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City as Opportunity: Refugee Integration in Toronto, Canada

Safira Lakhani
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Sneha Sumanth
Hilditch Architect, Toronto, Canada


Through a comparative spatial analysis of the neighbourhoods of Thorncliffe and Meadowvale (Fig.1), and their connections to Canada’s regulations for refugee assistance, this paper outlines the agency of architecture and urbanism in the successful integration of refugees into Canadian society. By making visible the limits of existing policies, the urban realm becomes the space of opportunity, a mechanism for resilience and connectedness, which cultivates a sense of place, identity, and ownership for arriving populations.


The state of being displaced and seeking refuge in a new country is a topic of growing concern in policy and political studies.1 Truly understanding the contemporary phenomenon of refugees however, requires a more multifaceted and multi-scalar approach that studies refugee integration into urban fabrics and networks. Presently, solutions for refugees are either aimed at the macro level of the state, or the micro level of the household.2 Herein, the city offers a middle ground for successful upward mobility through which networks for social and material resilience can be achieved. Private and public spaces that refugees inhabit play a vital role in the creation of their lives in new cities, and must be supported through appropriate government investment in parallel social-services systems. Coupling architecture and urbanism with policy offers a means of strengthening the processes of community-building and economic empowerment necessary for effective integration.

Canadian Refugee Policy

Canada has opened its doors to immigrants and refugees for many decades and today almost twenty percent of the population is foreign-born.3 Canadians hold a strong self-perception as a nation of immigrants with the collective mindset that the country is a land of pluralism, diversity, and inclusion.4 Accordingly, the integration of newcomers to Canada is becoming an important aspect of the political, economic, and social actions of the country, reflected in the 2016 mandates of the Trudeau government. Toronto, as Canada’s ‘gateway city,’5 receives the greatest concentration of people each year,6 the majority of whom are settling in suburbs in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Under present regulations, refugees in Canada receive financial support for one year,9 or until they can support themselves, whichever comes first. Primarily, this state-level support encompasses basic physical needs: shelter, financial aid, health care, and resources for daily life.10 In addition, refugees receive the support of Service Provider Organizations through Canada’s ‘Resettlement Assistance Program’ which provides social and community assistance to adjust to life in Canada. While these mechanisms of support meet immediate needs, the intermediate scale of integration for incoming populations – that of their intangible connectedness to the fabric of the city, its residents, and one another11 – is neither well understood nor well facilitated. Little consideration is given to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of refugees. Rather, they are grouped together as a single entity, which in turn prescribes ‘one-size’ solutions that are not adaptive to individual needs.

Upon their arrival into the country, refugees are placed into temporary housing facilities for the period preceding their hearing. The large influx of refugees and asylum seekers, however, has extended the period of temporary housing significantly, adding to the severe housing shortage in Canada’s major cities, including Toronto.12 The City of Toronto’s solution to this shortage has been to increase funding for refugees’ temporary housing.13 This, however, is a quick-fix solution with long-term ramifications for integration: “prolonged stay in temporary accommodation delays access to resources [such as health- care providers, schools, language training, and job counseling] that are needed for settlement, in turn delaying economic self-sufficiency.”14 Especially when temporary housing solutions include hotels and shelters, there is absolutely no sense of welcoming, and the system tends to shock asylum seekers.15 Such solutions highlight the fundamental disconnect between the country’s intention to aid displaced peoples and the limits of the policies in place to do so.

Moreover, because of the rising costs of housing in Toronto, new arrivals, upon achieving refugee status, are pushed to the fringes of the city,16 in commuter neighbourhoods whose physical design, zoning, and transportation infrastructure disable any sense of participation in the city or access to networks of social

7 Sandeep Kumar Agrawal, “Neighbourhood Choices and Housing Patterns of Immigrants,” Region of Peel Immigration Discussion Paper (February 2010): 4. In the past, migrants have typically settled in clusters in the downtown core. Today, they directly settle in suburban areas, usually in a dispersed pattern. The new settlement pattern is a result of the gentrification of urban-core neighbourhoods.

Further, the settlement of refugees outside higher-density, inner-city neighbourhoods has created challenges in terms of allocating social services that provide orientation and develop social networks.18 The result is segregated, isolated neighbourhoods of refugees, where integration is low, and there is a high risk of ghettoization.19 The lack of mobility and empowerment that this condition produces often generates breeding grounds for violence.20

Meadowvale, Mississauga

One such fringe community is Meadowvale, Mississauga, situated just east of Toronto. This is an established residential community whose urban design is reflective of planning philosophies of the 1960s and 1970s. What this looks like today is homogenous, low-density, single-zoned areas that produce suburban sprawl (Fig. 2). There are no mixed-use zones, and the low density of suburban housing parcels any open space into private pieces. Where open space is expansive, it tends to be primarily parking lots, as a means of supporting the sprawl of the neighbourhood (Fig. 3). This also renders Meadowvale less accessible from a pedestrian perspective; to access most services, residents must use vehicular transportation, which, for refugees, can be an additional financial burden. Further, there are not enough settlement services provided in suburban neighbourhoods, and those that exist do not have the capacity to serve the volume of refugees in the area.21 These services, coupled with the low-density character of the neighbourhood, do not encourage self-sufficiency, in terms of entrepreneurship and promoting small term businesses, as well as employment, and educational growth.22 This is exacerbated further by the distance from Meadowvale to downtown Toronto where such opportunities are more readily available (Fig. 4).

Separation and segregation of zoning types thus very clearly limits opportunities for informal interaction and encounter. When the most important space for consolidating the notion of community has been the immediate collective space of the neighbourhood, the further away these spaces are, the more it strengthens an identity of isolation, and breeds an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative (Fig. 5).23 Sending arriving populations to suburban neighbourhoods is also detrimental in the long-term with regard to the ongoing housing shortage: by way of its low-density planning, Meadowvale is expected to reach its development capacity within the next decade or so, noting that the population growth is projected to increase by only one percent by 2031.24

Thorncliffe, Toronto

For their successful integration, arriving populations need opportunities for ownership, education, security, business creation, and connection to the wider economy.25 Spatially, this translates to density; connected urban spaces that have accessible pathways to the city around it, especially with regard to transportation, education, and places to launch small businesses (Fig. 6).26 Such spaces additionally enable informal community interaction, empower social networks, and foster upward mobility of its residents. This is evidenced in the Thorncliffe neighbourhood of Toronto which has become a significant platform for urban inclusion of newcomers: “the people who enter…have an amazingly consistent record of entering the middle-class urban mainstream within a generation.”27 This is only possible because the urban conditions support, and are supported by, investment from the state.

Unlike Meadowvale, mixed-use zoning is highly prevalent in Thorncliffe: plot sizes are much larger, and a variety of building types can be found within one plot (Fig. 7). The density of the neighbourhood is also significantly higher; the majority of buildings are mid- or high-rise, and in turn, zoning rules dictate that higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR) requires greater open space (Fig. 8). Given the nature of higher density spaces, open space in Thorncliffe thus tends to become collective space. Public spaces in Thorncliffe are therefore inclusive and exist at multiple scales. They accommodate the needs of multi-generational households, providing intimate nooks for gathering – and therein, support networks – which are important for demographics that may be less fluent in English (Fig. 9).28 Particularly for those people who have experienced trauma, nooks create safe spaces for healing.29 Familiarity, generated in these spaces is critical to integration; the concentration of arriving populations within proximity to one another fosters a sense of belonging and a space from which to engage with broader Canadian society.30

In Thorncliffe, an important shared space for all members of the community is the East York Town Centre mall which provides multiple opportunities for nooks of gathering: in the morning, the mall is occupied by elderly men and women who are retired and come to meet their friends; in the afternoon, the mall is populated with mothers of school-age children; and in the evening, the mall becomes a hub for youth.31 Seasonally, outdoor public spaces such as parks, walkways, and open areas provide similar opportunity for places of informal encounter. Community and faith-oriented gathering spaces are also integral in the building of social networks. The multiplicity of gathering spaces produce varying degrees of inclusivity based on needs for retreat and safety. They are neutral, and create physical space for equality. They allow for an informal growth of networks within, and between, communities, and are thus a key component of the long-term solution necessary for effective integration.32 Over time, the activities arising from these networks can contribute to informing public policy.


Integration is a long-term process that has no single solution. Integration is not just about proximity, but about familiarity. It is about place, and it is about belonging; it is about equal participation, and about membership.33 When it comes to successful integration, self-sufficiency is therefore not about the individual, but about the collective and the community. Shared space is thus essential to the integration process. It engenders familiarity and cultivates a sense of ownership of space, and therein fosters belonging and agency. Additionally, such spaces of encounter and interaction can undo an ‘othering’ that would otherwise be generated in isolation. The built environment thus plays a critical role in emphasizing a collective conscience between existing and arriving populations. In these instances, architecture becomes a means of operationalizing compassion.


Agrawal, Sandeep Kumar. “Neighbourhood Choices and Housing Patterns of Immigrants.” Region of Peel Immigration Discussion Paper (February 2010): 1-29.

City of Mississauga. “Population, Demographics, and Housing.” Mississauga Economic Development.

April 2015.

Davison, Janet and Janet Thomson. “Homegrown terrorist: Toronto 18 bomb plotter Saad Khalid recalls his radicalization.” CBC News, April 16, 2014. toronto-18-bomb-plotter-saad-khalid-recalls-his-radicalization-1.2532671.

Government of Canada. “Get Government Assistance-Refugees.” Immigration and Citizenship. Accessed January 15, 2018. citizenship/services/refugees/help-within-canada/government-assisted-refugee-program.html.

Keung, Nicholas. “Toronto shelters struggle to cope with surge in refugee claimants.” The Star, February 2, 2017. surge-in-refugee-claimants-1.html.

Mulholland, Mary-Lee, and John Biles. “Newcomer Integration Policies in Canada.” Metropolis Project, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (August 2015).

Pelley, Lauren. “City may spend $20M more on settling rising number of refugees in local hotels.” CBC News, October 16, 2017.

Puzic, Sonja. “Record number of refugees admitted to Canada in 2016, highest since 1980.” CTV News, April 24, 2017. 2016-highest-since-1980-1.3382444.

Rose, Damaris, and Alexandra Charette. “Housing Challenges for Refugee Newcomers: Existing research and its relevance to the #WelcomeSyrians experience.” Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (Université INRS Centre Urbanisation Culture Société 2016): 1-19. http://chra-

Sanyal, Romola. “An Architecture of Displacement: Spatializing Identity and Refugee Space in Beirut and Calcutta.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2008.

Sanyal, Romola. “Urbanizing Refuge: Interrogating Spaces of Displacement.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38, no. 2 (March 2014): 558-572.

Subramaniam, Ravi. Personal communication to author. April, 2018.

Saunders, Doug. Arrival City: The Final Migration and our Next World. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Turner, Carla. “Refugee Agencies making headway in housing Syrians, but thousands still need homes.”

CBC News, March 8, 2016.


UNHCR. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2017.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Displaced Person/Displacement.” Social and Human Sciences. Accessed January 13, 2018. and-human-sciences/themes/international-migration/glossary/displaced-person-displacement/.

Young, Leslie. “Census 2016: More than one fifth of Canadians are foreign born, proportion from Asia growing.” Global News, October 25, 2017. immigrant-foreign-born-asian-census-2016/.

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