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Supportive, Not Insular

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Issue: 30 Section: Environment Geography: Ontario Toronto

July 7, 2005

Supportive, Not Insular

Senior Community on Ward's Island Aims for Sustainable Long Life

by Leah Schnurr

Jimmy Jones near the Shaw House on Ward's Island.
The Shaw House is a stately building. Set back from the road, it provides affordable living for eight seniors with its tall vaulted ceilings and spacious, airy rooms. In the back, a garden of indigenous wildflowers and trees provides shade and a view of the water.

Opened on Ward's Island in 2002, the Shaw House was built so that seniors who could no longer take care of their own homes on the island were not forced to move to a facility in the city.

A 10-minute ferry ride away from Toronto, residents first put up stakes in Ward's at the turn of the century when it was nothing fancier than a settlement of tents, says Albert Fulton, the island's archivist.

The settlement grew to 150 lots with tents and shacks on them, "which came to be the footprint for what Ward's is today," says Fulton. These sites were liveable only in the summer and were rented out from Victoria Day to Labour Day.

"It was a way to escape the city," says Fulton. "On a hot day, there's always a breeze on the island and there were theatres, dancehalls and beaches, so there were lots of things to do."

Today, there are approximately 500 people living in the small, cottage-like homes on Ward's and Algonquin islands, which make up the eastern portion of the four connected pieces of land that are known collectivley as the Toronto Islands.

Ward's small population and physically close living quarters mean that the community on the island is a tight one.

"Everyone here knows everyone," says Jimmy Jones, who has lived on the island for 73 of his 75 years. A walk through the island with him confirms that Jones, at least, knows everyone, as he waves and chats with everyone he meets.

This neighbourly closeness extends beyond social pleasantries to a philosophy of making sure everyone on the island is taken care of. The Shaw House exemplifies this: not only does it serve a social need, it was also designed to use many environmentally sustainable building techniques.

Graham Mudge, treasurer of the Shaw House, says the idea was to build something holistic that would serve both the community and the environment.

"We wanted to build a house that would last a hundred years," he says.

The house boasts such features as walls constructed from straw bales. This makes the building extremely well insulated, and if it were ever demolished, the walls would simply turn to dust rather than taking up space in a landfill.

The floors of the halls are made out of bamboo, which grows very quickly, and is considered a more sustainable resource than wood. The roof is made of zinc, which will not rust or deteriorate the way copper or ashphalt shingles will.

The house is also heated and cooled through a system that pumps a glycol solution underground and up to a fan or a heating pump, depending on the season. This uses far less energy than a regular system would and cost of heating is about a quarter of what it would normally be.

The physical building of the house was used as an opportunity to help disadvantaged youth. Using a government grant, 15 long-term unemployeed youth were hired for six months and taught carpentry skills and paid for their work. While the program was not meant to be a mentoring one, Mudge says the managers helped the youths with life skills, provided accomodations if needed, and fielded crisis calls at all hours.

The program was a success: three months after finishing the program, 14 out of the 15 had either gone back to school or had found employment, mostly in carpentry.

"I think one of the reasons that led to (the program's) success was that this was not an ethereal project," says Mudge. "They could see what was rising was a building where people were going to live."

Beyond the ties islanders have to each other, they also have unbreakable ties to the island itself.

"When you step off the ferry, you just go, 'Ah, I'm home,'" says Jones.

Indeed, the voyage from the Toronto Ferry Docks to the island gives one a symbolic clean break from the hectic city, traveling to a breezy retreat that has a close relationship with nature.

There are no stores or ammenities on the island and cars are not allowed, making for an abundance of bikers and roller-bladers gliding down the wide paved roads.

Jones estimates he goes into Toronto every two weeks to pick up groceries and other items but readily admits he would just as soon not make the journey.

"I find reasons not to go," he says grinning. "If it's raining, I don't mind going in-land but I don't want to miss a beautiful day on the island."

Plans are in the works to build an addition that will double Shaw's occupancy. Mudge says they want to begin building next April, and hope to employ youth through the same program.

Although preference is given to current islanders, Mudge says over the years they have received a large number of applications from people living in Toronto who want to move to the island.

"They're always thinking about the convenience because it's close to downtown [Toronto]," explains Mudge. "But even more important is the nature of the community. This is not an insular community, but a supportive one."

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