Black Creek SNAP: Growing Food and Green Opportunities

From 2010-2020, The Black Creek Sustainable Neighbourhood Retrofit Action Plan (SNAP) developed by Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) in partnership with the City of Toronto, Jane Finch Community and Family Centre, Black Creek Conservation Project, and many other community stakeholders, provided an innovative, integrated approach to urban retrofit challenges in the Black Creek neighbourhood. One of a host of pilot SNAPs in the Toronto region, the Black Creek SNAP aimed to provide an innovative, integrated, community oriented approach to urban retrofit, sustainability and resilience challenges facing the Greater Toronto Area.

The Black Creek SNAP seeks to coordinate and find synergies between numerous on-the-ground improvement efforts. It addresses a number of previously recommended environmental objectives with unique solutions that fit the compelling socio-economic needs of this neighbourhood. Black Creek, a Humber River tributary that flows through the area, is an urban river with limited aquatic habitat and degraded water quality. The area is also a site of basement flooding concern and has poor urban forest cover. Different from most of the city’s neighbourhoods, Black Creek has seen close to zero redevelopment since the 1960s and minimum renovations in its buildings and public spaces.

Despite the local environmental concerns, the top-of-mind community interests that dominated the many workshops, survey findings and feedback sessions held throughout development of the SNAP were food security and job skills/employment opportunities. Notably, this area also lies within a Priority Neighbourhood, designated by the City of Toronto as a focus for improved social health and wellbeing.

This SNAP program developed a Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Plan that resulted in implementation of a number of integrated projects across the neighbourhood, including park revitalization, urban forest and habitat enhancement, greening of the commercial sector, the Harvest the Rain Home Retrofit Program, a neighbourhood-wide urban agriculture strategy and on-going programing for community building, resilience and skills training. The San Romanoway Revival Demonstration Project, aimed to demonstrate integrated tower revitalization and has been recognized world-wide for its impact and partnerships. All of the above-mentioned programs were designed to address a wide range of municipal and TRCA technical objectives and residents’ day to day needs and life priorities.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The Black Creek neighbourhood is home to a diverse population of about 25,000 residents. It is made up of high-rise residential buildings and single-family homes, as well as commercial and institutional developments.

The SNAP action plan undertook a number of analyses to better understand the Black Creek Study Area and how it will be affected by future climate. A Neighbourhood Profile compiled information on land use and demographic information including age and income, recent immigration, home language, and rental and ownership rates, as well as the amount of paved and unpaved surfaces, urban forest analysis, and an urban heat island mapping. An energy use analysis and stormwater modeling was also undertaken. The SNAP team conducted an analysis of growing requirements for fresh vegetables and the plantable area in the neighbourhood, and found that 20% of the area’s open ground can provide 20% of the community’s vegetable needs, with additional opportunities at the balcony and rooftop level. A tree planting opportunity analysis looked at space availability and calculated number of trees required to achieve the city’s urban forest goals.

The Humber River Watershed Plan, Pathways to a Healthy Humber assessed future climate, geology and landform, groundwater, surface water quality and quantity, stream form, air quality, aquatic and terrestrial systems, cultural heritage, nature-based recreation, land use, and resource uses in the community and greater GTA.

The City of Toronto’s Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan identified the Black Creek neighbourhood as a site of basement flooding concern and is interested in promoting basement flooding prevention measures and lot-level stormwater management practices such as downspout disconnection, rain harvesting and permeable pavement in driveways to reduce the strain on the storm sewer system. Climate impacts identified by SNAP include rising temperatures and urban heat island effects, high volumes of stormwater runoff and flooding due to more frequent extreme weather events, and water shortages due to drought.

Identifying Actions

SNAP applies a formal three phase planning process to develop its neighbourhood action plans, which was followed in Black Creek. TRCA typically leads the planning process:

Phase 1: Scoping issues, stakeholders, and interests

Phase 2: Defining motivational themes and action planning concept areas

Phase 3: Co-creating the Action Plan

The Black Creek SNAP focused on Growing Food and Green Opportunities through four primary action areas: vegetable gardening (supported by rainwater harvesting) in homes and open spaces, stormwater management and basement flooding prevention, urban forest enhancement and energy conservation and renewables. As a design criteria, it aimed to include community building, skills training and income opportunities in all initiatives across these action areas.

Engagement efforts and capacity building with community residents took a number of forms. TRCA built a project management team (PMT) that included property owners and the City of Toronto, as well as community groups and residents, to guide the Black Creek SNAP Initiative. Each played a key role in planning, implementation, programming, and ongoing maintenance. The SNAP team conducted a very robust engagement process to reach all groups within the community, and technical staff in order to begin identifying the above goals for the project.

For example, Pop-up Park events, focus groups with local NGOS, resident tours, and quick-start engagement projects were all used to engage the Black Creek Community. The Edible Balconies and Sustainable Carpentry initiative built trust and demonstrated project action while providing residents with an opportunity to build carpentry skills, address local food security, and take on leadership roles in their communities.

For the San Romanoway Revival Project the TRCA launched an international crowdsourced design competition. The key themes from the community engagement became criteria for online submissions of innovative design concepts. The top submissions were printed in large form and hung in the lobby of each tower at San Romanoway, where residents were provided with stickers to participate in a dot-mocracy exercise by placing a dot on their favourite design. The exercise received over 800 votes from residents.


Implementation of the Black Creek SNAP took place between 2012-2020. Many projects were implemented across the neighbourhood in collaboration with dozens of partners in the public, private, and not for profit sector.

The San Romanoway Towers Revival Demonstration Project included outdoor revitalization of community amenities with native tree plantings and pollinator gardens; the development of onsite vegetable gardens and orchards, building retrofits for energy and water conservation and efficiency; and capacity building programs that provide skills training and income opportunities for residents in horticulture, arboriculture, urban agriculture, and fruit tree care.

The Harvest the Rain Home Retrofit Program offered home consultations, incentives and on-going support to help homeowners make their homes more sustainable and resilient, and access government incentives. It included energy and GHG reduction, basement flood prevention, sustainable stormwater management, eco-landscaping, urban agriculture and tree planting. Additionally the program offered subsidized or free rain barrels, tours of demonstration homes, and local workshops and engagement sessions, to celebrate success and promote increased program participation.

The Neighbourhood-wide Urban Agriculture Strategy implemented initiatives across the neighbourhood and included; community gardens supported by rainwater harvesting; balcony gardens in high rise towers and fruit tree planting in single family homes; a harvest donation program; enhancements to the Black Creek Community Farm; urban agriculture programs, capacity building, and multi-generational skills sharing; food preparation and preservation programming; and a social enterprise program that saw residents take their training and services to neighbourhood homes.

The Urban Forest & Habitat Enhancement included the planting of pollinator gardens and thousands of native trees and shrubs in all land uses across the neighbourhood. Educational signage was installed in various locations and nature-based education programming was offered on an on-going basis.

Key success factors in these programs were a) the multi-faceted approach to engagement that included local organizations, as well as private partners and building owners, and b) the hiring and training of respected community leaders and ‘Green Champions’ who took part in skills and education programs to encourage program participation and uptake, and to educate neighbours on sustainable behaviours within their community.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The SNAP program employs rigorous monitoring methods to track progress across the various environmental fields such as energy and GHG, water and stormwater management, basement flooding, urban forest & habitat, and waste. A framework of socio-economic indicators was also developed to track impacts across five domains: Skills Training and Income Opportunities; Economic Benefits; Community Engagement & Capacity Building; Community Connections, and Health and Wellbeing. SNAP also collects qualitative information to evaluate impact, such as testimonials and storytelling.

Following are sample outcomes of key projects:

Harvest the Rain Residential Retrofit Program:
381 Homes participated in the Program, implementing 1229 actions. Out of those participating homes,

  • 93% implemented on site stormwater management actions
  • 49% implemented basement flooding prevention actions
  • 30% implemented significant energy retrofits
  • 59% planted a tree

Additionally, 700 metric tons of CO2e were reduced, and 170,800 cubic meters of rainwater were retained.

Here are some testimonials from program participants:

“I liked the advice, information and encouragement to save water & electricity by actually giving you the tools to do it! Also the corn roast was sensational! I would recommend the program!”

“The program’s benefits were that it helped me to save money, and gave me personalized guidance”

“I love being able to grow more fresh fruits and vegetables, save money and reducing basement flooding”

San Romanoway Revival Project:

The San Romanoway community vegetable garden has 72 plantable spaces, with an average of 66 households participating each year, contributing 80 hours of time in the garden each season. In 2018, residents established the San Romanoway Sunshine Garden and Orchard Club headed by an elected committee that organizes, plans, and provides leadership throughout the year over the group’s activities and finances.

24 fruit-bearing trees and hundreds of native trees, shrubs, and pollinator gardens have been planted by residents and volunteers as well as shading structures, sitting areas, and trails increasing tree canopy cover and permeability, providing needed habitat for native species, and providing amenity space for residents to better cope with heat waves and extreme weather events.

From 2013-2019, a total of 2,236 hours of programming has been offered to the San Romanoway community. The community has returned 42,796 hours of participation from 2,708 participants. More than 70% of program participants say they have acquired four or more new skills by participating in project activities. 68% are considering adding these skills to their resumes, and 63% feel their job prospects have improved. 100% of the San Romanoway Garden group reported feeling more connected to their community, while 86% of residents surveyed agree they are more willing to help their neighbours. Additionally, SNAP brokered more than 20 different partnerships and collaborations with local businesses, NGOs, local employment agencies, housing providers, and government organizations.

Next Steps

Implementation of the Black Creek Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Plan took place between 2012-2020. During this time period TRCA applied its participant to leader model to develop the capacity of community leaders and local organizations, in order to continue moving forward sustainability objectives. TRCA continues to offer some level of support but it has now moved most of its resources to other neighbourhoods that require intensified, integrated action.

There are now a total of 16 SNAP neighbourhoods in Ontario. In some of these neighbourhoods the TRCA-led implementation cycle has been completed and the community capacity has been developed to move forward with less support, like the Black Creek. Some other neighbourhoods are in full implementation mode, and some are just completing the planning phase. While TRCA has led all the SNAPs within its jurisdiction, it also offers advisory services to municipalities and other Conservation Authorities outside of TRCA’s jurisdiction to apply the SNAP model.

An important part of SNAP is documentation and sharing of lessons learned and TRCA and its partners are constantly applying learnings to improve the overall program, and looking at replicating and scaling successes in other SNAP neighbourhoods and beyond.

A next step for SNAP is to develop a sustainable funding model that allows for growth, to be able to address strategic geographical areas, with overlapping sustainability, resilience and urban renewal priorities.