Future Belongs to Collaborative Infrastructure Building

November 25, 2020 by School of Cities Staff

Published via The Hill Times | Oct 21, 2020

In recent months, Canada’s infrastructure has strained under the intense pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Crises in long-term elderly care homes, unaffordable housing, homelessness, poorly ventilated school buildings, and gaps in public transit have all been revealed and accelerated.

In response to the pandemic, infrastructure development has become a key focus of the recovery efforts.

What’s needed is a new approach to infrastructure that thinks of every investment as contributing to a healthier, more prosperous, equitable, and greener future.

This requires a switch from a siloed approach to infrastructure planning, where each piece of infrastructure is considered on its own. Instead, infrastructure projects must be developed through collaboration and seen as the cornerstone of healthy communities.

One increasingly common approach is the co-location of major public, private and non-profit pieces of social infrastructure in the same building. Across Canada, it is becoming more common for schools, libraries, daycares, fire stations, theatres, long-term care homes, and recreation centres to be integrated into buildings with social services, affordable housing, apartments, offices, and shops.

In fact, without much public fanfare, Canada has become a global leader in this type of integrated, creative mixed-use model of infrastructure development.

For instance, in Vancouver and other west coast Canadian cities, it is becoming increasingly common practice for new fire stations to be built on the first two floors of buildings with non-profit organizations operating affordable housing or assisted living units directly up above.

School sites are another key place for innovation. Schools have the potential to be more than just places of education but rather community hubs that are at the heart of complete communities.

In Brampton, the Mount Pleasant village community hub includes a co-located school, library, recreation centre and town square, creating a vibrant place that attracts people of all ages. This is a form of public-public-public partnership between different government departments. The boundaries can be pushed even further by incorporating housing into community hub developments, offsetting some of the cost of building the public facilities.

Indigenous Hubs are also opening in cities across the country, showcasing the promise and possibility of co-locating complementary Indigenous-led services. For example in North Bay, the North Bay Indigenous Hub brings together Indigenous approaches to primary health care, daycare, education and training, and includes spaces for ceremonies and a traditional medicine garden. These Indigenous Hubs provide critical, culturally safe programs for Indigenous people, led by Indigenous people and organizations.

In health care, a groundbreaking project is being proposed by the University Health Network in Toronto to build affordable housing on what is currently a hospital-owned parking lot and adjacent land. This model, which brings together the hospital, city government and the United Way, recognizes that at the root of crowding in many emergency rooms is a lack of stable housing for people living in poverty. The project breaks down arbitrary silos and sees health care and safe housing as part of an integrated system of social medicine.

Finally, major transit projects are being conceived as more than just investments in subways or light rail lines. Transit projects are catalysts for building vibrant mixed-use, mixed-income communities where residents are within a close walk to workplaces, shops, public services and green spaces. Community benefit agreements are increasingly being used to ensure that transit-oriented development occurs without spurring gentrification and to leverage big projects to provide meaningful employment opportunities for local workers, women and BIPOC communities.

One observation from these examples is that working in partnership towards a collaborative approach to infrastructure delivery was not the first choice of many of the parties involved. Innovative collaborations between governments, businesses and non-profits take time and increase the level of unpredictability for each stakeholder involved.

But collaborating and co-locating infrastructure helps resolve challenges that each stakeholder faces to realizing their own goals. It allows partners to share common development costs and find synergies in the programs being provided.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, building a strong community infrastructure is more important than ever. Meaningful collaboration, co-location and partnership are key to getting the most out of every infrastructure investment and fostering a pandemic recovery that is sustainable, equitable and just.


Matti Siemiatycki is Interim Director of the School of Cities, and Professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto