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Taking Toronto's Vital Signs: We're prospering, but some challenges threaten to take root

Vital Signs

"We've got some tremendous strengths, but our weaknesses are starting to becoming chronic, and my concern is that those weakness are going to start to undermine our strengths," says Rahul Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the Toronto Foundation.

That is the key message emerging from this year's Vital Signs report—an annual survey that examines the quality of life in Toronto, across a broad spectrum of metrics.

Because the Toronto Foundation is a charity, its report is non-partisan, but it is meant to drive public conversation—and, especially in an election year, give Toronto residents food for thought as they weigh the city's priorities in the coming years. The takeaway from the current report, Bhardwaj explained in an interview with Yonge Street, is that we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to celebrate, but there are also some warning signs we need to take seriously.

Some of the things that Bhardwaj highlights that are going well right now:
  • We are "still the 4th most liveable city on the planet, so we're doing something very neat in Toronto," he says, citing the most recent Economist rankings. Crime continues to drop and with 147 high-rises in the works, "we've got stuff really happening."
  • Our economy is looking "uppish," and we remain one of the most tax competitive cities around.
  • We're making some progress on environmental issues, and saw no smog days last year.
  • "One thing in particular this year is youth," Bhardwaj says, noting that secondary school graduation rates are up. "Since the TDSB began tracking graduation rates in 2000," Vital Signs reports (p. 141), they have increased 14 per cent (from 69 per cent to 83 per cent).
  • In terms of our changing demographics, 51 per cent of Torontonians are now foreign born; "proof positive that we're able to attract talent," Bhardwaj says.
Those strengths tend to be paralleled by weaknesses that concern Bhardwaj, however. While we may be the 4th most liveable city, we also rank 15th in unaffordability, and while high school graduation rates may be up, 29 per cent of Toronto's children live in poverty, "in one of the richest cites in the richest countries of the world." He also cites—like just about everyone else in Toronto—the growing impact of traffic and transit congestion, which he says is "all about lost opportunities—time lost with families, time lost with communities." There are health impacts too: residents of inner suburbs, who have less access to transit, along with fewer amenities within walking distance, are one-third more likely to suffer from diabetes.

His concern is that while we may have been successful at attracting new talent so far—a good general stand-in for the health of the city—"we need to continue to be able to attract talent," and we are falling behind in some very important ways that may prevent us from doing that. 

"In some respects it's simply the net effect of lack of investment," Bhardwaj says. And these deficits are distributed very unevenly: there are still troubling and systemic inequities across the city that are holding many Torontonians back. Rectifying those inequities and catching up to our investment deficits isn't a matter of implementing one major policy change, but rather requires two key developments: 

Improved cooperation and coordination amongst the key drivers of our economic and social policy.

"Clearly there's a better opportunity for the public sector, private sector, and education sector to better align," Bhardwaj emphasizes. 

For instance, we have great affordable housing shortages (the City's current waiting list has about 90,000 names on it); the municipal government has little money to invest in new affordable housing; and at the same time the private sector is building condos at a record pace. If the municipal government and developers could work together more effectively, those private developers could start filling the affordable housing gap, with the help of the right incentives from the City. 

Also, he points to the fact that particularly in some of the more challenged neighbourhoods you'll have nine out of children at risk of homelessness, but more than half of their parents have post-secondary education. "There's a misalignment, and a lack of coordination and integration" between the talent pool of potential workers and the work that is available to them, he says.

A renewed engagement in civic life at the most basic level.

Street by street and block by block, residents who want to have more vibrant communities need to start making small steps towards showing leadership. 

"We need to reengage people by creating an optimistic environment," Bhardwaj says, before launching into a story: "There's a woman in the west end who held a snowman making contest [on her street]," he began. And because neighbours came out and started interacting with each other, "that created social capital, and allowed a newcomer community and existing community to interact in a way they hadn't before. A lot of people will shrug their shoulders," he goes on, "but that's a small step that can have an enormous impact. A lot of us look to large institutions because they do have a powerful impact…but the cumulative impact of small gestures…is the path to getting that sense of optimism."

One major point Bharwaj returns to: "when we talk about poverty we tend to talk about it from an economic standpoint, but need to start talking about poverty of opportunity." 

Youth employment currently sits at 20 per cent; that figure goes up to 27 per cent for young immigrants. The tendency has been to explain that in terms of the Great Recession: a temporary state of affairs caused by the recent economic downturn. But youth unemployment has been over 15 per cent for more than a decade—and that is the sort of thing Bhardwaj means when he says some of our challenges are becoming chronic. Similarly, he cites "lost time and lost opportunities when it comes to women." According to figures in Vital Signs, it takes 14 years longer for a woman to earn the same amount as a man would. This isn't just an income inequality issue, it's an equity issue, and, he says, "It's no way to attract talent."

Bhardwaj finishes by flashing back to the speech he gave at last year's Vital Signs launch. He recalls, in particular, mentioning a Lily Tomlin quote about how she reacted when she came across inequity. "Why doesn't somebody do something about that?" she asked herself. "And then I realized that I was a somebody."

His message is much the same. Toronto's challenges can't be simply delegated to the politicians; we are all somebodies who can do something. "If everyone improved their street," he says finally, "that would improve the neighbourhoods, and then we would all be happier campers."

Hamutal Dotan is Yonge Street's innovation and jobs editor. 

Photos (top to bottom): Joseph Michael, Michael Salem, Laura Berman, Goh Iromoto, & the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre.
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