Media Releases

U of T researchers contribute to award-winning NFB series exploring the universe within highrise apartments

June 2, 2015

Toronto, ON – Two University of Toronto researchers played a key role in creating the final instalment of the award-winning “HIGHRISE” documentary series, released today by the National Film Board.

From hours spent on Skype connecting with loved ones far away to building political movements using WhatsApp, the interactive online documentary “Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise” explores the mobile and Internet habits of apartment dwellers across the globe.

U of T geography Professor Deborah Cowen and Faculty of Social Work senior research associate Emily Paradis worked with filmmaker Katerina Cizek to conceive of the overall project – and to research, collect and analyze data that informs this last instalment.

The online stories take viewers into the hearts, minds and computers of apartment dwellers in 18 cities, including Guangzhou, China, the suburbs of Mumbai, New York’s public housing projects and Toronto’s Rexdale community.

At U of T, Cowen studies the changes in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Paradis conducts research on issues of housing and homelessness, and is manager of Prof. David Hulchanski’s Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership.

Cizek first approached Cowen and Paradis to advise on the development of the project and help identify highrise stories from around the world. The U of T researchers have both done field research on the project in Toronto and Mumbai. Cowen also did research work in Singapore.

“Most documentarians tend to ‘buy the rights to the book’ so they’ll do the film about a book or research that’s been written already,” Cizek said. “Our case is unique, as we’ve been doing parallel research and documentary making, informing, inspiring and influencing each other’s work all along the way.”

For Cowen and Paradis, their research results – some of it funded with a partnership development grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada – opened their eyes to how important digital technology has become in some of Toronto’s most impoverished communities.

The researchers found that 80 per cent of households in the Rexdale apartment complex they studied – even though it was located in one of Toronto’s most precarious and low income communities – had Internet access either at home or through their mobile phone.

“When you’re working in primarily diasporic communities where most people are tied to people, places around the world, the digital has assumed an importance that was quite stunning to us,” Cowen said.

The documentary was shot on location in Accra, Ghana; Athens, Greece; Baku, Azerbaijan, Guangzhou, China; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Kampala, Uganda; Mexico City, Mexico; Mumbai, India; Nairobi, Kenya; New York City, USA; Ottawa; Rome, Italy; San Cristobal, Venezuela; Seoul, South Korea; Singapore; Tokyo, Japan; Toronto; and Ramallah, West Bank.

Universe Within and all of the HIGRISE projects are accessible via the NFB’s website at


For more information, contact:

U of T Media Relations