There’s a two-pronged challenge to improving the livability of Toronto’s inner suburbs: we must make the desirable places more affordable, and the affordable places more desirable.
It was fun to pile on Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday last week after he questioned the wisdom of raising children downtown. He provided a perfect target, invoking the fictitious “little Ginny” playing in treacherous traffic to make his point about parenting in the city: “Maybe some people wish to do that. I think most people wouldn’t.”
We parents love nothing more than an opportunity to judge those who dare to question our choices. But Holyday’s success at firing up the suburban-versus-urban culture war was mostly just an excuse for downtowners to vent. When it comes to the desirability of raising children in dense, mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods with good access to transit, there’s not all that much debate: The Pembina Institute and Royal Bank released a survey on July 16, which showed that four out of five people in the Greater Toronto Area (including a majority of parents) would prefer to live in the type of neighbourhood where you can walk or bike to stores and amenities. But the debate about who should live in urban neighbourhoods obscures a more important debate about who can live in those places. As the Pembina report points out, cost is obviously the largest factor in determining where people live.
The ability to live downtown—in the area that aligns with the pre-amalgamation City of Toronto—is an option gradually becoming available only to the rich and the upper middle class. Mixed-income neighbourhoods are an endangered species in Toronto: The central city, increasingly populated by the wealthy, is surrounded by a ring of neighbourhoods that are getting poorer. Meanwhile, our suburban areas are particularly ill-equipped to serve the poor—they were constructed for a car-dependent culture of cocooning, and have crappy public transit, which leads to civic isolation. Community centres, schools, and social service offices are often few and far between.
One solution for this stratification is to make the downtown core more affordable, especially for families with children and teenagers. Ensuring that condominiums include some units large enough for families with children—the policy Holyday was rallying against—would help. Increasing the number of housing units available in the city is one way to make the market more affordable. Sadly, it’s one of the only ideas being put into action. The city is selling off some of its subsidized housing stock rather than increasing the supply, and doing a piss-poor job providing basic maintenance on the units it already owns. Other ideas for generating affordable housing are clearly needed.
At the same time, we desperately need to make the inner suburbs—neighbourhoods like Rexdale, Malvern, Lawrence Heights, and Flemingdon Park—better places to live. To that end, a “priority neighbourhoods” program that provides enhanced investment in policing, safety, and youth programs for 13 inner-suburban areas has existed since 2005. Crime has been down since those programs were introduced, though it’s difficult to point to an exact cause-and-effect relationship. The biggest shooting incident in Toronto history occurred in one of those priority neighbourhoods (Kingston-Galloway) this week. A toddler was among those bystanders who were shot when an argument turned into a gunfight—clearly, the issues of youth violence haven’t been solved.
There have been plenty of other programs designed to improve the suburbs. The “Tower Renewal” program was introduced to revitalize the concrete-highrise neighbourhoods that represent the largest pockets of poverty in the suburbs. It was renewed by council last year, and recently received an $800,000 boost from the United Way.
Delivering reliable rapid transit to the suburbs would certainly improve the quality of life there—and doing that has dominated council activities this year. But these projects are just a start. Making the inner suburbs places where every resident feels part of a vibrant, safe community full of opportunities will take time, resolve, and money.
We already know where the most attractive areas of the city are, for parents and for everyone else. The challenge is to make the desirable places more affordable, and the affordable places more desirable. Doing so is far less fun than musing about playing in traffic or mercilessly teasing an out-of-touch politician. But it’s far more important for the city, no matter where in Toronto we live.