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Vital Signs: Measuring the Health of Toronto

As Toronto Foundation president and CEO Rahul Bhardwaj puts it, Toronto is a "Petri dish of globalization." It's a growing and rapidly changing city with more than half of its inhabitants hailing from outside of Canada. Thus, it's only fitting that we approach its advancement collectively and with care. Enter: Vital Signs. 

For 14 years the Toronto Foundation has drawn from government and social agency data, in addition to a growing body of research, to put together the city’s annual Vital Signs report. The name speaks to the report’s mandate to gauge the health of the city and helps the Toronto Foundation—a leading philanthropic entity—target its community-building charitable initiatives.
The report was born during a time of great transition. As Bhardwaj explains, Metro Toronto’s amalgamation into the megacity we know and love raised concerns about cohesion and growth. To address this, community leaders came up with idea to track quality of life indicators to create a baseline index that would, as Bhardwaj puts it, “see where we're starting from and where we're going.”
Now, the Vital Signs report exists in 53 communities across Canada, but also in six countries in four continents." It has become the basis for what is coming to be known as the "Toronto model of philanthropy."
“It's more than a report,” says Bhardwaj. “It's an innovation that helps guide philanthropy and creates a space to get all sectors.” As Bhardwaj explains, bringing sectors together to collaborate on city building is a surprisingly new concept.
The report also serves as a resource to inform the community at-large about where the city is headed. The 300-page hyperlinked document is made available to the public, in addition to a special user section that gets inserted in the Toronto Star.
While the report shows no dramatic swings year over year, each edition offers standout trends and surprises. This year’s report is no different, with the ongoing scourge of income inequality front and centre.
“There's an increase in jobs, but more and more of those are precarious employment situations,” says Bhardwaj. “It's different than the full-time jobs with benefits that have existed in the past."
Some of the statistics are grim. Of the cities studied in the report, Toronto ranks 13th in unaffordability. For the bottom 40 per cent of GTA residents, nearly half of household income is currently spent on rent. There isn’t enough affordable housing to meet demands, and existing low-income housing stock is in dire need of repair.
Meanwhile, 22.7 per cent of Torontonians relied on temporary and contract work in 2015. Nearly 45 per cent of Torontonians do not enjoy full-time, permanent employment with benefits—an arrangement that used to be considered standard. 
Youth are disproportionately affected by this trend, and youth unemployment saw a four percent increase to 22 per cent in 2014. Not coincidentally, youth are the fastest-growing homeless population in Canada, with an estimated 2,000 homeless youth living in Toronto alone.
The loss of secure employment, coupled with an increasingly high cost of living, poses a threat to both physical and mental health. As the report points out, socioeconomic status can account for as much as 50 per cent of a person’s health, affecting everything from diabetes rates to lifespan, to infant birthrates and the rates of sexually transmitted infections.
An aging population also poses pressing challenges for the near term, thanks to an aging baby boom population combined with a declining birthrate. Further complicating matters, increasing numbers of Toronto seniors now live alone. 

"We've been following what we call the "gray tsunami," says Bhardwaj. “A lot of people don't like that, but when you start to look at demographics, this is the first time in Canadian history where we have more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15.” In an environment where affordable housing is increasingly scarce, it’s a trend that worries Bhardwaj.
But the news isn’t all discouraging. In 2015, Toronto was ranked the fourth most livable city by The Economist. 20,000 new jobs were created, and violent crime and bankruptcies showed a decline.
“We’re in a really powerful place,” says Bhardwaj. But moving forward to further advance the city’s health will require collaboration on all fronts. As the report suggests, it’s up to all of us to build the city we wish to inhabit.  
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