In 2020, the School of Cities funded 12 new proposals on the theme of climate, justice, and cities for its second Urban Challenge Grant cycle. A competitive process led to the award of $577,000 in grants for 2022-23 to interdisciplinary research teams representing over 20 departments across the three campuses. Each initiative focuses on a different aspect of climate change and its impact on urban spaces and disadvantaged groups, and each team will connect closely to policymakers and stakeholders during the research project.
Climate change is the defining challenge of our time, simultaneously requiring the transformation of infrastructure, the reconfiguration of financial systems, the mobilization of the electorate, and more. Cities — as incubators of innovation, drivers of the economy, magnets for talent, and birthplace of social movements — are poised to lead the way in both devising and implementing solutions. Yet the various forms of climate action also have the potential to unleash injustice, i.e., to create disproportionate harm for vulnerable populations.
With its remarkable and diverse faculty expertise, the University of Toronto is poised to lead a conversation about how best to adapt to climate change while promoting inclusion and justice. Climate, justice, and cities is a theme that spurs research across many different disciplines, including the natural sciences, engineering and technology, urban policy and planning, business, public health, the arts, and the social sciences.
In May 2023, the researchers from UCG 2.0 came together at an all-day symposium to present their work to one another.
Speakers represented over 20 departments across U of T and discussed their findings on the themes of:
- Disparate environmental impacts on vulnerable communities
- Unequal access to environmental amenities
- The viability of strategies for sustainability and GHG emissions reduction
- Building community capacity to deal with climate injustice
Research Team: Laura Rosella, (Dalla Lana School of Public Health), Hong Chen (Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UTSG); Jeffrey R. Brook (Dalla Lana School of Public Health & Dept. of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, UTSG); Andy Hong (Dept. of City and Metropolitan Planning, University of Utah); Lief Pagalan (Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UTSG)
City planners are looking for new tools anchored in local data that support decision-making to address the disproportionate health impacts of climate change. We propose a new way to apply urban environmental data to inform decision-making and health, urban, and climate policy. Our proposed research will help health professionals and city planners inform climate policy for urban populations, especially marginalized groups who face greater environmental vulnerability. Premature mortality is a robust population health metric because it is amenable to targeted policy and programmatic interventions and can be used to compare regions and populations. We propose to enhance a validation population planning tool that we developed, known as the Premature Mortality Risk Tool (PreMPoRT), with environmental data. This innovation will enable decision-makers to model scenarios that predict the benefits of urban environmental interventions, measure changes in population-level risk, and describe risk distribution across neighbourhoods and sociodemographic characteristics of the population. Our goal is to link urban environmental data and our validated premature mortality risk prediction model to inform climate adaptation and mitigation solutions for Canadian cities. Working collaboratively with stakeholders from Peel and Toronto, this research will support city-based climate mitigation and adaptation interventions, and enable planners and policymakers to leverage urban environmental data for decision-making and equitable climate change preparedness.
Research Team: Sheng Liu (Rotman School of Management, UTSG); Nidhi Subramanyam, (Dept. of Geography and Planning, UTSG)
Toronto’s resilience strategy identifies resilience to floods as a priority action for the city as it prepares to address climate impacts. Flood resilience is the ability of communities and systems to survive, adapt, and recover from flooding events in ways that positively transform future adaptive capacities. Toronto’s Flood Resilient Charter notes that scientific research can contribute to resilience by developing methods to measure, quantify, and account for the worst-case rainfall scenarios. Critical social scientists argue for the importance of mapping which areas and communities are most vulnerable in worst-case scenarios to prioritize interventions, equity-deserving communities and achieve just and transformative adaptation. This study aims to combine predictions of worst-case rainfall events, and analyses of, social vulnerability and coping capacity to predict where adaptation solutions could be implemented in a just and cost-efficient manner to increase Toronto’s flood resilience.
Research Team: Rohan Alexander (Depts. of Information & Statistical Sciences, UTSG), Monica Alexander (Depts. of Statistical Sciences & Sociology, UTSG); Karen Smith (Dept. of Physical and Environmental Sciences, UTSC); William Gough (Dept. of Physical and Environmental Sciences, UTSC); Samantha Green (Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UTSG); Edward Xie (Dept. of Family and Community Medicine, UTSG); Laura Tozer (Dept. of Physical and Environmental Sciences, UTSC); Micah Hewer (Dept. of Physical and Environmental Sciences, UTSC)
According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the greatest challenge to human health in the 21st century. The most recent Canada in a Changing Climate Report concluded that extreme heat events, increasing under climate change, are the greatest threat to people living in urban centres like Toronto. Meanwhile, public health units are overburdened and understaffed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Previous applied research has already demonstrated the impact of climate change on heat-related illness and death in the City of Toronto. However, historical climatological analysis that quantifies changes in the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme events is lacking. Furthermore, few studies have made future projections concerning the impacts of climate change on extreme heat events and human mortality in the city; studies that have done so are limited by outdated climate models, unrealistic emissions scenarios, and exaggerated temperature anomalies. The goal of this project is to develop meaningful indicators of extreme heat events in Toronto and to quantify historical trends and project future changes in the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves in order to better inform public health policy and on-the-ground community health care practitioners. This proposal will also act as a catalyst for the collaborative development of new undergraduate and graduate curriculum at the interface of health sciences, public policy, and climate science.
Research Team: Scott MacIvor (Dept. of Biological Sciences, UTSC), Alessandro (Alex) Filazzola (Centre for Urban Environments, UTM); Namrata Shrestha (Watershed Planning and Reporting, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority); Danny Brown (Parkland Strategy Implementation, City of Toronto)
Urban parks provide many ecosystem services and are especially important for the mitigation of extreme heat and associated climate impacts on human health and well-being. Since cities experience an urban heat island effect, urban parks can be instrumental in mitigating the negative impacts of extreme heat by providing an area for recreation, socialization, or refuge during peak heat hours. However, many studies have demonstrated disparity in both park location and quality in proximity to income levels. It is critical to assess accessible park usage by the public in relation to climate patterns and demographics to support the health of city residents. With the widespread adoption of mobile cell phones among urban residents, hourly and daily human activity within city locations (e.g., urban parks) can be achieved through analysis of anonymized movement data determined from cellular phone usage. We will partner with Mapbox (www.mapbox.com) to acquire anonymized movement data for the city of Toronto to trace activity in urban parks to demographics of users, determine the effects of climate on urban park activity, and predict patterns of park use for City of Toronto neighbourhoods under extreme climate scenarios.
Research Team: Shoshanna Saxe (Dept. of Civil and Mineral Engineering, UTSG),Christopher Essert (Faculty of Law, UTSG); Gabriel Eidelman (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy; Urban Policy Lab Director)
Cities are forced to simultaneously meet two of the defining challenges of our time: 1) the demands of a growing population for more housing and infrastructure and 2) the need to shrink urban greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints to meet international climate commitments. The proposal explores the tension between the need to build more to pursue housing justice while consuming much less to pursue climate justice. The research will ask: how much more housing do we need? What is the greenhouse gas budget we can allocate to building more housing? What pathways to development and city form meet both housing and climate needs simultaneously? The research will then examine the gap between these pathways and current legislation and policy around buildings and land use. The research will also compare relevant Canadian policy and law around provision and sustainability of the built environment compared to international leaders. Overall, the research will address the question: what policy and laws do we need in cities to deliver enough housing while reducing GHG emissions in line with local and international commitments? This interdisciplinary research will draw on civil engineering, urban planning, public policy, legal and philosophical methods. The research will produce a better understanding of the limited pathways to build more housing without overly burdening the environment, and specific policy and legal advice for the changes needed to our regulatory environment to drive rapid delivery of sustainable housing. Toronto, Kingston and Halton Hills will be case study cities for this work representing small to large municipalities and the challenge of growth in the era of climate change faced by cities across Canada (and internationally).
Research Team: Amrita Daniere (Dept. of Geography and Planning, UTSG), Joanna Kocsis (Dept. of Geography and Planning, UTSG); Rebecca J. McMillan (Dept. of Geography and Planning, UTSG)
Understanding the climate crisis and its impacts on cities through a social justice lens has the potential to transform the ways in which we respond to global environmental change. There is a growing body of work that explores the importance of the rights and entitlements of citizens in building climate resilience. While the value of such work has been made more salient thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most policymakers are ill-equipped to apply either the theory, or what we have learned, to policy. The proposed research project seeks to proactively engage policymakers in implementing transformative change to support climate justice in Southeast Asian secondary cities. Building on our ongoing work with a network of policymakers, researchers, and civil society actors through the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia Partnership, this transdisciplinary initiative defines urban resilience as development that is sustainable and socially just in the face of urbanization and environmental change. Further, the project pursues such transformative change by simultaneously producing knowledge on, and strengthening, stakeholders’ capacities to understand and use climate change knowledge for inclusive and just climate adaptation.
Research Team: Imara Rolston (Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UTSG), Cheryl Teelucksingh (Dept. of Sociology, X (Ryerson) University); Blake Poland (Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UTSG)
The impacts of climate change will not be felt equally and will undoubtedly follow the fault lines of historically entrenched racialized urban inequity creating disproportionate levels of climate vulnerability in historically marginalized neighbourhoods in cities like Toronto. COVID-19’s disproportionate impacts on lower-income Black and racialized residents and Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (NIAs) is arguably a portal into the types of destabilization we can expect. The dominant climate mitigation discourse often emphasizes the need for drastic global cuts in CO2 while at the same time dominant climate resilience discourses emphasize transformation through hard infrastructure projects like building retrofits, flood preparedness, and electrical grid transformation. Within dominant climate narratives the voice, activism, and radical imaginative potentials of Black and racialized residents on the margins are overlooked. The Reconciling Racial Justice and Climate Resilience Project will intentionally centre the experiences and sensemaking of activists, advocates, not-for-profit leaders, policymakers, and academics working at the intersections of racial justice and climate resilience. The aim is to identify new knowledge around the potential of community-centred resilience using a racial justice approach and, through an action-research process, to develop Toronto’s first Racial Justice Climate Resilience (RCJR) framework. Specifically, this project will examine how Black and racialized climate change actors from across six North American cities make sense of the intersections of racial justice and climate resilience in urban settings and what policy actions they recommend in response.
Research Team: Yu Chen (Centre for Global Engineering, UTSG), Amy M. Bilton (Dept. of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, UTSG); Ronald Hofmann (Dept. of Civil and Mineral Engineering, UTSG); Karlye Wong (Dept. of Civil and Mineral Engineering, UTSG)
Rainwater harvesting (RWH) initiatives are becoming increasingly influential in Mexico City in recent years. NGOs play a key role in R&D, installation of RWH systems, and community engagement. Decentralized solutions like RWH can potentially offer a great opportunity to address network water loss, outages, and infrastructure challenges in the expanding Mexico City peri-urban interface. Yet, there is not yet any systematic review of the phenomenon. We will conduct a comprehensive survey on RWH initiatives in Mexico City as part of a broader grassroots movement in response to climate change and environmental injustice, with focus on community engagement, user experience, community appropriation of technology, and public policy. This project will explore strategies for community capacity building and community appropriation of technology, while also examining technical innovations, management, and operations models to optimize the effectiveness and sustainability of drinking water treatments.
Research Team: Fikile Nxumalo (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education [OISE] & School of the Environment, UTSG)
Despite facing disproportionate environmental precarity, the educational experiences of Black children living in cities throughout Canada stand in stark contrast to the specific climate injustices that they face in their particular geographic regions. For Black children, engagements with the specificities of their communities’ place and land relationships, also referred to as Black ecologies, are marked by absence in curriculum. Black children living in cities are often constructed as separate from or deprived of ‘normal’ relationships with natural world. In these framings, Black people’s relationships with and sensemaking of the natural world, are framed by discourses of un-belonging. The proposed study aims to contribute to needed counter-narratives that disrupt erasures and deficit framings of Black ecological relationships and knowledges in environmental and climate change education. The specific goals of the project are to: (1) advance understandings of how climate justice education can respond to the collective desires of Black families living in cities, (2) generate insights on how Black ecologies can inform the design of culturally-sustaining climate justice education, and (3) provide recommendations for the development of climate change education policies that are responsive to climate injustice. In collaboration with Black families with young children attending Toronto schools, this project will use participatory approaches to document how climate justice education can be grounded in and responsive to the local ecological relationships and concerns of Black urban families. As a result of this study, significant new knowledge will be generated about what is important for developing interdisciplinary and anti-oppressive climate change education in urban Canadian contexts
Research Team: Matthew Adams (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM), Christopher Higgins (Dept. of Geography and Planning, UTSC); Jue Wang (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Kathi Wilson (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Madeleine Mant (Dept. of Anthropology, UTM); Mitchell Bonney (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Shayamila Mahagammulla Gamage (Dept. of Civil and Mineral Engineering, UTSG); Tingting Zhu (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Tracy Galloway (Dept. of Anthropology, UTM); Vincent Kuuire (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM)
Research Associates: Amanda Norton (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Elysia Fuller-Thomson (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Priya Patel (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Simran Persaud (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM); Sophie Roussy (Dept. of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM)
Climate change’s harmful effects in cities are increasing in frequency and magnitude, for example, increased urban heat, flooding events and storm intensity. These burdens often disproportionately affect populations with high social vulnerability, such as low-income residents. Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change originate from the same source – the use and burning of fossil fuels such as gas and oil for transportation and industrial activities. Air pollution effects are felt locally because concentrations are reduced by dispersion further away from emission sources. This research project will provide the Region of Peel Public Health with an evidence-based assessment of air pollution exposure and environmental justice, which they can use for decision-making, planning, and prioritizing activities to support health protection and promotion, and disease prevention. These could include targeted interventions with at-risk communities, and influencing land use and transportation decision-making through processes such as Official Plans, or active transportation, public transit, and long-range transportation plans. The data could also be used when evaluating air quality studies through the Environmental Assessment process.
Research Team: Françoise Cardou (Dept. of Biological Sciences, UTSC), Scott MacIvor (Dept. of Biological Sciences, UTSC); Daniel Silver (Dept. of Sociology, UTSC); Marc Cadotte (Dept. of Biological Sciences, UTSC)
The spatial distribution of nature in cities determines who benefits from urban green spaces. Over generations, social and ecological processes like development, abandonment, and forest regeneration interact to shape the urban mosaic that we have today, creating land cover legacies that can have strong effects on climate-related ecosystems services. When compounded by socio-economic dynamics, historical access to nature has repercussions on well-being that transcend generations. In increasingly warm and dense cities, this makes proximity to nature a key component of environmental equity. One challenge to the study of land cover legacies is the availability of empirical data on historical access to nature at the scale of whole cities. Spurred by increasingly available satellite imagery, next generation methods based on artificial intelligence are emerging that can automate land cover classification, yielding continuous land cover layers for dense time series. Our aim is to quantify historical access to nature across the city of Toronto between 1939 and 2016 and to map land cover legacies in order to produce critical knowledge for the study of environmental inequities over time in cities. Using a Convolutional Neural Network, we will convert an unprecedented aerial photo time series spanning 75 years (incremented by decade) into continuous land cover layers, generating critical quantitative landscape-level information for a period of rapid change in the Toronto area. By combining this information with historical Canadian censuses, we will investigate how the amount and configuration of different land cover types (woodlands, grasslands) have changed over time and what has been the impact of these changes on historical access to nature and environmental equity over time. Because this project was developed in partnership with practitioner partners, these results will feed directly into policy decisions surrounding habitat conservation and restoration (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority). By quantifying fine-scale land cover change at a spatial and temporal resolution that capture the pace of urbanization in Toronto over three generations, this pilot study will provide a critical historical basis for further research on historical access to nature, land cover legacies today and their impact on environmental equity, with strong potential to inform both policy and research spanning a broad range of disciplines.
Research Team: Md Abdul Halim (John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, UTSG), Jennifer Drake (Dept. of Civil and Mineral Engineering, UTSG); Liat Margolis (John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, UTSG); Sean C. Thomas (John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, UTSG)
Green roofs are primarily designed for stormwater management to control flood risks by minimizing total surface runoff. Recent studies show that green roofs can also mitigate urban heat island effects, reduce sound and air pollutions, lower building energy consumption, enhance biodiversity, and potentially sequester carbon. Considering their essential ecosystem services and economic benefits, Toronto was the first North American city to enact a bylaw in 2009 requiring green roofs on all establishments with flat roofs larger than 2,000 m². The City also initiated a pilot incentive program for the private sector to encourage green roofs, which, combined with the bylaw, has resulted in more than 700 green roof projects associated with more than 2000 green roofs. While these numbers seem promising, our preliminary analysis shows many of these green roofs are degrading, and some are already missing. However, there is no monitoring scheme in place to support the bylaw. This proposed research aims to develop a simple and automatic remote sensing-based toolbox for the City of Toronto to remotely monitor the distribution and health of green roofs using very high resolution orthoimages that the City collects annually for other purposes. In addition to the efficient monitoring system, we will also investigate potential drivers of green roof health. Using building permit data and visual inspection of orthoimages, we will identify representative green roofs to train a Deep Convolution Neural Network engine to automatically detect green roofs and their boundaries. Our toolbox will allow the City of Toronto to assess the efficiency of the 2009 bylaw, verify the use of subsidies, estimating the current and potential environmental benefits from green roofs. As the urban population continues to grow and climate changes rapidly, the ability to efficiently monitor green infrastructure will aid in the climate-smart management of our cities.