Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

On the evening of December 18, 2017, just after 5:30 p.m., Johnny Dib was on his way to a pedestrian safety and cycling committee meeting at the Mount Dennis library branch. This is not unusual behaviour for Dib, who attends local zoning meetings and reads about urban historical geography in his spare time. While waiting to cross at Eglinton Avenue West and Weston Road — the hectic, heavily trafficked arterial intersection that sits in the middle of the neighbourhood — Dib noticed a police car down the street, lights flashing, with vehicles lined up behind it. Likely a traffic infraction, he thought. Something minor.

At the meeting, a small group of locals earnestly discussed possible improvements for the intersection and the surrounding area. Just west of the intersection there is a bus stop on the north side of Eglinton, opposite a number of high-rise towers on the south side, but there is no crosswalk in between. Those getting off the bus have to walk back to the intersection to cross, a half kilometre detour. More often, they take their chances dashing across four lanes of traffic. It’s a dangerous task just to get home.

When the meeting ended, Dib left alongside Sean Hertel, a professional planner. Hertel noticed Dib was carrying a book by one of his colleagues and they began to chat. When they reached Eglinton, they stopped for a moment to observe what is essentially a highway, 24 lanes of traffic passing through the community. Hertel told Dib that years ago, at this intersection, a car narrowly missed hitting his daughter. It was the impetus to start the pedestrian and cycling safety committee.

While Dib and Hertel talked, down the street the traffic had finally cleared. The next morning Dib learned what had caused the commotion. Earlier that evening a passing taxi had struck an 85-year old woman, a resident of one of the high-rise towers. She’d been transported to a local hospital in critical condition. Around the same time Dib and Hertel were having their conversation, she was pronounced dead.

This year, more than 30 pedestrians have been killed in Toronto. It’s one of the worst years on record. Despite John Tory’s Vision Zero pledge — a road safety strategy announced in 2016 with the goal of eliminating pedestrian death and injury — little has changed to make Toronto’s streets safer. In early November, on a particularly perilous evening, 17 pedestrians were struck in Toronto within four hours. One person was killed.

Death is just the most dramatic and extreme symptom of an issue that also has environmental, individual, and community health impacts. Many of Toronto’s inner suburbs aren’t built for walking, prioritizing the commuters that zoom through the neighbourhoods over the people that call those communities home. Neighbourhoods that are not walkable have higher rates of chronic illness, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. There are also mental health consequences and an uptick in carbon emissions. These factors are not immediately visible and don’t garner headlines the same way a death does, but they’re part of the same problem. And though most of the media attention is focused on the downtown core, it is in the suburbs, in neighbourhoods like Mount Dennis, where the needs of commuters and the needs of the community most often collide. Sometimes those collisions are fatal. More often they’re invisible.

It is in the suburbs, in neighbourhoods like Mount Dennis, where the needs of commuters and the needs of the community most often collide.

***

In 1912, George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, looked out on the sprawling farmland at Eglinton Avenue and Weston Road and decided it would be the perfect place for his booming camera business. He bought 25 acres, at a rate of $5,000 per acre, and with one cheque changed the course of the neighbourhood.

“Mount Dennis was originally practically a company town for Kodak,” says Simon Chamberlain, a long-time Mount Dennis resident. The area became known as Kodak Heights, and over time nearly 20 buildings were erected on the property. In 1939, construction began on the Kodak employees’ building, Building 9. The four-storey building and its grounds housed a cafeteria, a camera studio, and a lawn bowling green. “There was a big theatre, a gymnasium, people celebrated birthdays there,” Chamberlain says. Kodak Heights became a marketing piece for the neighbourhood. People could book tours of the property.

In 2004, Kodak closed its Canadian operations. In the months that followed, Kodak Heights was demolished, building-by-building, except for Building 9. It remains one of the lone landmarks dating back to the neighbourhood’s more prosperous days.

Now, a walk through Mount Dennis tells a different story. You pass empty shops, vacant lots, former retail stores that have been converted into apartments. It’s a tough place to be a pedestrian. Wide roads lead to narrow sidewalks, with pedestrians, cyclists, the elderly, and people in wheelchairs and on scooters all vying for space. There’s not a lot of room to get around and there’s little margin for error in a community that has one of the highest rates of residents with mobility issues in the city.

“This area is very much geared towards cars and being a thoroughfare,” says Cassandra Nicolaou, who owns Supercoffee, on the southwest corner of Eglinton and Weston. “The pedestrians who are here, I feel as though they are only here because they have to be,” she says. “They are catching a bus, or walking their kids to daycare. They are not on Weston or Eglinton because they want to be. It’s not a nice place to walk. It’s so dusty. It’s dirty. It’s very concrete.”

Mount Dennis is also a food desert. You can find fast food but there is no greengrocer and no consistent access to fresh, healthy, affordable food in a neighbourhood that has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the city. The popular Weston Farmers’ Market alleviates some of that issue, but it’s a sporadic event. And if you don’t have cash on hand, that could be an issue. There’s only one bank left in Mount Dennis. These compounding factors push residents into their cars, if they are fortunate enough to be able to drive.

“I know a lot of people save up money for a taxi to go grocery shopping,” says Chiara Padovani, who grew up near the towers on Eglinton and is now a social worker at North York Harvest Food Bank. “Half their food budget is spent on a taxi and it’s the same problems we’re having further up on Weston. Banks are closing down, grocery stores are closing down. These are anchors on the retail strip and the second you take them away or they move out it means you’re going to have a lot less foot traffic and the other businesses on the street suffer.”

Living in a neighbourhood that’s unwalkable has health and economic consequences that extend beyond community borders. Medical offices across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area have assessed the impact of physical inactivity to be around $4 billion a year, once you factor in things like health care costs and time off work.

“We know that walking and cycling to work can reduce cardiovascular disease by about 11 percent per year,” says Kim Perrotta, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “Many different studies have demonstrated that people who walk and cycle as part of their daily life have much better health in terms of chronic diseases and mental health.”

Part of the problem, Perrotta says, is the nature of Toronto. So many people move in and out of the city each day in vehicles, and that desire, trying to move a lot of people quickly, conflicts with the needs of the neighbourhoods that people are blowing through. “I think there’s a real political conflict there sometimes,” she says. “Higher income neighbourhoods tend to have influence over politicians in a way that lower income neighbourhoods do not.”

“Ultimately, it’s a question of what is acceptable. We want people to drive around in cars, but how many deaths is that worth?”

***

Seven years ago, Paul Hess, the Director of the University of Toronto’s Program in Planning, co-authored a landmark study about walkability in Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods. He looked at eight high-rise communities, taking into account elements like the walking environment, safety concerns, traffic and connectivity problems, and access to shopping, school, and work. To Hess, the story of Mount Dennis sounds familiar.

“There’s recognition that these places need attention,” he says. “But changes are very slow and incremental and in Toronto and most of the attention goes into the downtown core.”

Often, the interventions needed aren’t secrets, Hess says. He lists things like reducing crossing distances, lowering speed, improving traffic signalization. Even things you can do with a bucket of paint, like improved signage, can help. “Most of our housing stock was built after World War Two, so we have places like Mount Dennis, where we built a lot of apartments, that creates density, but the walking distances are terrible. So you have a poor population living in high density with poor working conditions and high traffic.”

The single biggest impact in improving the safety of that situation, Hess says, is reducing speed. If the speeds were dropped from 60 kilometres per hour to 40 kilometres per hour in areas like Mount Dennis, not only would lives be saved but severe injuries would also be prevented. “We talk about deaths when they happen, but a lot of pedestrians, especially in the inner suburbs where vehicles are travelling at a high rate of speed, get injured and suffer long-term effects in terms of mobility and we don’t talk about that as much,” says Hess.

The pedestrian issues are further complicated by the demographics of these communities. “The people living in this suburban context are often marginalized people with complicated lives and multiple jobs and family responsibilities,” Hess says. “Going to the local councillor is not as high on their agenda as it may be for others. Ultimately, it’s a question of what is acceptable. We want people to drive around in cars but how many deaths is that worth?”

***

The Kodak employees’ building, Building 9, once a community anchor home to countless events and celebrations, has sat empty, vandalized, and boarded up for more than a decade — but soon it will be revived. The building will be part of Mount Dennis station, the new transit hub that is currently under construction. It will be the second largest transit station in the city, after Union Station, with connections to the TTC, GO buses and the Union Pearson Express. It’s scheduled to open in September 2021, with some vehicles running as soon as 2019. The ongoing construction has already impacted the area and the final product will dramatically alter a neighbourhood that’s been fighting decline and neglect since its industrial peak in the 1960s.

The transit hub and all that will follow has created a rare opportunity to correct and improve the local infrastructure for residents. The streets in Mount Dennis are, quite literally, being rebuilt. And the Ward 11 Pedestrian Safety and Cycling Committee hopes the focus will keep pedestrians in mind, not just vehicles. Earlier this year, they published a report with 31 recommendations for the ward. It includes measures like installing and improving cycling infrastructure, expanding the bike share program in the ward, reviewing dangerous intersections, improving walking trails and installing lighting.

That revitalization is needed but it could come at a cost. Developers are already buying up property and retail development plans are underway. The median after-tax household income in the neighbourhood is around $38,000. With improved services and transit, new businesses, and more access to destinations and jobs and opportunity, rent will spike in the historically affordable neighbourhood, and long-time residents could be left behind. “This neighbourhood has been so starved for transit for such a long time,” Padovani says. “We need better transit in the area but we also need to be able to negotiate what some of the consequences of having a large transit hub are in terms of development and making sure that development is going to benefit the community that is already here. If it’s not, everybody who has been waiting and waiting and waiting for better transit is going to be pushed out.”

Hess praised the work of the community in involving themselves in the Mount Dennis station plans and making sure their voices are heard. “They’ve done some good organizing around the transit hub, they’ve gotten a lot of concessions from Metrolinx, there have been social initiatives involved. I think the neighbourhood has really organized in a way that might enable them to improve their environment. But certainly, there’s a tension there between a big piece of infrastructure that’s designed to serve the city as a whole and local needs.”

Mount Dennis is already changing. The local 60-year-old library branch recently received a $4-million remake and a new recreation centre has opened up off of Eglinton. Harbingers of change are there, if you look. “I think the station is going to make a huge difference,” Chamberlain says. “I see Mount Dennis becoming more prosperous and more gentrified. Whether it becomes more walkable… it would be nice.”

“I think there’s an optimistic future for Mount Dennis,” Dib says. “Partly because of the transit hub but also because it has a lot of potential.” The neighbourhood was built around the same time as places like Little Portugal, Parkdale, Little Italy — places you find yourself walking around the pleasure of it, not just to get from point A to point B. Why couldn’t that be Mount Dennis?

***

One recent Friday evening during rush hour, two children exit the bus at Eglinton and Weston and wait for their chance to cross south. Traffic speeds by and the children warily take a step off the sidewalk before rushing back. They wait until traffic breaks and then they run, shouting as they sprint across the road. “That kind of thing happens all the time. It happens all the time,” Padovani says, while walking toward the bus stop. “It’s young children, too. I know this because I grew up on that side of the street and I would do the same thing, too.” Padovani was six-years-old herself when another six-year-old girl was struck and killed in the neighborhood. Decades later, nothing had changed.

“It makes me nervous just standing at this particular spot,” Padovani says, above the din of hurried traffic. A passing car blares its horn and the sound momentarily rises above the rest of the noise before fading into the background. “Everybody that gets off the bus has to cross the street and people are dying,” she says. In the distance, the next bus appears, another person about to take another chance. Padovani repeats herself. “People are dying.”