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Reaching for the Sky-O-Swale

For years, a water tower was the major physical landmark of east Scarborough's Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park neighbourhood. Built in 1952 on Lawrence Avenue East, just as the then-township began its postwar boom, it was decommissioned in 1970. Until its demolition in 2007, the tower's decay reflected the economic and social problems surrounding it. 

At the same address, a new landmark is rising. For the past few months, residents have watched curiously as construction of a community-designed project with a tongue-twisting name proceeds. Its evolving appearance has induced some head-scratching—one passer-by pointed out to an onsite engineer that the recycled hydro poles sticking out of the ground were crooked. 

But the angles are intentional, and are among the many complexities involved in the development of Sky-O-Swale. Intended as both an eco-friendly water filtration system and a community gathering space, the project displays the collaborative spirit and community goodwill fostered by its host, the East Scarborough Storefront (ESS). 

By August, a former ESS parking lot will transform into a combination of shade structure, elevated bioswale and multi-sport pad.
"Everybody's had to be extremely creative, collaborative, and co-operative in order to get this done," observes ESS director Anne Gloger.

Development of Sky-O-Swale has drawn in local volunteers, organizations like ArchiText, Live Green Toronto, MLSE Foundation, the Toronto Community Foundation, and United Way, and firms such as Blackwell Engineers, Direct Construction, ERA Architects, and Sustainable TO.

Youth taking ideas to new heights

But the key component may be the engagement of the community's youth through ESS's Community Design Initiative. As part of the site's overall redevelopment, around 160 people, most between the ages of 12 and 19, have participated in design consultations, discussion groups, and mentorship programs over the past five years. For some who attended an early design charette with professional architects in November 2009, it was their first trip downtown. Their passion and energy inspired the adults, making all realize that they couldn't lose the momentum shown at that time. The youth have offered solutions when projects like Sky-O-Swale have hit roadblocks, building confidence in their leadership and decision-making abilities—especially when they teach the adults new tricks. 

Take the design of the Sky-O-Swale itself. Originally, according to Sustainable TO architect Paul Dowsett, the concept was "a water channel filled with plants that would filter rain water coming off the parking lots," but engineers determined the clay soil was unsuitable. During a subsequent discussion session, one youth suggested placing the bioswale atop the shade structure. As ESS manager Jaime Elliott-Ngugi puts it, the youth "don't let obstacles stand in their way." 

Professionals in the room embraced the idea. As the bioswale and shade structure were merged together, so was the funding for each element from Live Green Toronto. The name "Sky-O-Swale" arose, and is currently being trademarked. 

For the canopy, the youth looked at the fence which long served as a physical barrier between ESS and its neighbouring residential towers. The fence also served as a symbolic reminder of the negative connotations of site's past as a police station. The fence was recycled into the canopy's base. 

To fill it, E.R.A. architect Brendan Stewart looked to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where separate planters were installed into its green roof. With ArchiText as a partner, containers used to stack 2L pop bottles were obtained. The containers included perforations for drainage and bore each other's weight. The plants that would fill these containers were planted in the ground two years ago, and transferred last year. Around 50 volunteers spent eight hours moving the containers to the ESS's roof, where they remain until construction is completed. When activated, the filtered water will go into underground cisterns, which users of the adjacent community garden will pump out. 

Besides recycling hydro poles (acquired with the assistance of the United Way) and fencing, Sky-O-Swale is reusing wood from an unusual source. Decking for the stage under the canopy is utilizing material salvaged from "Migrating Landscapes," an architectural exhibition that appeared at the 2012 Venice Biennale. On a cross-country tour, the show needed to downsize before reaching Halifax, so ArchiText arranged to send the excess wood to Scarborough. According to Stewart, two weekends were spent pulling the pieces apart and sorting it before it was reassembled into modules ready for installation.

The sport of building communities

When renderings were made of Sky-O-Swale, a sports pad was sketched in to fill the space in front of it. The drawing took on a life of its own. When the MLSE Foundation called Gloger to inquire if there was space nearby to build or refurbish a basketball court, she looked at the rendering and said, "Sure we do!" 

The development of the sports pad pleases nearby tower resident and ESS community resource specialist Khushbu Narogho. "There aren't many areas where kids can safely play," she says. "There is a pool, but it's very dirty, and there is a little park but it is not safe at all." The park in question includes a slanted basketball court, which often forced kids to chase balls into the adjacent wooded ravine. For Narogho, the new pad provides a safer space for her younger siblings to play. 

Producing safer surroundings has long been a goal for the ESS. It evolved as a response to a lack of legal, social, and youth support services in the community during the late 1990s, especially among rising numbers of refugees housed along the Kingston Road motel strip. What evolved was a partnership involving up to 40 agencies offering at least 10 hours a week to provide their expertise. "We provide the space, we provide the relationships between community members," says Gloger. ESS has hired local youth like Narogho to serve as liaisons brokering these relationships. 

ESS also promotes and fosters knowledge between a series of local networks involving residents, service delivery hubs like the Toronto Public Library, architects and urban planners, the city's Tower Renewal Program, businesses, and University of Toronto Scarborough. It is developing a sports network, training 30 coaches to work with local youth at Sky-O-Swale and at the UTSC's fields.

Tackling community issues

When Gloger was asked what she felt was the community's main issue, she channelled Rob Ford: "transportation, transportation, transportation." Low walkability and weak TTC service make it difficult for people to get around within east Scarborough, often requiring two or three buses to get to local destinations. For example, with no TTC service to UTSC's fields on Old Kingston Road, ESS has had to co-ordinate buses for service programs there. 

But that sense of isolation has always been a factor in the neighbourhood. Direct Construction president Frank Cecchetto grew up nearby and remembers having that feeling as a kid. After winning the tender for Sky-O-Swale, he was impressed by the passion and vision everyone invested in the project, as well seeing others care for the old neighbourhood. 

"What we're doing is complex," Gloger observes. "We love working in complexity. It's not going to be a shiny showpiece. It is something that is truly meaningful to the community on all kinds of levels. We can tell this story to someone who's interested in the environment, sports, youth, architecture. This story comes at it from all different angles."

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Torontoist, The Grid, Spacing, and Toronto Life. He frequently explores Toronto's past to provide context for its present. With Kevin Plummer and David Wencer, he won a 2014 National Magazine Award for Torontoist's "Historicist" column. 
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