Greater Toronto's Neighbourhoods Will Define Our Region's Future

by Daniele Zanotti

The Greater Toronto Area – safe, vibrant, inclusive. The kind of place you want to live, work, and raise a family. The kind of place you can be proud of.

But what if I told you that everything you love about this place is in danger of eroding? What if I told you that, rather than diversity, our region is now defined by disparity?

Over the past 30 years, most of our middle-income neighbourhoods have vanished. The GTA is no longer a mixture of inclusive neighbourhoods; it’s a collection of “islands” segregated by income.

It is the income inequality capital, child poverty capital, and housing poverty capital of Canada.

The entrenchment of poverty and growth of income polarization in our region is not something we can afford to ignore. It’s also not a so-called “charity issue.” One doesn’t need empathy or altruism to want to solve this problem, because if allowed to fester, growing disparities will bring social and economic costs that will undermine the quality of life we all enjoy.

How can we make things better? How can we all work together to tackle a problem that at times seems almost too big to solve?

Experience tells me the solution is centered at the neighbourhood level. Ten years ago, United Way identified a significant gap in Greater Toronto’s social infrastructure that showed the region’s poorest neighbourhoods not only lacked essential programs and services, they didn’t even have the infrastructure to offer them in the first place. So, United Way pioneered new community hubs to provide residents in the GTA’s inner suburbs with tools to improve their lives and communities. It also went beyond providing services to building civic muscle, strengthening connections among local leaders.

Mobilizing all levels of government, the private and non-profit sectors, labour, and academic institutions, this 10-year initiative proved that neighbourhoods matter. Solving poverty isn’t just about helping one individual at a time, it’s about addressing income inequality where it takes hold, at the neighbourhood level. Only then can we start to create positive change within our most disadvantaged communities.

But now we must go further. Massive, intensifying changes in the economy have fundamentally shifted our labour market and the availability of good jobs. These shifts mean that, increasingly, neighbourhoods need more than social services, playgrounds for kids, and recreational and cultural activities that foster community spirit. They need economic opportunities.

We need to leverage investments in infrastructure to create inclusive growth in the neighbourhoods that need it most. Consider the Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Canada in a generation. Because this multi-billion-dollar project runs through or near five low-income, high-unemployment neighbourhoods, it provides an ideal model for job creation through public investment.

As the construction industry faces a wave of retirements, there’s an opportunity to fill these positions with young people who face barriers to employment. That is the goal of the Community Benefits Agreement, a partnership between United Way, Metrolinx, labour, community groups, the construction industry, and government, which ensures that 10 percent of work hours on the Eglinton Crosstown line go to historically disadvantaged groups.

By offering the right skills training and support to youth, as well as spin-off job opportunities for internationally trained professionals and those struggling to find employment, this initiative is generating economic opportunities through the construction of the transit line itself. It’s already changing the trajectory of young peoples’ lives in the region, securing more than 150 positions in the trades and construction-related fields. Over the next four years, the Crosstown will teach us valuable lessons that we can use in other infrastructure projects, such as the transportation lines to be built along Finch Avenue, and in Mississauga and Brampton.
The opportunities extend beyond construction jobs. On the Eglinton Crosstown, contracts have been awarded to social enterprises – those that provide training and work for people facing employment barriers – for services from window cleaning to catering to couriers, further supporting the community’s economic growth. In addition to connecting neighbourhoods through much-needed transit, we are building pathways to better jobs and more secure futures.

It’s encouraging to see cities like Mississauga and Toronto leveraging procurement investments so a percentage of public contracts are awarded to social enterprises.

But what happens when these infrastructure projects are complete? As housing prices climb and the neighbourhoods suddenly becomes less affordable, is there a risk that the very people we hope to connect to the rest of the city will be driven further out of it?

Yes, of course. That is why we need to kickstart the careers of locals by giving them a direct stake in the projects unfolding in their neighbourhoods. They should share in the region’s growing prosperity.

Another answer lies in Canada’s new national housing strategy. To make sure we’re not simply gentrifying these neighbourhoods by adding transit, we need to leverage the 10-year, $40-billion housing plan to build mixed-income communities. Finally, we need a joined-up planning process that puts inclusion and diversity at the centre, ensuring we build complete communities with an array of services, supports, amenities, and connections for the entire population.

We must work together to replace our “islands” segregated by income with neighbourhoods that become living, breathing microcosms of what makes us proud to live in this region in the first place. Neighbourhoods where people of all backgrounds, all circumstances, live together, walk the streets together, go to the same community centres together.

This kind of neighbourhood revitalization won’t be easy, and no one has all the answers. But it can’t be accomplished without buy-in from leaders in every sector. We need all levels of government working with communities, working with the private sector, working with the construction industry, working with academics – all striving for a vision of inclusive prosperity.

Let’s identify areas in our region where a nexus of new infrastructure, low-income communities, and a sufficient scale offer opportunities for experimentation and transformation. Let’s roll up our sleeves and hammer out new ways of approaching planning, investment, coordination, measurement, and collective change.

By taking a neighbourhood focus and maximizing economic opportunities offered by development projects, we can create stronger communities that don’t leave anyone behind. We can put an end to disparities that divide us, and unite ourselves through diversity and inclusion.

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Daniele Zanotti is President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. He led the historic merger between United Ways in Toronto and York Region, and more recently, with United Way Peel Region—achieving a scaled, regional approach to drive more local impact.

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