Nicole Dufraine is building community in Toronto.

Photo from Nicole Dufraine.

Photo from Nicole Dufraine.

AGE: 24
HOMETOWN: Toronto, Ontario

Nicole experienced the shock of moving from a rural to an urban community. “My condo building has more residents than the village I grew up in, where my backyard was a seemingly infinite landscape to play on,” Nicole explained to us.

“My mental health suffered when I first moved here and adjusted to  such a different neighbourhood and lifestyle. I know I’m not the only one that may have felt  isolated from living in a condo environment and affected by a lack of regular exposure to nature.”

Nicole took it upon herself to create the change she wanted to see in her community. Although her job has little direct involvement with environmental work (she’s at a large technology firm), she spends her evenings and weekends volunteering to make her community a greener and happier place to be.

Nicole lives in CityPlace, Toronto’s largest residential development. When complete, the neighborhood will be home to 29 condo buildings housing over 7500 total units. It’s received some media criticism for its highly densified approach to housing development. It’s also quite the new community - and Nicole came from a place where everyone says hello to each other on the street.

Nicole set out to make change. She currently sits on the board of the CityPlace Residents Association where she oversees the parks and gardening portfolio, helps organize community events, and works to improve quality of life for her fellow condo-dwellers. She is heavily involved in the consultation process of the new multi-million dollar school and community centre facility being built to serve her 15,000 neighbours and has submitted a proposal to build a rooftop garden that will act as an educational tool, sustainable food source, and community event space.

Last year, Nicole joined the Homegrown National Park project, a Toronto-based initiative led by the David Suzuki Foundation. The project goal is to crowdsource a green corridor across the city through a group of volunteer Park Rangers leading creative green interventions in their neighbourhoods.

Through the Homegrown National Park project, Nicole founded a gardening committee in her high-rise neighbourhood to improve the natural features of the local park, which had quickly degraded within a few years of opening. She engaged with the Residents Association, city parks staff, her city councillor, the condo developer and local residents to create a vision and long-term plan for the park.

After several months of stakeholder meetings and the acquisition of funding for the first project, Nicole led a group of volunteers who removed invasive plants from a highly-visible and unused space in the park and planted a garden of red and white flowering perennials and shrubs that fit the Canadian history theme of the park while supporting local bird, bee and butterfly populations. This seemingly small but creative project resulted in high levels of community engagement. Gardening activities in the park attracted curious onlookers to ask questions and initiate conversations about local park issues.

The success of these projects have led to working with a network of condo neighbourhood associations and the beginnings of a guide to environmental engagement in condominium communities. Local businesses are keen to get involved with planting activities and community events. Nicole recruited an awesome local Ranger to co-lead this year’s projects, including planting more milkweed and other pollinator species in CityPlace parks; hosting a community picnic and a tree planting activity;  working with the parents group to build a much-needed playground; acquiring an off-leash dog park; and piloting a balcony & rooftop garden project. As a result of these efforts, Nicole is now contributing this knowledge to various urban initiatives to influence better city-building processes.

Nicole plans to continue her work with CityPlace to ensure that this condo development sets a good example for community-centered sustainable development. “I want to see overwhelmingly positive stories about CityPlace in the media. As Toronto continues to grow and all the vacant space is developed, the only way to build is up. Vertical living already has less of a carbon footprint, so how do we make these communities more vibrant and liveable? I want to help solve that question.”

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