Toronto’s geography of inequity

Posted on October 25, 2015 in Inclusion Policy Context – News/GTA – Different neighbourhoods have different access to services, depending on where they are. Geography affects reality.
Oct 25 2015.   By: Shawn Micallef, Living Columnist

When on the Toronto Island ferry heading back to the city after a day spent in the kind of park most cities dream of, the postcard view of the skyline sparkles and reflects off the lake. Toronto is Oz-like in its apparent prosperity, with more cranes putting up more skyscrapers, and more people wanting to move in. The view is just as compelling from other angles, like driving through downtown on the Gardiner or flying into one of the airports. It looks like all is well.

On the ground, it’s easy to get lost in all the prosperity too, as you can walk for hours through interconnected, well-to-do neighbourhoods, and kilometres-long stretches of some of our main streets like Yonge, Avenue, Bayview, or College give little indication the story of Toronto’s prosperity might not be universal throughout the city. This prosperous part of the city is big, so it’s easy find yourself living in a bubble, seduced into the idea that everything here is, as former Mayor Rob Ford once said, fine.

However this city is Los Angeles-sized: 44-kilometres wide and sprawling north, west and east. You could save a lot of money at vacation time by being a tourist in your own city and it would be a lifelong effort to explore every pocket of this place. It’s big, really big. What that vast geographic spread does is allow the parts that aren’t doing so well to drift under the radar of the prosperous parts, and those parts are big, too, and they’re getting bigger.

This didn’t happen overnight, and there have been wake-up calls, both thoughtful and blunt force. The latter includes Ford himself who won by speaking directly to many of the people who have been left out of Toronto’s prosperity, telling them that they, and the struggle they face daily, matter. More thoughtful and research-oriented warnings have come from civil society, like the United Way, which began looking at these troubling Toronto trends in their 2002 report, Decade of Decline. < >

In 2004, they released a study called “Poverty by Postal Code” that examined the geography of neighbourhood poverty in Toronto between 1981 and 2001, and a second study in 2011 that looked at a decline in income, housing quality, and community life in Toronto’s inner Suburban High-Rise apartments. When the urban narrative is so much about those cranes in the sky and the real estate market, the message in these reports in one few may want to hear, but the numbers will come as a shock to many in that prosperous bubble.

Between 1980 and 2010, income inequality among Toronto neighbourhoods increased by 96 per cent, and the number of low-income neighbourhoods here increased as well: in 1980, low-income neighbourhoods made up 28 per cent of the city’s neighbourhoods, but by 2010, half of Toronto was low-income. Considering that incredible skyline view, that is a staggering percentage that should have everyone worried.

“ ‘Poverty by Postal Code’ gave way to the Building Strong Neighbourhoods task force and a place-based strategy for the City and United Way,” says Pedro Barata, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at the United Way. “We have been able to bring out the geographic nature of poverty by identifying neighbourhood improvement areas we called priority neighbourhoods. It’s a platform for us to focus investments.”

In the mid-2000s, the United Way and City of Toronto identified 13 priority neighbourhoods in the city. You’ve likely driven past these neighbourhoods and not known they were low-income or in trouble, because on the surface, they look like any other, such as Dorset Park, the cluster of high rises at Kennedy Rd. and Highway 401. The modern apartment towers look rather beautiful rising from the leafy park and are indistinguishable from ones found in wealthier neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods in trouble in Toronto rarely, if ever, appear like the stereotypical image of such neighbourhoods portrayed in film and TV.

“The built form, in terms of poverty, may also hide what’s living behind the walls,” says Barata. “You may drive by a neighbourhood and the street life may belie what’s actually happening, like poor access to child care, job prospects, and repairs needed in aging towers. All of these will not be readily apparent.”

Another key warning sign, and one that dramatically helped get a handle on this geography, is University of Toronto sociologist David Hulchanski’s groundbreaking “Three Cities Within Toronto” report that looked at income polarization by neighbourhood from 1970 to 2005. “We weren’t surprised by the inequality,” says Hulchanski, who says the alarms started sounding in reports decades ago, though nobody wanted to hear it. “But we wanted to show it on the map, to show those trends.” Hulchanski and his team grouped income trends in Toronto into what they called “three cities”: a city where income was rising, one where it’s staying the same, and another where people were getting poorer.

While the city with stable income — what we might call the middle class — was shrinking, both the very rich and poor cities were growing, with the latter growing the fastest. The map of it is startling, showing what Barata describes as an inverted U of increasing poverty that goes up through Etobicoke, across the top of the city, and cascading down all across Scarborough. It is no surprise, then, that the location of the bulk of Ford voters in 2010 corresponded directly with that third, poorer city. Precarious employment, access to services, poor affordable housing choices, and lack of jobs are all problems here.

Other than concern for their fellow humans, why should people in wealthier parts of Toronto care about the geographic and social inequity in their city? Barata says there are a number of reasons beyond it simply being the right thing to do, and the first is economic. “If we are going to be a competitive city that will attract investment, a city that is known for a really strong workforce, we have to make sure everybody is at their best,” he says. “Being a livable city is an economic advantage: people want to live here, raise their families and start their businesses.” Barata points to another fiscal reason: either we invest in these communities now and fix these trends, or we’ll pay much more later on. “Poverty is expensive,” he says, citing unemployment and criminal justice costs down the road, if trends don’t change.

The policy areas that need to be addressed include quality affordable housing, availability of community services, income security, and what Barata calls workforce development. “With precarity, people aren’t going to get training through work, it’ll be out of pocket, but the market demands it. That’s got to come from somewhere, and it should be a lot easier for people.” Echoing these areas that need to be addressed, Hulchanski says that by ignoring early signs of trouble, we did this to ourselves. “It wasn’t an earthquake,” he says. “Invest in another direction and the maps will change.”

Individually, we can start to make a difference by getting involved in our communities and getting out of our bubbles, but to really start changing those maps, Barata says everyone needs to acknowledge this is a shared challenge. “Politicians respond to the concerns of citizens, and saying it’s important will make it a priority.”

THE PROBLEM: Not every community in our region is created equal. Different neighbourhoods have different access to services and amenities, depending on where they are and how they are built — their geography and urban design affects their reality.

— The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods has more than quadrupled over the past 30 years, growing from 30 in 1981 to 136 in 2006
— Between 1980-2010, income inequality among neighbourhoods in Toronto increased by 96 per cent
— The number of low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto has increased. In 1980, low-income neighbourhoods made up 28 per cent of our city’s neighbourhoods. By 2010, they made up half.
— The number of middle-income neighbourhoods in Toronto has declined by almost 50 per cent from 56 per cent in 1980 to only 29 per cent in 2010.

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