The first Urban Challenge consisted of eight grants across four overarching themes: science of cities, cities by design, cities of opportunity, and urban sustainability.

Grants consisted of a seminar series and a small research project. Faculty members from across U of T’s three campuses participated in the program, representing the fields of biology, civil and mining engineering, ecology and environmental biology, economics, geography and planning, historical and cultural studies, landscape architecture, mathematics, physics, physical and environmental sciences, public health, and sociology. Research projects also engaged community groups and public agencies, including the City of Toronto, the Toronto Environmental Alliance, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Research products included white papers, journal articles, blog posts, and seminar videos.

Science of Cities

Team Lead: Dan Silver, Sociology (UTSC)

As cities become the form of settlement for an increasing majority of human beings, understanding their basic structures and functions becomes increasingly important. Across a number of fields, researchers are converging on the task of building a new Science of Cities that can take account of cities’ physical, social and cultural features, as well as their natural environment. This working group was devoted to gathering interdisciplinary-minded scholars interested in collectively exploring what a science of cities for the 21st century could be. While this is an open-ended task, we were especially interested in pursuing ecological and evolutionary concepts.

The project included a seminar called Ecological Concepts in the Urban Sciences: Interdisciplinary Perspectives which brought together researchers from human ecology, industrial ecology, and biological ecology working on urban problems to discuss how insights from these domains can inform and interact with one another toward building a unified science of cities.

Team Lead: Marc Johnson, Associate Professor, Director, Centre for Urban Environments, CRC-II, Biology (UTM)

Urban areas are the fastest growing ecosystem on Earth, with 82% of Canadians and 55% of the world’s population living in urbanized areas. Urbanization rapidly changes environments, but the magnitude, consistency and extent of these effects are poorly understood. Moreover, the consequences of urban environmental change for ecological and evolutionary processes, human well-being, conservation of rare species, and the control of pests, require active investigation. The focus of this Urban Challenge Grant was to address these knowledge gaps. Together, we sought to answer the question: How does urbanization shape the physical and living environment of cities at local, regional and global scales?

To answer this question, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was a model for understanding how urbanization affects the environmental characteristics of land, air, water and life in cities. We created an Urban Environmental Network (UrbEnNet), in the form of a widespread and high-density real-time monitoring system of the environmental effects of urbanization throughout the GTA. UrbEnNet included detailed experiments and analyses that complemented and validated real-time environmental data, advancing our understanding of how urban environmental change affects the physiology, behaviour, ecology and evolution of all life.

The project included a 6-part seminar series, run from May to September 2019, to look at how urbanization shapes the physical and living environment of cities at local, regional and global scales.

Cities by Design

Team Lead: Fadi Masoud, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design

Cities are on the front lines of climate change, both in developing policy to respond to climate change and experiencing the impacts of a changing climate. Cities around the world, including Toronto, are experimenting with new technologies, ideas, infrastructure, and governance strategies that can build resilience to climate change in a way that is effective and equitable. This challenge interest group explored the interdisciplinary and evolving field of urban climate resilience in order to identify shared, achievable, and policy-relevant research questions going forward.

The project included a 3-part event series, run from April to June 2019, to look at building and governing climate resilient cities. The final event consisted of an exhibition, curated by Fadi Masoud, to mark the launch of the City of Toronto’s first Resilience Strategy, a vision to help Toronto survive, adapt, and thrive in the face of any challenge — particularly climate change and growing inequities. The exhibition reflected the Resilience Strategy’s three focus areas — Resilient People and Neighbourhoods, Resilient Design and Infrastructure, and Leading a Resilient City.

Team Lead: Steven Farber, Human Geography (UTSC)

For the first time in history, most people live in urban settings. Cities are the engines of economic growth, but are plagued with challenges relating to resource allocation, constrained government spending, ecosystem protection, creating migrant and youth opportunities, social inequities, labour market changes and infrastructure aging. Thrown into this arena, emerging technologies such as automated and connected vehicles, ride-hailing services, Mobility-as-a-Service platforms, and micro-transit are threatening rapid changes to our mobility systems. The academic and policy debates are rife with visions of new mobility utopias, where technology drives improvements in efficiency, CO2 emissions, and social inclusion. Also prominent are visions of mobility dystopias, where private vehicles control more of the public realm, mobility benefits are concentrated among the wealthy, and labour standards are eroded. Cities now face the massive challenge of evaluating the potential benefits, costs, and unintended consequences of integrating a heterogeneous mix of promising technologies with existing transportation infrastructure and mobility services. Because of this uncertainty, it is imperative that we conduct evidence-based research to guide transportation policy to achieve the many positive promises of emerging technologies, while ameliorating the inherent risks in technology-induced disruption.

The project included a 7-part seminar series, run from May to August 2019.

The work of this Urban challenge Grant resulted in the establishment of Mobilizing Justice, a multi-sector research partnership committed to solving transportation inequities in Canadian cities.

Information to follow

Cities of Opportunity

Team Leads: Susannah Bunce, Human Geography; Alan Walks, Geography and Planning; David Hulchanski, Faculty of Social Work 

This project envisioned:  

  • a city where everyone can find housing options that best meet their needs in an affordable way, with a series of different housing arrangements, models, and tenures that provide real choice. 
  •  a city where trying to find affordable housing is not a full-time job, one that scares people away from the city and the region. Instead, appropriate housing should be so easy to find it is never a worry or a stress. 
  •  a city that welcomes young and old, with a housing system that meets the needs of seniors, children and youth, solo parents, immigrants and refugees, students, persons with disabilities, diverse families, and others; a housing system that allows people to remain in place even when they age, change their family structure, retire, or suffer unforeseen life events. 
  •  a city where people are not displaced from where they live because land values have gone up, or because a land owner realizes they can profit from flipping or converting long-term rental units to different uses. Our vision is of a city where rental housing is seen as a positive resource for all of us to help us realize our dreams. 
  • a city in which housing is not something that separates and segregates us, but instead brings us together. The current housing system separates people by income, by gender and family structure, by age, and through racialization. Our current housing crisis is causing undue competition, stress, and trauma for those who need it the most. A proper functioning and affordable housing system mixes people, brings them together, gives them a safe, healthy and secure foundation and provides them a say in how their city is run. 
  •  a city in which housing is seen as a human right. one that makes us all better for it, one that we protect because it is the right thing to do. 
  •  a city in which housing is a key ingredient in making people feel like they belong. You – we – all belong here. 

The project included a blog, working paper & event seminar series.

Urban Sustainability

Team Lead: Daniel Bender, Director, Culinaria Research Centre and Professor, Clinaria/Historical and Cultural Studies

How can healthy, sustainable, culturally-appropriate food provide a source of liveliness and livelihoods, and contribute to sustainable, prosperous and just cities? Food, as much as it provided employment, has been regarded with suspicion as a source of contagion and Toronto is typical of cities in the global North and South: food production, service, and processing remain the largest sources of employment, yet are regulated by a complex web of offices – from police to health inspection. The legacy of urban modernism that imagined streets as arteries for the circulation of people and capital that must be kept free from congestion has helped shape a model of urban food systems that treats food too often as simply an input of calories.

This group challenged this sanitized vision of the metropolis by imagining food as a source of liveliness and livability in the 21st century city. Inspired, in part, by the University of Toronto and the City of Toronto’s shared commitment to the implementation of the 2014 Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, this interest group recognizes the vital need for cities to provide safe, equitable access to healthy, sustainable, and culturally-appropriate food. We explored the ways equitable food systems and diverse culinary infrastructure that includes urban gardens, street markets, hawking, small-scale restaurants, community-based catering, and independent food processing can promote healthy, sustainable cities.

This Urban Challenge Grant consisted of a series of 21 events, held between October 2020 – April 2021, that looked at resilience in food and health supply chains. 

Supply chains are the primary societal infrastructure for the production, delivery, and recycling of goods and services. Though sometimes invisible, supply chains are the systems that ensure that flour is available in your grocery store, that hospitals have sufficient personal protective equipment, and that there are enough trained staff to administer medical tests, deliver babies, and check-out your groceries. While much of the effort in supply chains over the past 50 years has been to make them agile, fast, and cheap, there is a growing realization that supply chains must be able to adapt to disruptions from local events such as the inability for a plane to land due to weather to global changes such as the closing of the US-Canada border due to COVID-19.  

This seminar series sought to develop a multi-disciplinary understanding of resilient supply chains by examining two which are of critical importance to everyday life: food and health supply chains. The talks in this series looked at these supply chains, both independently and together, through the inclusion of diverse speakers representing at least the following perspectives: 

  • Supply Chain Optimization 
  • Northern and Remote Food and Health Security 
  • Urban Food Systems 
  • Systems of Food Production 
  • Healthcare Systems