 2022

With over 80% of Canadians living in urban areas, our cities must be built to serve all, not just some residents. 

To achieve this, we need to rethink how we approach everything from housing, to the accessibility of public space, and how to create spaces with, not for, the communities that use them.

The good news is that the solutions to urban inequity exist and are championed by leaders across the country. We heard from a few of them about their essential work. Here’s what they had to say.  

Diane Roussin, The Winnipeg Boldness Project 

Winnipeg’s Point Douglas neighbourhood was struggling with early childhood outcomes — 56% of children were reaching kindergarten at a point where they were not ready to learn. The cause? Several complex, systemic factors that negatively affect children through their education and into adulthood. 

In 2014, the Winnipeg Boldness Project launched a social innovation process to address the issue.  

“The Project has been around for seven years now, but the knowledge that we’re tapping into has been in the inner city of Winnipeg for generations,” says the Project’s Director, Diane Roussin. “That knowledge comes from Indigenous people.” 

Diane is a member of the Skownan First Nation, who has worked for over two decades with organizations and projects that respect the ability and the rights of Indigenous families, children and individuals to care for themselves and thrive. At the Project, she’s continuing that work by co-designing solutions with and for the Point Douglas community. 

Diane points to the outcomes of many of Canada’s social services to demonstrate the limits of creating solutions using a Western ideology. As of 2016, 52.2% of children in foster care were Indigenous, despite representing just 7.7% of the population.    

“These numbers represent systems failure,” says Diane. “These systems are set up to help us, but they maintain the status quo, and at their very worst, they harm us.” 

The way forward lies in deep, ongoing relationships with the community the solutions are created to serve. 

“As Indigenous people, we need to be fully involved in the problem identification. Our voices are hardly ever included,” she says. “At Winnipeg Boldness, we’ve done deep dives into our community asking, what are your priorities? What’s important to you?” 

The Project then partners with community organizations to design and prototype a solution to the problems facing the community. Right now, they have 12 prototypes addressing needs such as health and wellness planning, early childhood engagement, and neighbourhood wellbeing. 

“As we test these ideas with our community partners, we have rapid feedback loops with the families involved,” says Diane. “We are constantly iterating until the families say, ‘Yes, this is it.’” 

Successful prototypes then move onto the “scaling” phase of the work, where the Project finds opportunities to embed them into existing systems.  

“A lot of these processes require the space to develop relationships. When you have those relationships, you have the trust and security to be experimental, to be innovative,” says Diane. “You can reach some really beautiful places.” 

Ed Mark, Gateway Bike Hub 

Toronto’s Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park neighbourhoods are right next to entrances to the city’s beautiful ravines. But many of the neighborhood's residents — a diverse community with many newcomers to Canada, where over 80 languages are spoken — didn’t know about the natural space. 

There was also a low level of active transportation — with little walking and cycling infrastructure, most residents drove to get to where they needed to go. It was with this in mind that the Gateway Bike Hub launched in 2019, a partnership between the Neighbourhood Organization, Flemingdon Health Centre and Evergreen. 

“When the Bike Hub was created, the premise was to do waste diversion first — repairing and upcylcing bikes — and community development second,” shares Ed Mark, a manager at the Hub. “But what I found was, the community development really became the focus.” 

It quickly became clear to Ed and other staff at the Hub that the community wanted to learn the basics of bike repair and use.  

“We could fix bike, and give those bikes to people, but no one in the community knew how to ride,” he says. “There were a lot of women who had never biked before and were interested in learning how to.” 

The Hub partnered with the Afghan Women’s Organization and hosted community consultations to learn what programming the community was interested in. From there, they created bike maintenance workshops, and then learn to ride programs.  

“It ended up being a break through because in offering programs geared towards women, we opened up the programming to their kids as well,” says Ed. “Once people had a good experience, they brought others they knew.” 

Today, the Hub offers a wide range of programs that take you from learning how to use and repair a bike, to how to use one as part of your everyday life. It also hosts bike rides and events in the ravines, to improve access to nature.  

“Access [to the ravines] is not great, unless you really know where the access points are,” shares Ed. The Hub’s programming brings residents and families into the space, to improve active transportation and access to nature at the same time.  

Winnipeg Future City Builders Winning Team, Lighthouse 

Youth leadership is an essential part of building better cities. Evergreen’s Future City Builders program connects groups of youth leaders to a network of funders, peers and mentors, and equips them with the design thinking skills to spark meaningful change in their community. 

Each round of the program focuses on developing solutions for a different Canadian city. The winners of the Winnipeg round of the program created a proposal for “Lighthouse,” a website that would connect youth with inclusive personalized mental health resources.  

“Equity issues in mental health have a significant and often negative impact on the people, communities, and overall health of Manitoba,” shares Caitie Chornous, a member of a team.  

The design of the site aims to create a more equitable experience by considering factors like the user’s cultural background, preferred language, or specific mental health challenges. The decision to create a site was grounded in the fact that youth are more likely to consider digital supports when seeking mental health care.  

“Young people approach their mental health differently and are more likely to use technological resources for support,” says Caitie. “Centering the perspective of young people ensures that the solutions will be used, will be specific to their needs, and will actually make a difference.” 

While initially pitched as a resource for youth aged 12-17, the project has evolved to focus on young people aged 18-25, the age range of the Lighthouse team.  

“We believe that we have a better understanding of this user group and therefore have a more empathetic approach,” says Caitie. “It is important to center the perspective of youth when designing solutions for them, as young people have their own unique strengths, struggles, and preferences.”