Nine Lessons on Making Multi-Family Homes More Resilient

55 Livingston Road, one of Park Property Management's buildings impacted by Toronto's 2013 ice storm and power outages.

55 Livingston Road, one of Park Property Management’s buildings impacted by Toronto’s 2013 ice storm and power outages.

About 20 years ago, Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited was part of a team that prepared an aggressive strategy for residential, industrial, commercial and institutional waste reduction, reuse and recycling (3Rs) in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  As the urban planners and social scientists, our role was to both develop and evaluate the effectiveness of the 3Rs policies. The evaluation piece was telling.  We realized the proposed residential 3Rs’ policies focused solely on people living in single family homes. Drilling down further, the draft policies were also skewed toward English-speaking, well-educated people with a British heritage, who were middle-aged, fit and moderately affluent.

Given that most Toronto residents live in multiple family housing, do not have a British heritage, are of all ages and have varied domestic situations, education and economic circumstances, it became clear that our report was biased.  Why? The team preparing the 3Rs’ policies only saw GTA residents through their own eyes and circumstances.

What does this mean for rethinking sustainable and resilient communities?  Our focus across Canada during the last five years has been on planning for sustainable communities and not resilient ones.  And, many of the municipal Integrated Community Sustainability Plans (ICSPs) I’ve helped author and I expect many other plans, have the same biases.  While broad public consultation tends to improve the representativeness of some Plans, such as the King Township and the Greater Peterborough Area’s ICSPs, this is not enough. Too often ICSPs across Canada recommend a sustainable future as seen through the Steering Committee and consulting team’s world view perspective.

I’ve written elsewhere that social and environmental stress to our urban areas caused by the GTA 2005 power outage, 2013 floods and ice storm give us pause and allow us to think about whether we should give priority to planning for sustainable communities versus planning for resilient ones.   A community sustainability plan recommends implementing some of the best ideas about how to improve our social, environmental and economic quality of life in our cities and rural areas.  However, when most GTA residents are without power for up to nine days, spending time in idling cars to stay warm, throwing out food and thinking about visiting long-lost relatives who might muster up a warm meal, we really need to shift our thinking to urban and rural resiliency planning.

If we start thinking about planning for resiliency for most urban residents, the first question on our minds should be: how will people in Toronto’s multi-family homes fare?  What about people from diverse cultures, age groups and economic circumstances who don’t live in single family homes?  And, what lessons can we apply for resiliency planning?

Because they live in rental apartments or condos, most Toronto residents don’t have wood stoves or natural gas fireplaces to help them keep warm.  They don’t have to clean up downed branches.  But, without electricity, they do have to walk up and down many flights of stairs to reach their front door.

Margaret Herd, Vice President, Residential Property Management, Park Property Management

Margaret Herd, Vice President, Residential Property Management, Park Property Management

To better understand where we might begin a conversation about resiliency, we talked to Park Property Management (Park).  Park owns and manages 69 buildings across Ontario with the majority being in the GTA. During the 2013 ice storm, three of its buildings were without power for more than one day and two were out for four days.  Several of its west end Toronto buildings lost power and experienced flooding during the 2013 flood.

How were Park and its tenants affected?  Because Park has resilient practices, its tenants did remarkably well.  However, there were challenges, such as providing support to people in the upper floors of high-rises and those who are vulnerable, including a 101 year-old tenant.

Why?  Park has corporate management practices and Critical Event Plans that prepare it to deal with social and environmental stress.  These plans make it more resilient.  Corporate management complies with the Ontario Fire Code, Building Code and other laws applicable to multi-family buildings.  However, its property managers and superintendents are also trained to implement the Crisis Event Plan.

What lessons can we learn about building resiliency among residents of multi-family buildings?

1. The Ontario Fire Code requires fire alarm batteries be constantly charged by being hard wired to the electrical system. However, without electricity backup, fire alarm batteries don’t last. As a result, Park needed to assign security staff to actively monitor for fire.  Would planning for urban resiliency mean we need to assess the Fire Code in terms of how it performs when cities are without electricity for an extended period of time?

2. Without electricity, boiler rooms went cold and there was the potential for boilers to freeze. Without electricity, during a cold snap the water systems and sprinkler systems were also at risk of freezing. Even if Park drained the water, there was some risk of sump pumps not working.

3. Large multi-family buildings need to have functioning electrical back-up generators. Margaret Herd, Vice President of Residential Property Management for Park stated, “After two GTA power outages in one year, Park decided to implement a five-year plan that would provide backup generators for each building, preferably fueled by natural gas.”  Each building’s generator should be able to keep one elevator in service and the fire system operable. While it’s safe to say that adding more fossil-fueled generation is not recommended in any of Canada’s 200 urban sustainability plans,  it is a practical recommendation for an urban resiliency plan.

4. Park now sees the need to identify the critical electrical requirements of each building.  Supplying electricity to booster pumps to supply water to higher floors, to hallway and stairwell lights and to entry doors is identified as a priority.  Current urban sustainability thinking calls for community-based electrical generation and distribution.  Given that the Provincial grid was operating with no difficulty, it was community-level electrical distribution that became the problem.  Will community-owned electricity generation provide reliability in an urban setting?  If we are going to view local electricity generation and distribution through a resiliency lens, should we start by focusing on community electricity demands for which the supply of electricity is critical?

5. The Fire Code requires multi-family apartment building landlords to have a list of people who need assistance in the event of an emergency.  Park’s lists are updated monthly.  However, the superintendents of each Park building check on vulnerable residents even when there are no emergency situations.  They have contact information about next of kin and during the ice storm they helped tenants make phone calls if their telephones didn’t work.  Bell Canada land lines worked.  Rogers land lines didn’t.   Sustainability plans typically suggest that residents make changes in behaviour that will deliver improved social and environmental sustainable outcomes.  We can learn from Park that being part of a resilient city means we are expected to take care of our neighbours and those most vulnerable as the primary behaviour for achieving these outcomes.

6. After the 2013 summer floods, Park learned about the importance of supplying tenants with bottled water and glow sticks. Apparently glow sticks are good for both telling rock bands to turn up the volume and lighting up stairwells.  During the 2013 ice storm, property managers also had windup flashlights and chargers to allow cell phones to be energized.  If you’ve travelled to the developing world, you’d understand how precious these micro conveniences are.  Do these developing world devices need to be a fundamental part of a resiliency plan for Canada’s largest city?

7. Park understood that its obligation to tenants extended much deeper than simply providing accommodation.  It delivered non-perishable food to the lobby for those tenants who were running out of food. It opened up recreation centres as warming areas in its other buildings with power and encouraged tenants to use them.

8. With respect to road salt, Park was in the same boat as everybody else. Salt supplies sold out across the GTA.  Its maintenance crews did what they could to find extra supplies and to use them to help tenants avoid falls.  Current thinking about healthy communities tends to require people and municipalities to manage and minimize their use of salt.  Does thinking about resiliency mean that we start with the basic premise that applying salt can keep people healthy?

9. As did I, they found that Twitter was an excellent source of communication. However they observed that some municipalities, emergency response organizations and local utilities across the GTA were not active on Twitter. Thus, Park’s property managers couldn’t pass on to their tenants information about how the storm and power outages were being addressed.  A significant resiliency lesson is that communications and new forms of social media have become valuable, particularly in an emergency.

What recommendations and advice would Park have for other people living in multi-family housing and other private landlords to improve their responses to social and environmental stress in the future? In general, Park found that because it experienced power losses earlier in the year due to the 2013 floods, the plans put in place served them well during the ice storm later in the year. In terms of resiliency, Margaret Herd, recommends that all landlords develop and adopt Crisis Event Plans. In addition, she states, “We have all of the Plans colour coded.  It’s important to get across to building staff that those plans are to be kept current and procedures are to be followed.”

What could the City of Toronto and Toronto Hydro have done to better support tenants in multiple-family homes?  Margaret reported, “In our experience, both the City and Toronto Hydro were quite good in supporting Park’s superintendents and property managers.”   One building without power with many seniors was located in the Guildwood area of Scarborough.  While there was little that the City of Toronto or Toronto Hydro could do on private property, the fact that public sector staff were in constant communication with superintendents and property managers went a long way. “The key was making sure they were talking to someone who knew what was going on,” said Margaret.

What are the lessons for resiliency planning?  First, a big shout-out to Park Property Management.  Well done.  The experience of Park presents lessons for resiliency planning that can be shared across the GTA, particularly for the majority of City of Toronto residents who live in multi-family buildings.  Much of its success came down to the desire to exceed the requirements of the Building Code, Fire Code and other regulations.  Its team learned about how to be resilient and combined lessons learned by creating a living environment that would protect residents. If we are to move from thinking about ‘sustainable’ communities to thinking about ‘resilient’ communities, there is a lot planners and policy makers can learn.

Dave LowerRes Oct 2013David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL).  He is a Registered Professional Planner and trained facilitator and has extensive experience in these areas. Dave has participated in over 125 environmental assessments. He has also facilitated close to 1,000 strategic planning meetings and public consultation plans for public and private clients; conducted multi-stakeholder consultation and mediation in many sectors; and completed environmental planning assignments for a variety of water and waste water projects.

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About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit www.hardystevenson.com
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