#198 High on highrises

My Kelowna neighbourhood, looking across the beach to highrises and townhouses

My first experience with faceless, grey highrises was in the late sixties, when I wandered around what was then East Berlin. Their anonymity made me shiver. Years later I lived for a month in an equally ugly apartment block in Amsterdam, where no light bulb was bright enough to read by when night fell. Every building was like the next, and sometimes I got lost between the train and my door.

I live in a concrete tower now, in an attractive neighbourhood flanked by beautiful parks and a lake. Nearly everything I need or enjoy is within walking distance. So I am thrilled to see the optimism of Highrise. The National Film Board of Canada is exploring life in the concrete towers that dot and often blot our urban landscapes. Here is some of what you’ll find on the Web site:

  • Prologue gives the background of this “multi-year, trans-media collaborative documentary project”. It is cleverly done. Click on any level of the highrise on the left of the screen. That opens a part of the story of the shifting urban landscape and what it means to live in the concrete towers so many of the world’s people call home.
  • Early in the project six residents of a Toronto suburban highrise were invited to contribute stories and photographs of their life there and their dreams of how the neighbourhood could be transformed. The result is a documentary called The 1000th Tower.
  • From there Highrise is reaching out internationally, to document vertical living in the global village. Highrise/One Millionth Tower – Living Proof shows vibrant, attractive neighbourhoods in Neustadt and Berlin, Germany; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Toronto, Canada. There are walkways, shops, trees, benches, parks, and community centres.
  • Highrise/One Millionth Tower – Imagine + Epilogue (video below) shows the residents of a Toronto highrise envisioning a new surrounding for their home, with gardens, playgrounds, meeting areas, a farmers’ market, community gatherings, colour, life and joy. They see the massive towers connected by paths for walking and cycling, shops and offices where people can work. The animators set to work designing the residents’ dreams. Then seven volunteers win a grant to build a new playground. A team of residents in red caps and t-shirts pick up shovels and tools and create the space. As the son of one of the women in the documentary says, “This is one seed, and it’s growing. So now many more seeds are going to grow.”

This is an ongoing project and one of the most hopeful looks at transforming urban life that I’ve come across.

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